If A Boundary Is Broken

Written and adapted by Tony Trimingham FDS Australia from various sources, especially the website of Adfam, UK. Adfam is a similar organisation to Family Drug Support Aotearoa New Zealand and Family Drug Support Australia.

You can expect boundaries to be broken by substance users – especially when they are first put in place. They will often react to changes by pushing you and other family/whānau members to previous ways of behaving. They will probably be less motivated to change than you are. They will also usually hope that you will be unable to keep boundaries in place based on their previous experience of you giving way. If a boundary is broken you need to respond quickly, appropriately and assertively.


How to do it?

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge that it has happened. Then take a step back as you consider your response. It is really important to take time to consider everything rather then reacting from feelings of frustration and anger.


  • I believe our agreed boundary regarding ——————– has been broken
  • I feel ————————– about this
  • We need to discuss this. (You may need to negotiate whether right now is the time to have a discussion or to set a more appropriate time.)

In making your initial statement you need to include:

  1. What behaviour is unreasonable (focus on behaviour, not them as a person)
  2. What your feeling is about the behaviour (feeling not blaming response)
  3. Say what you want to do now or restate the boundary

For example – “When you broke the agreement about using in front of your brother I felt let down, sad and angry. I ask again that you honour our agreement”.
It may be necessary then to restate and/or renegotiate the boundary.

You also then need to implement the consequence for breaking the boundary. It is really important that you don’t let them off the hook for the consequences.
You may need to develop a ‘broken record’ technique – especially if they become defensive or start justifying their actions i.e. “Yes I hear what you are saying about why this happened but I still need you to keep to the agreed boundary!”

It is important to comment on disparages in the drug user’s words and their behaviour – example – “I notice that every time something like this happens you always say sorry but then you carry on as if we didn’t have an agreement”.

You should then request that things be put right – repay money taken, apology to an affected family/whānau member, repair damaged property etc. Be consistent.
When making the above statement it is important to remember a few things because as with any new skill it needs to be developed, practised and refined.
Be assertive but not aggressive. Begin with the word ‘I’, maintain eye contact, speak from the same level – don’t stand over them. Avoid pointing, jabbing your finger or raising your voice.
Be prepared for them to try and put you off track, appeal to your emotions, argue, get angry etc. You may even need to have another person as a mediator or negotiator but if you do it is important that they trust the other party and the other party doesn’t take sides.

You are neither all powerful nor powerless. You do have influence and you do have bargaining power. You can ask for what you want, say no to what you don’t want and invite them to do the same.

If they apologise, be gracious but consider both their words and how they say it. Actions speak louder than words though.


Keeping a Boundary

The last stage in the process is keeping the boundary.

This is done by:

  • Observing if the boundary is being kept
  • Acknowledging that it is being kept or if it is broken
  • Responding appropriately if it is broken