How to Help Addicts by Setting Boundaries

In all of our relationships, we have different standards of behavior we consider appropriate. If a person behaves in a way that is outside of the standards we set, it negatively affects us.

Determining what is appropriate behavior for ourselves in different situations takes time. We have to learn how to speak up for ourselves to say clearly what we want, tell another person how it would be beneficial for them to say “yes” to our request and, perhaps, negotiate a compromise if our first request is turned down. Those are skills that we don’t acquire overnight.

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We also need to learn how to say “no” to requests at times. Sometimes, we find it’s easy to turn down a request when saying “yes” would be an affront to our dignity or self-worth. When living with an addict, saying “no” and sticking to it becomes more difficult.

If you live with someone struggling with an addiction, you want to ensure your loved one is safe and healthy. It’s not always easy to realize that by saying “yes” to some requests — even ones that seem important to their well-being — you may be enabling the drug use. Setting boundaries and sticking to them is very important if your goal is to get your loved one help for their drug addiction.


What Are Healthy Boundaries?

All relationships need to have boundaries. They are the limits that each person places on their relationships to protect themselves. Good boundaries allow us to get close to our family members and friends, and share our thoughts and emotions with them. They also protect us from harm.

Ideally, each person knows and understands what they need to feel safe in a relationship. They know what is healthy and what is toxic.

What Are Unhealthy Boundaries?

In reality, though, many people’s experiences with boundaries are skewed by the family relationships they experienced while growing up. They carry this experience with them into adulthood. Even if it isn’t something a person is consciously aware of when interacting with others, it can have a significant impact on their relationships.

For some people who grew up in a dysfunctional family, they may have learned that the best way to get their needs met is to put their own needs first and ignore the needs of others. On the other hand, you may respond in the exact opposite way. If you had a demanding parent who was loud and insisted on getting their own way, you may grow up to be the type of adult who simply wants to get along and will do anything to keep the peace in the family.

Another way in which boundaries get blurred is when someone confuses love with sympathy. While a parent or sibling wants their child or loved one to do well and be successful, there can be a point at which helping a person crosses over to enabling. At that point, the person receiving the assistance is no longer being treated as an independent person. They are having things done for them that they can — and should — be doing for themselves.

The Challenges of Loving Someone Addicted to Drugs

It’s very difficult to deal with a loved one who is living with an addiction. There is no standard screening test to diagnose this chronic, relapsing condition. Family members often struggle for some time, often years, trying to make sense of how the person they knew could change completely under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

One of the most challenging aspects of loving someone who has an addiction is reconciling the person you love with their negative behavior. Once the addiction becomes established, it seems as though the person changes personalities. They become someone who is selfish and entitled, and will do anything it takes to ensure they keep getting their drug of choice. This can include making promises that are not kept, outright lying or stealing to keep the drug supply constant.

Even though the person you love would normally never steal from you, drugs have a powerful effect and cause people to act uncharacteristically. You may find that cash lying around the house is gone, or your bank account is lower than it should be. You may also discover belongings are missing as your loved one sells them to get the money they need to feed their addiction.

When someone struggling with addiction has no other way to get money, they may even resort to retail theft. Many addicts steal cans of baby formula to resell and make money. Theft of baby formula has increased over the past 10 years and now costs retailers billions of dollars. Washington, D.C.-based trade group, The Food Marketing Institute, revealed that formula was the fourth most shoplifted item from store shelves (2004).


How to Support an Addict by Setting Boundaries

Thanks to science, we now know that addiction is a brain disease. It has powerful symptoms and can change the structure of the brain. Addiction is not a character or moral weakness, and no one chooses to become addicted.

That’s why it can be impossible to get your loved one to stop using by simply loving them or reasoning with them. A person who is addicted is sick, in the same way that anyone living with a chronic illness is sick. They need professional treatment. The addicted person needs to feel uncomfortable in their lifestyle to consider treatment a viable option. Otherwise, they will continue using drugs, as they don’t have an incentive to stop and consider treatment.


