Story 9

Tools to Create Change: Boundaries, Consequences and Leverage

“Why would he change if you keep fixing his problems and making life easy for him?”

I was part of my son’s problem. I was often a fixer, an apologist and an enabler for his transgressions and poor behavior. He was hurting so badly, and I wanted to be there for him. I just didn’t understand that I was protecting the disease and not him. He needed to “see” the problems that alcohol use caused and by fixing those problems, I was standing in the way of his recovery.

The counselors and experienced parents from the groups, in a very supportive and empathetic way, just kept asking me: “Why would he change if you keep fixing his problems and making life easy for him?”

Six months into his outpatient treatment, I took the leap of faith and threw down the gauntlet. I set a hard boundary and told him that if he had even one more drink, and the counselors recommended residential treatment, we would follow-through and send him away (the consequence).

This was tough stuff.

By then, Stevie was a senior in high school, an honors student, a captain of the high school soccer team, and he had lots of friends. Sending him away would likely mean that he would miss much of his senior year, not apply to college, and not graduate high school on time.

He didn’t believe me.

And why should he? My track record was lousy.

Two weeks later on a Saturday night, he got blackout drunk. I tracked him down at a party and brought him home.

He was loud. He was belligerent. It was bedlam in the house. My wife and daughter were hysterical, alternating between crying and yelling at me: “Do something! Do something!”

He taunted me: “C’mon, hit me, hit me”.

I had never been so defeated and so helpless in all my life.

All I could do was say to my wife: “Call 911”.

The police arrived and calmed the situation.

That Monday night was put up or shut up time for me. I told him that if the counselors recommended residential treatment then he was going. He looked at me with a fierce and piercing stare and said: “If you do that, you will no longer be my father. You will have four kids and not five.”

An amazing calm suddenly came over me. I looked at him and said, “I have never been more of a parent than I am being at this exact moment. If the recommendation is residential treatment, then you are going!!”

Then, my wife and I left for our Parent Group meeting.

Holding my ground with Stevie was the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I was scared out of my mind.

Would he get drunk? Would he run away? Would he hurt himself?

We were gone for two long hours. When we returned, there was note on the side door. I said to my wife: “Damn, he ran away”.

Slowly, we walked up to the note. It read:

Dear Mom and Dad,

You are right. I have a problem. Please don’t send me away. I will go to counseling. I will read the Big Book. I will go to AA and get a sponsor. And, if I have one more drink I will voluntarily go away for help.



A potentially huge breakthrough!

My wife and I and the team of counselors deliberated for four long days. We finally decided to support his approach.

He lived up to those promises for five months. When he relapsed on the class trip, he lived up to his other promise to accept the consequence and seek residential treatment.

It doesn’t always work like this.

If you are lucky, the consequences for broken boundaries can be simple things like taking cell phone access away, and that creates change. Often, however, when the kids are very sick, the consequences need to be much greater. In our case, we had to continually increase the intensity of the consequences. Taking him out of high school and sending him away to residential treatment, and his belief that we would follow through, was enough to help create change.

I have four pieces of advice on using boundaries, consequences and leverage to create change:

  1. Focus on the single most important boundary. In our case, at the time, we had about a million things that we would love to improve about our 17-year-old son (clean his room, get to school on time, be more courteous at home, take out the garbage…. etc). We initially wrote contracts with 7 or 8 big boundaries and numerous sub-boundaries. We had him sign the “contracts”. In response, our son suddenly turned into a Harvard Law graduate and found loopholes and gray areas which turned into a lot of conflict between us. Finally, we realized that drinking was the one behavior that was threatening his life and standing in the way of all other growth in his life. We set that one boundary, enforced the consequence, and helped create the necessary change.
  2. Follow through on consequences. Create consequences that you can and will follow through on. This is essential. If you do not follow through, then your boundaries and consequences will be meaningless.
  3. Get professional help and access to experienced parents. Implementing boundaries, consequences and using leverage is extremely difficult to do in a vacuum. It is hard enough to execute with the help of a team. Get help.
  4. Understand That Your Child Does Not Hate You. When I decided to enforce consequences on my son, he was so angry with me that I thought that I lost my relationship with him forever. Two years later at a dinner celebrating his one-year of sobriety, he handed me a letter. I was afraid to open it and didn’t until the next day when I was alone. In that letter, he told me that I was his hero and that he knew all along that I was in his corner. He said that I helped save his life. When I read those words, I sobbed like a baby. Until that moment, I didn’t know. It was such intense relief. Today, I am blessed with an incredibly close relationship with my son. In my volunteer work, I have consistently noticed this type of relationship turnaround. As the child recovers from addiction, that beautiful child that you raised typically re-emerges.

There are a few other things to know about boundaries, consequences, and leverage.

If your child lives independently and/or the child is economically independent, then your leverage to impose consequences is low. Those facts do not change what you should do – set boundaries and consequences – but the lack of strong leverage can reduce the power of the tools. Similarly, if you are estranged from another important caregiver in your child’s life, then the actions of the other caregiver can undo your good work of setting boundaries and consequences. This is frustrating and heart wrenching. But, the best thing you can do is carry on with your approach and try to get the non-compliant caregiver to understand what’s at stake and what is best for the child.

Both of these tough situations are common. Again, professionals and other experienced parents can be extremely helpful for support and ideas on how to best handle your situation.