How do I tell the difference between a rule and boundaries



I am really struggling with boundaries for my adult alcholic son. My boundaries are like rules still. Fir example my son works for me and it is not going well. He has shown up at work under the influence, stolen money and lied about being in the office when he was drinking at the pub . I told him that if he carries on drinking he cannot work for the company is that a rule.
I can’t seem to grasp an understanding between the two


I certainly don’t know what the clinical experts would say but I have been an Office Manager for 40 years and have also been in your shoes with an adult alcoholic son. I thank God every day for God’s healing hand on our son, who is now in recovery! I say this only to give you hope! It was so very difficult and had progressed to a very dangerous point and he is now 28 and sober. So, although boundaries and rules are so important, just keep loving him where he is while you take care of yourself as well.

I would say in regard to the work situation, you would have to have clear rules/policies, and high would mean that he can’t show up at work drunk, or be drunk during work hours. He also can’t steal from the business or do anything that other employees would not be allowed to do. Period. That would be a require To keep you and your business out of legal trouble with other employees, even if it’s only one other employee.

I would consider a boundary something you put in place to protect you and/or loved ones on a personal level. These are absolutely necessary too. That differs for everyone and it is extremely difficult to do, but necessary.
We didn’t do great a lot of the time with this and I would say that it varies with each family and each member of the family. I also don’t think if you don’t have a child suffering with addiction, it is not possible to understand the depth of the pain and how hard it is to do what others think you should do. This is also true for any other relationship as well. I wouldn’t be able to relate specifically in all area with someone who has a spouse that is an addict. My best friend has gone thru this with her husband of 38 years in this same time period and while there are similarities, there are also some big differences. It is all hard!! But there are differences for sure!

My heart goes out to you and I pray that your son will soon be enlightened to a better way! It is there and available for him but they have to be the ones to want to make a change. We had to wait for our son to be the one to make the decision for himself as well.
Big hugs to you!!


@EMast - so happy to hear that your son is now in recovery and his alcoholism is in remission. I agree with your analysis of what makes a rule / boundary. My son is also in recovery and remission. It took me a while to accept that I couldn’t solve his problems and that helping him was hurting him.

I completely blame my lily-livered mother, who I loved all the days of her life, who was also very weak about holding space for herself as unique and separate from us children. She felt you must hold up appearances to the outside world. It was more important than permitting the usual endgame of misadventures to be seen by others.

I have learned that tough love is more about holding boundaries and letting the chips fall where they may than turning your back on a person.

How do you define Tough Love? Why do you think it works or doesn’t? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.



I’m so glad that your son is in recovery as well! It is definitely something to celebrate and be grateful for every single day! :heart:

You ask how I define tough love.
I believe it is doing what you know in your heart is the right thing to do but the hardest thing to carry out.
In my case, I knew in my heart that I needed to let go (I.e. that it was going to have to be his decision to want to make a change and no matter how much I loved him, or spent time with him, my love couldn’t change his choices) but I couldn’t figure out how to let go and not lose him forever. I thought that if I could say i loved him enough, showed it more, it might sink in so that he could love himself. But, it just doesn’t work that way! In fact, what I didn’t realize is that me holding on, thinking I could help him by rescuing him continuously, I was actually prolonging him helping himself. HOWEVER, I still believe it was imperative that he consistently heard that we (his family) loved him no matter what and believed in him!
Just thinking back on this feeling of helplessness brings me to tears. His personal shell was so thick. He was gentle and kind with others but terribly hard on himself. He would have breakdowns when he would drink excessively and that is when he would say how lowly he felt of himself. He was so ashamed and lonely (even though he had people around him) and didn’t see that he was a good person, although he was always an amazing person! He just believed otherwise and the more he drank, the further into these lies he would sink! What a vicious and sad cycle.
Other than losing a child, this has been the next hardest thing I. Kyle think of. The threat of losing him was always there.
Plus, the stigma of addiction makes it much worse to handle in some respects for the addict and family versus something like cancer, because of the lack of support from those around. We, as a family, couldn’t really say much to anyone, out of protection for our son. He was high functioning and always held down a job. I have no idea how that was possible, except that he has worked through very tough situations and he is extremely strong, even though he may not have felt like it.