While your loved one is sick, you can’t use the disease as an excuse for their behavior. Doing so will enable your loved one to continue using, and it won’t get them motivated to seek treatment. Your main goal is to get your loved one the help they need. This includes “tough love.” What may feel like turning your back on someone you care about could be exactly what your loved one needs to realize how bad the addiction has become. When they realize they need help, they’ll be motivated to get it.

Becoming frustrated with your loved one — yelling at them or crying in front of them — may feel better in the moment. Unless your loved one accepts the fact they have an addiction, however, it doesn’t help the underlying situation. Changing the family dynamic and putting up boundaries to the addict’s behavior can help your loved one accept they have an addiction.

Family members who have been living with the chaos that often comes along with an addiction can expect to meet with some resistance when they try to introduce boundaries into the relationship. Addicts do not like to be told their behavior is no longer acceptable, and they will have to take responsibility for their actions. If they continue to use drugs and are unwilling to go for treatment, they need to understand there will be consequences to their actions.

Setting Boundaries for Families of Addicts: How It Helps Everyone

For many families, a whole shift in the dynamic has to occur before they can start to set boundaries for an addicted loved one. Chances are, your family has spent a lot of time, effort and energy covering up the addiction. You have settled into your different roles and may find the cycle difficult to break.


Often, there are one or more family members who feel they can help their addicted loved one by protecting them from the full consequences of their actions. These family members do not want to see someone they care for going through withdrawal symptoms, so they provide money or drugs. They may want to avoid further conflict, so they discount or deny the extent of the problem. They pick up the pieces by calling in sick for their loved one, paying their bills and providing child care. What they see as essential support is actually enabling the addiction.

If your family has been focused on dealing with picking up the pieces from whatever crisis your addicted loved one has been involved in, there is usually little room left for everyday living. The needs of other family members likely have been neglected in favor the addict’s. Setting boundaries shifts the balance of family relationships toward center again, as opposed to tipping toward the addict’s needs. This is important for helping family members regain their self-esteem and get their own lives back.

When you set boundaries, your family can start acting as a unit. You will have a greater sense of stability, since you have a set of ground rules that everyone agrees to follow. The disease will no longer be in charge of running the household.

How to Choose Boundaries

A family dealing with an addicted loved one should set up boundaries or rules to identify the behavior that they will consider acceptable — and the behavior they won’t.

To set effective boundaries, your family needs to:

  • Agree on the boundaries
  • Uphold the boundaries with consequences


If your family needs to choose boundaries for an addicted loved one, start with the most simple one: No drug use will be allowed in our home or around our family members.

From there, you can determine what kinds of boundaries fit your particular situation. When deciding on boundaries, the goal is not to choose ones that are “easy” to stick to. Instead, choose ones that will most likely help your loved one take responsibility for their actions — instead of having family members or others step in to deal with it. The more your loved one has to face up to these consequences, the more likely they will consider getting help.

When creating your list of boundaries, make it clear that:

  • “No drug use” also includes any drug paraphernalia.
  • No one under the influence of drugs is welcome in your home. There will be no exceptions to this rule.
  • Family members are to be treated respectfully.
  • The family will not wait for your loved one to show up when plans have been made to attend an event or go on an outing.
  • Family members will no longer listen to your loved one cast blame on anyone or anything for their personal situation.
  • No one in the family will call in sick for your loved one if they are unable to go to work.
  • The family is no longer prepared to lie to anyone to cover up for your loved one, under any circumstances.
  • If your loved one is arrested for a DUI charge or any other reason, the family will not contact an attorney or bail them out of jail.
  • The family is no longer willing to give or lend money to your loved one.
  • The family is no longer willing to pay your loved one’s rent or bills, or provide food.

The purpose of setting boundaries is to identify the addict’s behavior that has been difficult or hurtful to the family — and put a stop to it. While you can’t control your loved one’s actions, you can control how you respond to them.


Encourage your family members to list the behaviors they find problematic. Meet as a family to compare your lists. Compile a list that covers everyone’s concerns and make sure you all agree on the boundaries. For boundaries to work, everyone needs to be committed to upholding them.

