Setting Boundaries With Your Teen/Young Adult Child Who Is Abusing Substances

Consistent loving boundaries will decrease the resentment in your relationship with your child and create space for repairing that relationship as well. Boundaries can be intimidating, but they make everything easier once you understand them.

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“You are taking advantage of me.”

“You don’t respect me or my time.”

“Why do you keep doing this to me?”

These are all things that I said to my daughter before I learned about boundaries. When I learned that people with boundaries can be more compassionate because they don’t feel taken advantage of, it sparked a major realization for me.  I was doing things I didn’t want to do, then blaming my daughter even though I chose to do them!  I was the one in control. I could make different choices. When I was blaming her for how I felt, it led to resentment and distance for both of us.

When my daughter first started abusing substances I knew I needed to change my approach to parenting, but I wasn’t sure how.  She was such an easy kid to raise until that point.  I kept trying to approach her substance abuse with actions that worked before.  The results were not good.  My research about what to do lead me to boundaries.  I was not immediately on board with the idea.

My understanding of boundaries was incorrect, and I had seen them misused.  I saw them used to control other people’s behaviors, as ultimatums, punishment, or manipulation.   I hadn’t seen many examples of boundaries that were set with love and respect. 

At that point I was experiencing enough pain and discomfort to give it a try even though I didn’t have faith it would work. I realized there was discomfort either way. I chose the short-term discomfort of trying something new that would hopefully result in long term peace in my life.

I started by setting boundaries that were clear and direct. The same with my reaction to a boundary violation. I knew if I didn’t follow through, I was making a threat and not setting a boundary. When I started setting clear loving boundaries with respect and following through, my relationship with my daughter changed for the better.  I also felt better as a mom because I was able to let go of my resentment and anger about doing things I didn’t want to do. 

The change in my relationship with my daughter did not happen overnight.  When I first started setting boundaries, she was angry at me and resisted them.  The key was my consistency. Eventually she quit testing most of the boundaries, accepted them, and they were no longer an issue between us.  I had to push through my discomfort though. 

Here is the simple way I set a boundary:

The Request – If you do this ____________

The Consequence- Then I will do this ____________

Example of a request with my daughter – If you use illegal substances in my home

Example of a consequence with my daughter – I will ask you to leave

This was a boundary I set after my daughter turned 18.  When I found her using an illegal substance in my home, I reminded her that she could no longer stay at my house and needed to find a place to go. She was angry, probably because she didn’t know where she was going to go.  I didn’t engage or try to control her reaction.  I didn’t have to yell, argue, or lecture her. This is the hardest boundary I’ve had to set.

Boundaries also allow choice.  My daughter got to choose her behavior.  She could follow the boundary or violate the boundary knowing there would be a consequence.  I am not controlling her when I set a boundary. I am only controlling me and my reaction to the boundary violation. 

I found that asking myself the following four questions and being honest with myself about the answers very helpful:

  1. Is a boundary appropriate in this situation or should I consider compromise?
  2. What is my fear of setting this boundary?
  3. What is the benefit of setting this boundary?
  4. Am I coming from a place of love and clear communication or am I trying to control, manipulate, or punish?

If I was still struggling, I would think about instances where clear boundaries made my life easier and I appreciated them. I would Imagine what it would be like if I didn’t know what my boss expected of me at work.  If expectations were unclear, I would be confused.  Knowing what is expected makes life and relationships easier to navigate.

The last thing about boundaries is they can change as I change. They are meant to work for me. If I realize that circumstances have changed then I can change my boundary.  Without boundaries it is easy to lose sight of where I end and my daughter begins.  Boundaries keep my focus on me and what I can control in my life.

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