I truly believe that my son moving away (a few hours from us) for his job, was the right move for him and may have ultimately saved his life. He had been living just a few miles away and it was way too easy for us to help him when he was down. We would see signs and respond (out of fear for his well being/life).
In essence, we kept saving him from consequences that would possibly cause him to want to change. We did this out of fear because we loved him so much but it was the wrong thing. This is why tough love is necessary and I’m certain that any parent that has experienced this can see why it’s so difficult.

I have a huge amount of compassion and empathy for all parents that are dealing with children with addictions and praying for the release of the addiction on their behalf. I know, without a doubt, that our son is where he is today because of answered prayers. God is all powerful and makes many promises in the Bible. I had to stand on those promises and it was the only hope I had! I will pray for continued sobriety for our son every single day for the rest of my life and know that it is by the grace of God that he has remained sober for nearly 10 months, after drinking heavily for 9 years.


Hi @KVJ,
Boundaries is such a tough topic to grasp. You’ve asked this question before here - did you get a chance to see the responses there, as well? There were some really great answers:

What helps me understand the difference is that a boundary is created to protect you. A rule is something you put in place for other people. So the rule you have for your son - he can’t come to work drunk - I’m assuming that’s a rule you have in place for all of your employees. If someone breaks it, they can’t work there anymore. He’s breaking the rule, so now it’s up to you to follow through, just like you would with any other employee.

A boundary in this situation might be that you no longer let your son work for you because it is having a negative impact on your mental health and your business. This boundary is protecting you. It is created to protect your safe space and your livelihood. I know, it sounds really similar to your rule. But the difference is the reasoning behind it. You’ve created it to protect yourself instead of trying to get him to stop using. He might get angry that you have this boundary, but for relationships to work, they require both people to respect each other’s boundaries. Maybe instead you can offer to help him get another job. Or, start requiring drug tests from him if he wants to work for you.

Understanding what boundaries are is important, and even more important is being able to stick to them. That often requires being able to let go of outcomes. Oftentimes it’s tough to stick to a boundary because we’re afraid of what will happen to them if we do. But what about what will happen to you? What will happen to your business, your health, your family if you allow him to continue working under the influence and stealing? How will you be able to help him if your business suffers? In order to best support our loved ones, we have to be able to take care of ourselves.

It’s so, so hard. You can still love and support your son while also protecting yourself. Sending you love.


@Emast- your description of your son’s experience is so similar to my son’s experience that it’s wild. Those hard drinking days were very dark and I hope I never have to endure them again. I am grateful that my son carries his own sobriety. He takes it seriously. When he moved across the country to go back to the university that helped a lot, too. My daughter left, too. I stayed put.

Now I have to shift in my existence again and find gratitude. It is a the only remedy for the doleful pain of longing for a togetherness that may not ever return. - It’s the scar we get when we do the right thing even when it is the hardest thing to carry out. Just like you said. Thank you.


Yes, there is so much to be grateful for and most days I am good but some days I find myself still digging out of the mire.
I find the most challenging part at this point is communication. This is already challenging with boys but coupled with what addiction has brought, we are still rebuilding. I am working on some ways on my end to say what I need to but not be so invasive. We get such little time together and/or on the phone that this has been extremely difficult for me.

When I don’t have our weekly check-in talks about where he is in recovery, which have dwindled, it causes so much worry. We have other conversations but we have always had that, even when he wasn’t doing well.
I am truly grateful for that!
I can relate to your longing to be together. I have felt robbed of the precious moments, years actually, that were taken because of addiction. I just keep reminding myself that I would rather him be healthy and living elsewhere than to be sick and live close.

Big hugs to you and prayers for your son to continue on a healthy path.