Talking with a loved one about their drinking or drug use can seem impossible, but it can also help plant a seed of recovery.
Watching a loved one struggle with drugs or alcohol can be incredibly painful. Oftentimes, as a family member, you will notice problematic behaviors before your loved one sees them or is willing to acknowledge them. That can put you in a powerful position to point out your concern and help your loved one get into substance abuse treatment before things reach a crisis point.
In an ideal world, talking to a loved one about addiction can bring you closer and get them into treatment. But this can also be a fraught conversation ripe with pitfalls and opportunities for hurt feelings. To make the discussion go a bit more smoothly, it’s best to prepare ahead of time. Here’s how.
- Evaluate your own emotions and responses.
Before you involve your loved one, start by taking an honest inventory of your own emotions and feelings. Oftentimes, we bring our own history into the current situation, which can cloud how we see things and confuse the conversation. Maybe you have your own personal experience with sobriety, or perhaps you grew up with a parent that was an alcoholic. Either of those scenarios can make you more sensitive to a loved one’s substance use and more likely to react, rather than have a thoughtful and logical discussion.
Be sure that you’re expressing genuine concern for your loved one, and that you’re not merely being triggered by their behavior. If you have a trusted third-party — like a therapist or confidential friend — to talk through your concerns. Practice formatting your concerns in a way that centers your loved one, not yourself. Putting your own experiences aside might help your loved one take you more seriously.
- Organize your talking points.
People in active addiction often don’t realize the ways that their behavior has escalated. Helping them see their actions can highlight that they really do need help. The key is doing this in an objective way. No one wants to feel scolded or judged; instead they want to feel seen.
Think about what behaviors you are most concerned about. For example, you might say something like, “I noticed you’ve been drinking every day after work,” or “The kids mentioned that you slept through your alarm three times last week.” Show your loved one their behavior through your eyes, but don’t shove it in their face.
- Use “I” statements.
It’s easy for difficult conversations to escalate, becoming more and more emotional. An emotional, reactive discussion rarely leads to a productive place. One way to deescalate the situation and remove some of the negative emotion is by using “I” statements.
Here’s how it works: rather than coming at your loved one with everything they’ve done, you focus on the impact that has on you. For example, instead of saying “You’re drinking every night and ignoring your responsibilities,” say “I have to take care of the animals and dinner chores alone when you’re drinking after work.” I statements can incorporate emotions and feelings, too. You might say, “I get scared when you’re out late and I haven’t heard from you.”
Using “I” statements removes some of the arguing and pushback. Your loved one might disagree about the details of their behavior, but they can’t argue with your experience.
- Keep expectations realistic.
Everyone is familiar with the idea of a big, dramatic intervention that results in someone leaving immediately for treatment. In reality, your discussion is unlikely to look like that. Your loved one might not even agree that there is a problem. That’s ok — this can be the first step in an ongoing conversation. That’s why it’s important to have a positive conversation and leave the door open for your loved one to come back to you after they’ve thought about what you said.
Of course, there are situations where waiting isn’t the right answer. If your loved one is endangering themselves or others, or having a negative impact on your emotional or mental wellbeing, it is entirely ok to set boundaries and stick with them. Only you can decide what boundaries are right for you at a given time.
- Be prepared to offer help.
Even after a person realizes that they might need treatment, the logistics can be overwhelming. Be prepared before you even start the conversation by gathering some resources on recovery options, different programs, local meetings, and more. That way, you can capitalize on your loved one’s willingness to accept help as soon as they express it.
Only the person who is struggling with drug or alcohol use can make the decision to get treatment. However, as a family member or close friend, you have an important role to play in encouraging them and planting the seed for recovery.