There’s no question: Addiction is a difficult topic to discuss. It’s a chaotic disease that affects the person struggling and those around them. When a loved one is dealing with addiction, it’s common to feel a multitude of emotions. While it’s normal to be overwhelmed, it’s also important to remember that there is hope for recovery and there are ways you can help your loved one. The most important first step is having a conversation.
When communicating with a loved one about your concerns, it’s important to do so in a way that allows them to really hear what you’re saying. Follow these do’s and don’ts to help the conversation help your loved one understand you have their best interests—and their future— at heart.
Be clear and upfront.
The best way to speak to others in general is to be straightforward and honest. The same holds true when you’re talking to someone with an addiction. Be clear in what you want to communicate to them, and don’t hesitate to bring up your own feelings about the situation—in a calm way. In fact, saying how you feel is often a good starting point. Tell your loved one how it hurts and worries you to see them addicted to drugs and how you fear for their safety.
Your loved one may have strong feelings or a negative reaction to what you have to say, but that does not mean you shouldn’t say it. Those feelings and reactions can be part of paving the way to recovery.
Give them space to respond.
Don’t pressure your loved one to respond to what you’re saying right away. You can offer to help them and explain how you’ll do so, but if you try to make them choose their next move on the spot, you’ll probably be met with resistance. No one likes being told that what they’re doing is wrong. Over time, their feelings of hurt and betrayal may dissolve, and they’ll think about what you’ve said. Give them the time and space to reach this point on their own.
Set and enforce boundaries.
Boundaries are important in every relationship. They are the limits you set to protect your values, time, safety, and more. When someone in your life has an addiction, it can feel like an uphill battle to maintain healthy boundaries with them. But it’s a necessary step if you want to do everything you can to help them get healthy. Letting someone with an addiction overstep your boundaries corrodes your relationship with them. They may become dependent on you, and you become self-sacrificing, at the risk of your own mental health and well-being. It’s okay to say “no.” Make sure when you do so, you explain why and let them know that you’ll do so the next time they ask too.
Just as important as setting boundaries— if not more so—is enforcing them. Don’t just tell the person you’re setting limits. If they continue to overstep boundaries, tell them “no” again, and however many times you need to after that.
More About Helping Loved Ones
Take action alongside them.
Take some type of action yourself. This shows your loved one you are just as committed to improving the relationship and helping them through this difficult time. It sets a good example, strengthens bonds, and may help you at the same time. Depending on the type of action you take, you may learn more about addiction in the process and become a better advocate for your loved one.
What could that action look like?
- Attending support groups or meetings, such as Al-Anon
- Getting into your own therapy
- Researching treatment programs for your loved one – Even if they are not ready to change, it doesn’t mean you can’t start the process. Keep it private until they are ready. Feeling pressured into entering formal treatment may make them upset.
Take advantage of a time when you are both clear-headed to talk.
There’s never a perfect time to have a difficult conversation, but some times are better than others. Waiting for a moment when your loved one is sober and both of you are calm can make a real difference in how the conversation goes. If you find yourself in a day or a moment when things are going well, take advantage of it and bring up your concerns.
Many people shy away from this because they don’t want to ruin the good experience. Remember that unless your loved one gets help, your happy times will only ever be short and rare. Your goal is to have more of these moments. Say something to express your feelings, such as, “I’m really enjoying this time with you. I wish we had more days like this.”
Addiction is a disease. The more you educate yourself, the better you will understand why your loved one is struggling. The more you understand how addiction works and how your loved one may be feeling, the easier it is to speak to them from a place of empathy and support. You won’t fully understand what it’s like to be in their shoes, but you can show them you know a few things about their experience. They may feel grateful and supported just because you took the time to learn about their situation. The ultimate goal here is to help the other person feel they’re not alone.
Ignore the issue.
Pretending an addiction doesn’t exist does not help your loved one make changes. Those struggling with addiction are prone to putting themselves in risky or dangerous situations, not to mention the negative physical effects of drugs and alcohol. Addiction is a progressive disease that does not get better on its own. Talking to your loved one about your concerns doesn’t guarantee they’ll change, but it may plant a seed. Eventually they will realize they’ve hit rock bottom, and when they do, they’ll recall your words of concern and your offer to help.
The definition of enable is to “give someone the authority or means to do something.” When it comes to addiction, enabling means providing another person the space or the means to continue their destructive behaviors.
You might be enabling your loved one’s substance abuse by:
- Failing to enforce boundaries – It’s one thing to care for someone you love and another to caretake by taking those gestures too far. If someone has all their needs met by another person—giving them money, providing housing, bailing them out of jail, etc.—they have little reason to want to change their behaviors.
- Keeping quiet and avoiding confrontation in the face of troubling behaviors – You might find it difficult to express your feelings about your loved one’s situation, especially when there are negative repercussions for doing so. Those struggling with addiction can become defensive or angry when confronted, so maybe you avoid having difficult conversations out of fear.
- Lying to try to cover up the chaos addiction brings – Some people try to present a cool exterior and lie about or make excuses for the destructive behaviors of their loved ones. They may feel it is easier to “fake it” than to be honest with others about what’s really going on.
Give ultimatums or threats.
Issuing a final demand to someone who is not ready for change will likely result in them rejecting the terms of that demand. There’s a fine line between making threats toward someone and discussing expectations. It can be difficult not to make strong statements in the hopes of changing your loved one, but it’s always important to remember that an ultimatum can have the opposite result of what you’re hoping for.
There is a difference between setting boundaries and a threat. Consider what is realistic. Not giving your loved one money that they will ultimately spend on drugs is a boundary. Vowing to never speak to a close family member again isn’t realistic.
Discuss concerns when they are under the influence or their emotions are running high.
Nothing meaningful or helpful can be discussed when someone is under the influence or the people involved are upset. No one thinks clearly when they’re overwhelmed by their emotions. It can feel uncomfortable to hold onto what you want to say for a later time, but waiting for the right moment to discuss serious issues is important. Otherwise, you risk using harsh language that increases hurt and shame and lessens the chances they’ll respond positively.
Blame them or yourself.
To make sense of a difficult and painful situation, people search for someone to blame. Who better to point the finger at than the person struggling with addiction? It can be so easy to blame your loved one. After all, they’re the one engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
The other most common target of blame is yourself. Perhaps you see your loved one as a victim of circumstances and yourself as the one who didn’t try enough or love them enough to prevent their addiction.
Placing blame on them or yourself doesn’t help anything; it only adds more pain.
Next Step: Having the Conversation
Now that you have a better idea of how to approach a conversation with your loved one about their addiction, you can feel more prepared and confident. Know that it will be hard no matter what, and you’ll be anxious. It’s okay to feel anxious, and it’s okay for your loved one to know you feel this way. It shows you care. All the preparation in the world won’t make what you have to say sound perfect or instantly convince your loved one. At the end of the day, just focus on putting as much care and respect—for your loved one and yourself—into your words as possible. If they’re ready, the rest will follow.
Sometimes it can be easier to confront someone about their behavior when there’s a professional involved, like a therapist or an interventionist. At Footprints to Recovery, we can make recommendations for local professionals who may be able to help you speak with your loved one about their addiction. Contact us to learn more.