Why Aren’t My Boundaries Working?!

by Victoria Stith
August 17, 2020

A common issue that parents of adult children with substance use disorders grapple with is setting boundaries. They often ask me: “What boundaries do I need to set?” “Why do I feel worse after setting boundaries?” or “Why aren’t my boundaries working?”


Although the same undesirable symptoms of addiction tend to repeat with this problem, the specific boundaries required depend on many factors, such as the child’s behavior, the relationship dynamics between the parent and child, how the addicted child’s symptoms affect the parent and other family members, and what a parent is actually willing to do.


However, a common mistake that parents make in this situation is that they attempt to set boundaries according to what they think will make their adult children change somehow: get better, be happier, seek recovery, stop using substances, etc.


Of course, it makes sense that parents would want to do this: they love their children more than anything and would do anything to make and keep them healthy, happy, and safe.


But, alas, as we all know (at least intellectually), we cannot make any other adult do the things we think it would take for them to find health and happiness. If we could, parents would eliminate any addiction problems as soon as they were aware of them.


Instead, we have no power when it comes to stopping substance use in someone else. And, many times, we don’t even know what would make our adult children happy—even when we think we do. Trying to control these things only sets us up for another battle and for our own distress. And we want to end the battles that come with this illness.


Actually, we should aim for results.


Rather than focusing on setting boundaries with the goal of changing behavior in their adult children, I help parents to begin focusing on their own goals for their own lives—just as they would be doing if their children were independent and healthy. This way, boundaries become a mindful process of letting go of control that isn’t ours.


I work with parents to start a list of what they want to achieve or change in their own lives: How do you want to live? What do you want to stop doing? How important are those things to you?


It helps to be as specific as possible.


Important topics to consider may include goals for physical and emotional health, career, finances, travel, fun, and others.


In short, what results do you want?


I then help parents brainstorm boundaries that could address what they want to change in their lives and how they could achieve the desired results. What has to happen in order for that result to be possible?


Another important thing I suggest is that parents begin by choosing the smallest boundary that is necessary to achieve the outcome that is important to them. Sometimes, we don’t know what that is until we experiment.


But many individuals, in beginning to set boundaries, tend to be excessive. For example, if you don’t want to argue with your adult child, you don’t need to cut him or her out of your life if arguments start.


Instead, you can simply choose a smaller boundary that also gets you the same result—such as telling the child you don’t want to talk about that and changing the subject. Only if the first and smaller boundary doesn’t get you the result you want do you then need to set another boundary.


It is also worth mentioning that boundaries are best communicated with love, respect, and in a calm tone when we are likely to actually implement them. Also, we need to consider and be willing to live with their consequences. Often, we communicate unrealistic boundaries ineffectively with anger and then later have no intention of enforcing them.


Many times, experimenting is required, and that’s okay. It’s all an opportunity to gain more information. It’s okay to not have all the answers as parents—we just can’t know everything.


All we can do is be loving and compassionate—to ourselves and our adult children, and this includes taking care of ourselves by living the lives we choose.


When we set healthy, mindful boundaries, these are much more easily done. Then we can be an example of health and resilience to our children as well as give them the opportunity to find their own health and resilience, as only they can do.


To learn more about setting boundaries that lead to greater inner peace and compassion for both you and your child, get my free Mindful Boundaries Mini-Course by going to: https://bit.ly/mindfulboundaries.


As always, to your inner peace,



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Victoria Stith

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  1. Thank you. I recently set boundaries with my 21 yo son and in talking with my sponsor, she reminded me it’s not for him, it’s for me. That really helped me understand the motives for doing this. I realize that as I have set a no-contact. boundary with my son, that MY life has become more manageable. I DO respond when he texts he misses and loves me with a simple “i love you too!”…so far, it’s working. one day at a time.

    • Hi Rebecca, Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you realized how boundaries only “work” when they are not about controlling someone else! And, I’m especially glad that you’ve found a way to respond with love to your son. Remember, you can always tweak your boundaries, according to who and how you want to be. Things are ever-changing and we can change our behavior accordingly. I hope your son does well, and I hope you always have a loving relationship. ~Victoria

  2. Oh, I love this, Victoria. We all learn to recover in different ways. And my way has been turning the spotlight back on myself and learning to be happy in my own right, regardless of how my adult children are living their lives. Our obsession with “fixing” and saving is intuitive, but it doesn’t work. My piece next month addresses what can happen if we lose ourselves, our best selves, in the struggle to survive our child’s drug addiction. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Hi Marilea, Thank you for your feedback! I really appreciate it, and yes, it can be so tough to stop looking for a way to “fix it all” – which can then lead to that forgetting of ourselves. Such a challenge! Thank you for your contributions to helping families also!

  3. Thank you for your article. Although I think I know in my head what I need to do each day in order to stay healthy while dealing with my son’s addiction, it sure is nice getting some confirmation from you! It’s a tough battle, a daily one in which there isn’t any manual on how to proceed so thank you very much for reminding me that boundaries are needed and help us all.

    • Hi Torri and thank you for your comment! It is such a challenging situation; so give yourself lots of compassion, and maybe ask yourself how you can make your life and relationships less stressful – even with something little. Best to you and yours!

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