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Effective Limit-setting for Families of Individuals with Mental Illness

Adapted from Coping Strategies for Relatives of the Mentally III
by Joel Kanter, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

Goals. Regain authority over the household. Create an environment that's comfortable and manageable for you and other family members. Do not attempt to control your ill relative's life outside of home.

Attitudes. Effective limit-setting requires a spirit of determined toughness, not kindly persuasion or angry criticism. Nagging is especially unproductive.

Tactics. Focus your efforts on one or two aspects of behavior that especially trouble you. Ignore other matters until you have these issues under control. Focus on behavior you can consistently monitor and influence. Determine consequences for non-compliance that will inconvenience your ill relative yet will not be too onerous to administer.  Obtain help from friends or relatives if necessary.

Communication. Clearly state expectations for appropriate behavior and consequences for non-compliance. Expect that these limits will be tested and you will have to administer consequences. …Unilaterally inform him or her that you will do A if they do B. Do not engage in lengthy discussions of the appropriateness of your expectations. In your home the family member who is ill needs .to learn to live with your idiosyncrasies.

Byproducts of Effective Limit-Setting. Besides establishing a more livable family environment, effective limit-setting greatly enhances the credibility of family members and can lead to more productive discussions of other issues. It can also motivate your ill relative to work toward independence in order to escape from rules they do not prefer to live under. Learning that one must conform to the expectations of others in order to enjoy satisfying social relations, people with mental illness often behave more appropriately outside of the home.


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