Personal Boundaries When Your Parent is Addicted: Why They Matter

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By Ellen Rohr, M.Ed

Personal boundaries are the limits and rules you establish for yourself in relationships. Whether or not you’ve heard of or engaged in personal boundary work before, you’ve probably unintentionally set a few at some point in your life. For instance, when you were younger, you and your sibling may have had an unspoken rule where the two of you take a few minutes apart after a big fight. Or, maybe you and your college roommate didn’t borrow one another’s personal items without asking first. Some of these personal boundaries may have been established through discussion, while others may have just developed on their own.

When dealing with a parent who struggles with addiction, personal boundary setting is far more difficult than small arguments or borrowing an article of clothing. When you set personal boundaries in this situation, they need to be very intentional and considered thoughtfully and thoroughly. Small boundaries can be hard enough to implement, so bigger boundaries are even more difficult. But it’s vital for your health, safety, and well-being, as well as that of your parent, to enforce and maintain strong limits and personal boundaries.

Here are some effective tips for setting personal boundaries:

Know your limits

Addictions take a toll on not only the addicted but their loved ones as well. Consider how much your parent’s addiction or problem is affecting you. How are you being impacted emotionally, physically, mentally, etc.? Acknowledge what exactly the most stressful part of their addiction, and perhaps their legal situation, is for you, and set your personal boundaries accordingly. Remember that your well-being is at stake when you don’t make yourself a priority.

Be assertive

The only way for your parent to take you seriously is if you follow through with the limits that you set. Don’t let them play the victim or get in your head by manipulating you or making you feel guilty. Be firm. Let them know the personal boundaries you have set, and what the consequence will be if they don’t honor it.

This is not harsh; it’s necessary. Practice makes perfect and the more you maintain your personal boundaries, the more they’ll take them seriously.

Remember that personal boundaries are fluid

If a certain boundary isn’t working for you, change it. Nothing is set in stone. You can loosen or tighten the reins based on what works. Addiction is a disease with varying stages. As your parent seeks help, give yourself permission to change the personal boundaries you’ve established. If what you’ve asked for isn’t being maintained, set stricter guidelines. Likewise, if your parent is improving, allow yourself to release some boundaries you have set for yourself.

Examples of healthy and productive personal boundaries to set with an addicted parent:

  • No drug or alcohol use in my house or around me and my family
  • You will no longer be able to see my children (your grandchildren) if you’re using
  • I won’t give you any more money
  • I will not bail you out of jail
  • You will have to find a different way to pay your attorney fees
  • I won’t lie for you any longer

Setting such strong limits might seem like you’re being too tough on them, but without appropriate personal boundaries, you may be enabling their addiction. By continuing to give them money or by lying for and protecting them, you are giving them an inch, which will allow them to take a mile.

Personal boundary setting is difficult, especially when your role switches from child to caregiver. You may be having trouble maintaining or establishing healthy limits and that’s okay. But you are not alone, and this isn’t something you must go through by yourself. The sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can work toward establishing a healthier relationship with your addicted parent.
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Ellen Rohr, M.Ed., LPC Intern, is a senior-level clinical intern at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). She works with clients in the areas of co-dependency and establishing healthy personal boundaries in their relationships with partners, family, and others. Contact her at 512-270-4883, ext. 103, or request an appointment with her on our Scheduling Page.