Tips on living a healthy and full life

What you need to know about addictions and boundary setting

What a difficult journey-caring for an older parent who has an addiction problem. How do you support them without unintentionally enabling the addiction? And how do you not let the addiction take over your own life and the rest of your family’s life? Boundaries. It all revolves around setting healthy boundaries.

Boundary setting

The bottom line to boundary setting is drawing on your strength and courage to say “no”.

Here are some examples:

  • No, I won’t drive you to the liquor store.”
  • “No, I won’t clean up all the evidence of your night of binging.”
  • “No, I won’t lie for you and tell your grandchildren you  can’t come for dinner because you have a bad headache.”
  • “No, I won’t give you money for your booze/drugs.”
  • “No, I won’t pay your fine.”  

The point is to set and keep boundaries and let natural consequences unfold. I am not underestimating just how challenging this can be. You can’t know beforehand how many negative consequences there needs to be or how severe the negative consequences need to be before (or even if) your mom or dad will seek treatment or make changes.

Follow through with consequences

Related to saying “no” is the importance of following through with the consequences you have set.  In fact, if you aren’t ready to follow through with said consequences (for example, “if I come over to take you grocery shopping and find you drunk, I will not offering to take you another time”), then it is best to say nothing. Otherwise, what you say will lose its meaning and it becomes an empty threat.

You may need support in learning how to say “no,” to remain consistent, and to do so from a place of clarity rather than frustration and anger. The point is not to punish out of anger but to let the person with the addiction experience the natural consequences of their addiction. If this is a change for you – that is, moving from unhealthy to healthy helping and giving – you can expect some resistance as you change the relationship dynamic and set boundaries to your helping and giving.

Expect resistance

This resistance can take the form of anger, attempting to make you feel guilty, accusing you of not caring, not loving them, not being loyal, as well as crying, and/or pleading. Any or all of these reactions may “work” on you, so to speak and you may “cave in.” It would be wise to anticipate this resistance and prepare yourself for it.

This is not your addiction

Another aspect of boundary setting is recognizing that this is not your addiction and it does not need to define or restrict your own life in all ways. For example, if you had plans for a family gathering and your mom or dad wants to reschedule because he or she is hungover, follow through with the original plan. Sacrificing your life and/or the rest of your family’s life really doesn’t help matters in the short or long run. It is a breeding ground for resentment, frustration, and anger. In short, remember it is their addiction and not yours.

Related to this, it is important to be aware that you can’t control someone else’s behaviour and this includes addictive behaviour. Trying to monitor your mom or dad’s drug or alcohol use puts you in a parental role and typically leads to resentment and anger. Offering unsolicited advice also breeds resentment and resistance. You really can’t fix this. What you can “fix” or control is yourself and how you respond.

Get your own support

Anyone closely involved with someone who has an addiction is advised to seek out support. This may be in the form of a 12-step program such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or it may be with the assistance of a counsellor, therapist, and/or an addictions specialist.

Setting appropriate helping and giving boundaries is actually a skill and as such, may need to be learned with some assistance from the experts. Also, you very well may need an avenue, place, or person to help you process your feelings so that you can bring emotional responsiveness, not reactivity, to the problem. You are likely experiencing a range of intense emotions from exasperation to helplessness, powerlessness, frustration, and anger. These are understandable and common reactions.  Unleashing these feelings on to your mom or dad, however, won’t help either of you. It can also set up or contribute to a power struggle.

If there is one message I want you to hear in relation to this problem, it is to seek help and support and not try to deal with this alone. If you find yourself in this situation, please reach out TODAY!


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