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Coming home - Contracts, boundaries, and finding our way..

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

In our session last Saturday, we talked about the challenges and opportunities of navigating this crucial time when our kids are transitioning home after being in treatment, or for a visit. (And some of our conclusions are useful for any teens)

Often when our kids graduate or are "sent home" from a residential program, we find that the home contract that we neatly type up and dutifully sign, often isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Kids often see this approach as just another demonstration of lack of trust, an attempt for parents to control them. We quickly fall into a continuation of past patterns, driven by fear, that lead us down a dead-end road with too many opportunities for creating friction in already tense relationships, still in need of repair. Enforcing these home contracts often feels like policing a kid whose free time, energy, and resourcefulness we can't match. It is simply exhausting.

We are so ready to see that our kids are "falling back into old patterns" rather than making progress that looks like two steps back one step forward. Even though we hear over and over that progress isn't linear, we panic when a couple hours have passed and they aren't answering our texts, or we notice the lingering smell of weed in their room. Our emotional reaction is understandable; in many cases there is real PTSD from past scares.

Our work is to allow the pain of the past, and show ourselves compassion for what have been some of the hardest time of our lives. Instead of burying this pain, trying to distract ourselves, we need to work with it, otherwise it will keep us prisoners to patterns we are trying to shift.

What we know about pain and strong emotions is that the are housed in the body (see here a summary of Van der Kolk's "The Body Keeps the Score"), and shifting them requires us to move from our head into our bodies where the emotion is stored. There are many different techniques for freeing ourselves from the past's imprint, generally through somatic approaches, which recognize the importance of the body in healing. There are formal approaches such as Somatic Experiencing, and Compassionate Inquiry (which I am studying) as well as ancient traditions including Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, breath work, etc.

For me, this is where transformation happens; it doesn't have to be complicated or formal therapy or months of study. It's just making a commitment to involving our bodies, not just our minds, in understanding how to best show up for our kids.


Approaches for bringing more wisdom and clarity to our relationships with our kids generally include some version of the following steps:

These are some of the strategies and approaches we discussed having traction as we navigate through this time.

  • Making space to process emotions; let her know that sadness, anger is welcome and parents won't try and manage it, or talk her out of it.

  • Recognition of progress, of small steps forward. "I just wanted to tell you I noticed how you managed x, y, z and I appreciate it".

  • Make room for mistakes, and to let her know you are still here for her. The last text from the therapist at my daughter's program as she was leaving was a powerful reminder. "All in all I think she'll test the waters in many ways. Not to prove herself worthy of your trust or love, but instead to give you an opportunity to prove yourself worthy, of not getting angry, of making her feel bad about herself, of not giving up on her, even when her decisions are terrible"

  • Drawing the boundaries around ourselves, not our kids. As we covered in a previous session, we create limits based on our own values and our own inner knowing around what is acceptable in our lives in our homes. This is much different then trying to create boundaries around our child, and control their behavior.

  • Being clear, for yourself, about what really matters. For me it is leaving on Life 360, my daughter letting me know who she is with (and contact info if it is someone I don't know) no hard drugs, and no smoking weed in the house. I ask her to respect curfew, which I am willing to shift based on the circumstances. The rest is a process of observation and negotiation.

  • When we need to enforce a boundary, and allowing for natural consequences as much as possible, even if it seems like it will take forever for these to be felt.They are far more powerful than anything we can instill or teach.

  • When we have to enforce a boundary or respond with a consequence, we do it with few words, and with strength and love and a recognition of our child's needs. We don't need to explain or justify. We don't make it about us, our "hurt feelings" or our child's "lack of respect"

  • Sometimes we don't agree with our child's decisions, yet decide it is better to not impose consequences, as this will just push behavior underground, create distance, close down communication. Yet we can still take opportunities to provide a mirror to our child, acknowledging that they can take or leave this feedback, yet we feel it is our obligation to share perceptions. It's a fine line and a delicate balance.

  • We come from a place of acceptance - that our child's path may be a long one, that there will be lots of bumps in the road, and that our job is not to find a way to fix the situation, to alleviate our discomfort, but to ground ourselves to stay the course over the long hall.

  • Recognition that our energy speaks often louder than our words. Being conscious of how we feel towards our kids, what we believe about them, and about their future. They will pick up on this. Is there something that we need to work on shifting in ourselves?

  • Don't underestimate the importance of connection. It may not look like the long walks or level of sharing that you'd like to see, and that's ok. Let your kid know you are curious, that you are available, that you care about the essence of who they are, not what they do or don't do. Send a short text, a funny photo, order pizza. Think of small acts, not grand gestures.

Here are a few resources that might be useful:

High Quality Boundaries - Evoke Therapy

How to Set and Hold Boundaries  Melissa Urban - We Can Do Hard Things

Setting Boundaries around Teen Substance Abuse - Brenda Zane on Joyful Courage

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