Boundary setting is an important, albeit difficult, part of self-care when a loved one is living with a mental illness. This may be harder and more complex for some than others. By setting boundaries, you are taking responsibility for how others treat you and your own needs seriously.
It’s okay to expect basic rules of conduct and cooperation. We all require these to get along. It is not uncommon for feelings of guilt to prevent people from effectively setting limits and realistic expectations for their loved one.
Wanting to help your loved one as much as possible is common. But sometimes this can be to your detriment. Understanding relationship dynamics may help provide insight into helpful boundaries.
Do you feel overextended, or your needs are on the back burner? It is important to learn to say ‘no’ to unreasonable or unmanageable demands.
For example, parents of adult children with a mental illness feel obliged to provide care, or fear hurting the person, even though they are capable of caring for themselves. Setting boundaries compels the person to take responsibility for their actions and teaches independence.
Even though you love the person, this behaviour, related to mental illness or not, is never acceptable under any circumstance. Never compromise your own or others’ safety for fear of hurting your loved one’s feelings. Make sure you are safe first and contact emergency services.
Establishing boundaries is a process. Take your time and look for small ways to begin. Where to set your limits to is a personal decision.
Decide what level of support and care you and others involved are realistically able to provide, including limits to protect yourself (or the family) from unacceptable behaviour.
These conversations may be about current, emerging or foreseeable issues. For instance, if your family member may drink alcohol or use drugs while socializing, establish that borrowing the car is never an option under these circumstances. Or, staying up late may be tolerated, but alcohol use is not.
Discuss and establish basic rules for behaviour and co-operation, limitation and expectations. A clear understanding about what everybody needs, wants, or expects is important. Record these rules and keep them in an accessible location. Boundaries may need to be set without the input of your loved one if they are uncooperative, or redefined over time.
Some rules and expectations you, your loved one and family members may want to discuss and decide upon include:
Boundary setting can almost be the easy part, with the follow through being most difficult. When setting a limit, ensure you are able to implement and live with it. Limits are likely to be tested and, if broken, the person is making a choice, leading to consequences.
Do not excuse them, change your mind, or feel guilty for enforcing a consequence. Giving in sends the message you aren’t committed to the boundary, allowing their behaviour to continue unchanged.
Possible responses could include:
Providing positive feedback to your loved one is as important as communicating concerns. People are more likely to continue positively when provided with positive feedback.
When a loved one is unwell, unable to think clearly, aggressive or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, discussing broken boundaries can be difficult. Sometimes consider waiting until the person has improved before discussing negative consequences and future prevention.
If you experience fear in these situations, if physical aggression has occurred previously, plan for it to occur again. Do not hesitate to contact emergency services. You will not get your loved one in trouble. Suggestions include:
If risky or aggressive behaviour has occurred, the person, yourself or other family members may need urgent medical help. It is common to feel traumatized by physical and emotional abuse and professional counselling can be helpful. There is a useful list of services at the end of the article to assist you.
Boundary setting is not easy and doesn’t occur overnight. But its implementation is for the benefit of you, your family and your loved one. Your mental and physical health should be nurtured equally with those you love. This can take practice.
Many carers face the dilemma and difficulty of boundary setting, so you are not alone. Please reach out for assistance with the services below if you need support.
Mental Health Carers Australia (formerly ARAFMI National) 1300 554 660
Carers Australia 1800 242 636
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277