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Tips for consistent boundaries and better addiction outcomes

People close to addicts (mothers, wives, brothers, and such) often find themselves struggling when trying to decide how to treat the substance abuser. They feel betrayed when the addictive behavior is displayed, but are lost when it comes to what they can do. For example, a mother with an alcoholic husband may feel that it’s unfair to withhold a father’s love from her child, even if he did get drunk when he promised he would not. She doesn’t want to punish her boy for his father’s behavior.

Consistent boundaries are important for the substance abuser

When teaching people how to behave, one of the worse things to do is to provide inconsistent feedback. It’s true for babies, hell, it’s true for dogs, and it’s certainly true for addicts. The basic principles of learning research tell us that rewarding good behavior while not rewarding (or even punishing) bad behavior is the best method to affect change. Being inconsistent will make the substance abuser more likely to repeat their offensive behavior than rewarding them for it all the time! It’s called a random reinforcement schedule and is the best method to teach a simple behavior and the hardest one to unlearn. Even mice in an experiment are more likely to repeat an action if they know that they’ll get rewarded for it once in a while and can’t predict when that reward will come. Consistent boundaries let people know what to expect in return for their actions.

Tips for better addiction outcomes

So before you go any further, decide on what behaviors you want to reinforce and make them clear – Not going to happy hour with coworkers, not hanging out with that friend who always ends up mysteriously getting some coke, or any other such behavior that seems to keep creeping up in your particular situation. Then make sure that you have a little list of “rewards” – they can be as simple as quality time with the kid, a nice dinner, or spending money for your kid. By having the list ahead of time, it’ll be easier to stay consistent, knowing what to withhold and what to use as rewards (depending on the behavior).

Addicts should never be rewarded with things they want after failing to deliver on their promises of staying clean. No matter the manipulation, the rules must stand. I’m not necessarily a big supporter of punishment, since it can often put additional stress on a relationship, but rewarding bad behavior should not be an option. This way, the hope is that the substance abuser will change their behavior even if their own willingness to change isn’t quite there, out of their need for the rewards that are being withheld. Slowly, they should begin producing more of the desired sort of behaviors.

This isn’t exactly like tough love (which normally includes punishment), but it’s not far from it either. Obviously, this falls under the category of “easier said than done.” Still, as difficult as it may be, as in raising a child, changing the behavior of a substance abuser requires consistency and perseverance. If a good dose of basic training can help, I say why not give it a try, even if it feels a little bit like training your favorite pet.

Good luck!

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