How to Set Boundaries in Addiction Recovery

As the family program facilitator at Sanford Behavioral Health, I spend a lot of time helping loved ones establish boundaries. Establishing healthy boundaries is possible in family recovery. Establishing boundaries is essential to effectively work with a loved one with a substance use disorder (SUD). Healthy boundaries are at the heart of any positive relationship in your life.

When establishing boundaries in addiction recovery, it is crucial to consider the feelings of all involved. It can help create a safe space for everyone to express their feelings and concerns without fear of being judged or attacked. This will also help ensure that your loved one is supported as they progress in their addiction recovery journey. To discover more resources that can be helpful while in the family program at Sanford Behavioral Health, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 616.202.3326.

Establishing Boundaries

We all have internal and external boundaries. Internal boundaries drive external boundaries. A boundary system exists to protect individuals and give them a moving picture of who they are as individuals in this world. Boundary systems are based on limits and mark a person’s starting and ending points in life’s interactions. People can use our boundary systems every day in any personal encounter.

It is essential to recognize the importance of establishing boundaries in addiction recovery. Healthy boundaries will provide a safe, nurturing environment for your loved one to achieve sobriety. Setting boundaries can also help them stay on their recovery path and make healthier choices. Establishing boundaries provides both parties with an understanding of how the other person feels, thus establishing trust and respect.

In families with active addiction, every member’s boundaries have become blurred. These boundaries require re-establishment to heal the family. And this applies to everyone in the family—those with SUDs and those who do not have SUDs. It is also one of the main reasons why support and aftercare following treatment are critical for the entire family, not just the member with SUDs. The formation of healthy boundaries is part of family recovery for everyone.

The Importance of Boundaries in Addiction Recovery

Healthy boundaries can be effective when attempting to motivate a family member into treatment. Healthy boundaries also protect the holder, reduce the likelihood of enabling behaviors, and challenge a progressing addiction.

“Addiction can’t do much with a well-conceived boundary.”–Robin Barnett “Addict in the House.”

To understand internal boundaries, individuals must become aware of their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and limits. When applying healthy internal boundaries to loved ones with SUDs, people must first understand that addiction is a condition. The behaviors and thoughts of people with SUDs have been impacted. And it is crucial to receive education and support when dealing with addiction in families. Likewise, processing and challenging new information with support people is essential to change ingrained behavior.

Healing Families

In the Sanford Behavioral Health family program, we have looked at enabling, controlling, and caretaking behaviors. They are all unproductive and ineffective when initiating healing in our families. These behaviors and actions also serve to “blur” our family boundaries. We must understand these old behaviors to begin to free ourselves. Then we can learn new behaviors that support recovery for everyone in the family.

Boundary setting is based on a person’s limits, tolerances, and individual beliefs and actions. They are not about what the other person can or cannot do. Boundaries are about you and what you will do in a specific situation. In the book, “Addict in the House,” Robin Barnett discusses the qualities of effective boundaries. They are:

  • You are capable of doing these behaviors
  • About you
  • Lightening your load
  • Helping you in challenging moments
  • Go in effect once they are spoken
  • Alterable if necessary

When establishing boundaries, it is important to consider them as the basis for establishing and maintaining a safe place to express your feelings. Boundaries help us to learn how to love ourselves and our families amid unmanageable pain. Setting boundaries can help create a better environment where everyone involved can learn and grow. And ultimately, establishing boundaries is essential to recovery and healing for the entire family.

Ensuring You Are Safe to Express Feelings

Do not attempt to set boundaries without first sharing your choices with someone you trust who has experience with family addiction. And this must be available to you before and after you have set your boundaries. Only initiate the boundary discussion when you believe your loved one is not substance effected at the time. Initiate the conversation only when you believe you can remain calm and direct. Boundaries must not be shared when you are angry or in crisis. Never argue with your loved one about your boundary. And cease arguing about addictive behaviors altogether.

When you are ready to set boundaries, deal with safety and danger first. Set boundaries like, If I believe that you have been drinking, I will not ride in a car with you driving, Or, If I believe that you have been drinking to excess and you are driving, I will call the police. Or, I will no longer allow myself or anyone in our family to ride in the car with you when I believe you have been drinking.

Once you have set boundaries related to safety, move on to disturbing, hurtful, problematic, or frustrating areas between you and your loved one. For many family members, these topics revolve around money, mealtimes, family activities, childcare, and substance use in the family home.

Starting the Conversation of Establishing Boundaries

You might say, I’ve been thinking about our continuing conflicts, and I’ve decided to make some changes. I want you to know what I’m going to do. Following a similar statement, you can discuss your boundaries. Write notes to help keep your focus.

This is likely to be a difficult conversation to initiate. Because most family members are anxious about entering this type of discussion, it’s a good idea to practice or share ideas with a support person beforehand. Most, if not all, boundaries will be tested by loved ones with addictive conditions. Remember, setting boundaries doesn’t mean the other person’s behavior will immediately change. It means you said what you would do in a given situation and are prepared to follow through. Keeping close and regular contact with a therapist or other support system is key to boundary-setting and follow-through.

Get Help Setting Boundaries with Sanford Behavioral Health’s Family Program

At Sanford Behavioral Health, our family program offers a four-session series to educate family members on substance use disorders. It is free to our patients’ families at every level of treatment. The program also helps prepare them for the behavioral changes they need to initiate while their loved one is in treatment and beyond. Setting boundaries and establishing healthy relationships are cornerstones of the program.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact us today to learn more about our family program and how we can help your family heal. We can also provide resources for establishing boundaries in recovery. With the proper support, it is possible to set boundaries that keep everyone safe and allow the whole family to heal. Take a step forward today by contacting us at 616.202.3326 or visiting our website for more information.


Caroline (Carli) Parmelee-Noffsinger has 20 years clinical experience including: primary therapist and case manager for residential, IOP and outpatient therapy. Carli’s primary role at Sanford House is facilitating the Family Program. She is currently updating and revising the program design and content and hopes to improve upon an already successful approach to family intervention. In her free time, Carli spends time with her horse. She has been a horse lover and owner for most of her life and has facilitated equine therapy sessions. She says, “The back of a horse is good for the inside of a person.” You can reach Carli with questions about The Sanford House Family Program at