Defining The Boundary

  • What is the issue, circumstance, area of concern?
  • What do you need to achieve?
  • Examine your motive in wanting to set this boundary. Is it in response to clear thinking about an area of concern or is it an angry response to a set of circumstances?

If the person wasn’t using substances would you accept the behaviour? In other words it is important not to treat people differently just because they are substance users.

Know the distinction between them as a person and their behaviour. Even ‘I’ statements can be phrased in more positive ways on occasion. Note the difference between:

‘I don’t want you living at home when you’re using!’ and
‘I don’t want you to use drugs in our home!’

  • Is the boundary encouraging them to be responsible for their life, the choices they made, their behaviour and the impact on those around them or is it just treating them like a child?
  • What are the risks of the boundary for everyone involved?

Using the ‘using at home’ example, the home and people within it may be safer if there is no use at home but the user may be at more risk if they then use outside the home. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Options and consequences have to be considered and each family/whānau may take different approaches. Child safety and protection should always be a serious consideration. The rights of young children need to be the most important element.

  • Set clear consequences for what happens if the boundary is breached. Consequences should be negotiated together including the substance user and may be graded from mild to severe. Consequences need to be appropriate to the breach and everyone needs to be able to live with them. Any action tied up in the consequence needs to come from you – the user may not be ‘made’ to do something.



‘Because you used at home twice last week I am going to look for alternative living arrangements for you’ – rather than ‘Because you used drugs last week you now have to go into rehab.’

  • How will you ‘measure’ if the boundary has been kept?
  • Is there a time limit on the boundary or does it goes on indefinitely?
  • How often and when will you review the boundary?
  • What flexibility – and it will help if there is some – will be made for changes in circumstances?
  • When and where will the boundary be set and commence?
  • Other family/whānau members of an appropriate age who live in the home should be party to the agreement partly to prevent ‘divide and rule’ circumstances. It will be no good setting a boundary where the key people involved disagree with the boundary
  • Is the boundary realistic at the moment in the current circumstances?
  • Can a win/win be achieved? In other words, set the boundary in a way that you, the other family/whānau members and the drug user gain something from keeping the boundary. Boundaries set as revenge or to express your anger or to punish the drug user are doomed to failure
  • When will the boundary commence? Immediately or is there a need for a commencement date?
  • How will you get support from within yourself or from others to be able to set and keep the boundary? How will you deal with harmful feelings and other issues that may arise? Support groups can be very important for supporting you
  • Remember we live in the real world and not a fantasy one. The choice of a boundary is likely to be a compromise rather then the ideal you might like
  • Be prepared to reward the drug user for respecting and keeping the boundary. They often don’t get ‘pay-offs’ and it will encourage them if they see that keeping the boundary is appreciated
  • Prepare and rehearse the discussion on setting the boundary. Imagine their likely response. Be prepared for negative reactions. Use ‘I’ statements. Rehearse the conversation going the way you would like it to.
  • Remember your needs are equal to not greater or less then those of others. Your needs are worth respecting and you are entitled to set and have boundaries kept.

Take your time and get it right. You can’t change other people but you can change your response to them – which may in turn invite them to change.