Setting up Consequences

It can be difficult to stand your ground and be firm when your addicted family member is upset and promising to change, even if it’s something they have said many times before. If your family believes your loved one has control of their addiction or can somehow “will” themselves to get better, you will be influenced by these types of pleas.

When everyone accepts the fact that addiction is a disease that needs professional help, the family unit will have the strength it needs to set and keep boundaries. To keep boundaries, you also need to decide on the consequences if your loved one breaks the boundaries.

Make a list of the consequences your loved one will face if they break the boundaries. Your list can include:

  • Reporting any thefts to the police
  • Asking your loved one to leave if they show up under the influence
  • Taking away visitation


All of these examples are logical consequences of a person’s actions. If your loved one doesn’t respect the new boundaries the family has set, then they will be subject to the consequence of their actions.

How to Tell Your Loved One About the Boundaries

It’s important your addicted loved one knows the family has established new rules.

Once your family has decided and agreed on the boundaries and consequences, you’ll need to let your loved one know the situation within the family has changed. Be prepared for this conversation to be emotionally charged — addicts do not like to be told they will no longer be able to get the things they need from their family.

To tell your loved one about the boundaries and consequences:

  • Choose a time when your loved one is not under the influence.
  • Have your whole family there to show a united front.
  • Start the conversation from a place of love. Explain how everyone wants to see your loved one healthy and happy.
  • Talk about how you decided to set boundaries out of love. Explain that you want your loved one to get help, but you can’t force them to. The only thing you can do is change how you react to your loved one’s actions.
  • Review the boundaries the family has decided on, as well as any consequences you have determined will happen if your loved one violates them.
  • Ask your loved one to get help.


You also need to be prepared for the conversation not to end in your loved one getting help. While you may feel as if you were unsuccessful, a conversation like this one — and the boundaries you follow after — can be the influencing factor that ultimately helps your loved one admit to their addiction and seek treatment.

To increase the chances of success, consult with an interventionist. They can help your family define the boundaries and consequences, then they can mediate the meeting. An experienced interventionist can keep the discussion focused and help ensure emotions don’t get out of hand.


Boundaries an Addicted Person Sets

In drug addiction treatment, clients learn how to set healthy boundaries for themselves. They learn how to say “no” to their former lifestyle. This includes not going to places where they used to go to get drugs. This may mean having to avoid certain neighborhoods or taking a different route when going to work or visiting friends.

A more challenging boundary clients in recovery face is with past friends. Making the decision to end a toxic friendship or finding out you no longer have anything in common with a friend is difficult. Learning how to say “no” to friends who don’t support your recovery is critical.

You need to let your support network know what is acceptable and what isn’t. Inviting you to a party a few weeks after your intensive treatment ends is not supporting your recovery. Downplaying your addiction or using in front of you is also not supportive. You need to let your friends know what you need. The ones who respect your boundaries are the ones you want to keep in your life.

Clients also learn how to set boundaries for themselves that create and protect a healthy lifestyle. This includes getting regular exercise, making sure to go to bed at the same time every night, getting enough rest, eating a balanced diet and avoiding junk food. You need to identify your boundaries of what is acceptable to your healthy lifestyle and what isn’t. For example, while eating a slice of birthday cake is acceptable, eating half of the cake in a binge-eating session is not.

When you set boundaries for yourself, you develop self-esteem and self-worth. You know what to say “no” to and what supports your long-term recovery.


Help for Loved Ones of Addicts

If you are concerned about a loved one who may need help for drug addiction, 12 Keys Rehab is here. Our experienced interventionists can help your family define boundaries, set realistic consequences and communicate them effectively to your loved one. We can also help you get everything in place should your loved one decide to enter treatment.

At 12 Keys, your loved one will get a customized treatment plan for their specific needs, challenges, goals and interests. Through a range of treatment modalities — from time-tested therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral to evidence-based treatments such as EMDR — your loved one will experience holistic healing.

You can benefit from our family therapy in which you’ll heal broken bonds and learn new effective ways of supporting your loved one’s long-term sobriety. Contact 12 Keys Rehab today for help getting your loved one started on their unique road to recovery.

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