Talking With Your Loved One About Substance Abuse

Posted on March 21, 2017

5 Important Things To Consider
By Rod Amiri, MD

Let’s face it: discussing a loved one’s substance abuse can be uncomfortable and emotionally draining.

While some loved ones actively seek treatment, many are reluctant to change and unwilling to have open, honest discussions. Making emotional pleas or threats to convince them that they would benefit from help may result in defensive, argumentative responses. Plus, confronting an addicted loved one about their behavior can be so emotionally charged that it is easy to become angry or upset.

Ultimately, approaching an addicted family member, spouse or child requires you to plan ahead.

Here are five tips to facilitate a successful discussion:

1. Consult with Family Members and Friends

It is often a good idea to consult with others to determine how to frame the conversation with your addicted family member, spouse or child. Try to enlist the support of trusted family members, friends and mental health professionals, as well as others who have successfully gotten a loved one to accept help in the past.

If the goal of the discussion is to persuade your loved one to enter treatment immediately, it is reasonable to assume your plan may initially be met with resistance or defiance. It may take some time to achieve your goal.

2. Consider Your Initial Approach

Think about your initial approach to your loved one as a way to open a dialogue on a subject that is important to you.

Start by making a distinction between your feelings for your loved one and the offending behavior. Use phrases like “I love and support you” and “What I don’t support is what happens when you drink/use” to communicate your message effectively.

Stick to the facts and keep things in the “I” as much as possible. Instead of saying “When you drink, you (description of worrisome behavior),” try something more along these lines: “My experience of your drinking brings up feelings of fear and dread. I worry that (insert your concern here).”

Then, ask the loved one whether he or she is open to doing something about the problem: “Are you willing to talk with someone about how this problem is affecting our family?” If the answer is yes, schedule an appointment with a health professional that specializes in addiction treatment.

3. Find a Convenient Time for the Conversation

When you approach your loved one, make sure you find a convenient time and a private place to have the conversation.  Having this discussion at home is usually beneficial for everyone involved. If your loved one agrees to seek help, you can arrange to get them to a treatment center,  a SMART Recovery meeting, or whatever your loved one is willing to pursue.

4. Know What You Are Going to Say

This is not a time to “wing it” or be spontaneous—practice what you are going to say to your loved one in advance.

Find someone who knows your loved one to help you by doing a role play. This will alleviate stress and anxiety as you prepare to approach your loved one.

5. Use Appropriate Body Language

Appropriate body language includes:

•    Staying seated.
•    Maintaining an erect, engaged posture, perhaps leaning in a bit to signal interest and empathy.
•    Using a soft, slow tone of voice.

In addition, you should avoid:

•    Standing.
•    Pounding/shaking your fist.
•    Pointing your finger accusatorily.
•    Crossing your arms.
•    Leaning away.
•    Cocking your head back (can create an appearance that you are being condescending).
•    Using a loud, accusatory tone.
•    Using profanity.

In the event your loved one refuses help, make sure they understand any consequences you choose to have in place. These might include asking them to leave the house and not return home until he or she has completed treatment or sought help. Other consequences may require the loved one to surrender possessions like a vehicle, cell phone and/or credit cards.

Being thoroughly prepared is the first step in a successful discussion with your addicted loved one. By following these tips, you’ll be better positioned to convince them to seek help.

About the author: Dr. Rod Amiri specializes in addiction psychiatry. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He has received the Patients’ Choice award every year since 2008, representing less than 5 percent of active physicians in the United States.  He serves patients and families at Malibu Hills Treatment Center, a luxury rehab facility located in Malibu, California.


SMART Recovery provides support for Family & Friends:

Online Meetings: SMART Recovery provides a designated message board forum and weekly online meetings for Family & Friends for tool training and peer support.

Face-to-Face Meetings: The number of face-to-face meetings for Family & Friends is growing! Our website has a meeting map to help you locate a meeting, and new meetings are being added every month.

Materials: A SMART Recovery Handbook for Family & Friends is available through our online bookstore.

For more information, please visit SMART Recovery Family & Friends.