How to Talk to a Loved One About Addiction
It is never easy to start a conversation with a loved one who’s showing signs of substance abuse. You might worry about saying the wrong things, hurting your relationship, or causing your loved one to become angry. You might even convince yourself that it’s best to avoid the subject altogether and pretend it isn’t happening. However, if a loved one is addicted to opioids or alcohol, it’s important to face the issue as soon as possible. Starting a conversation could be the turning point that spurs your loved one to seek help.
While it may be uncomfortable, bringing the problem to light can provide a path to healing and reconciliation within the family. Denial, on the other hand, only creates further barriers to recovery.
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Talking to Your Loved One About Addiction
In most cases, the person struggling with addiction won’t be the one who initiates a conversation about seeking treatment. That means it’s generally up to loved ones to approach the subject. Whether your loved one is a husband or wife, a child, or a parent, there are some dos and don’ts you can rely on in order to make this conversation a little easier.
The goal of this conversation is to let your loved one know that you care, you’ve noticed some concerning changes, and you want to help. Below you’ll find examples of productive language to get the conversation started, along with some counterproductive language to avoid when talking to a loved one about addiction.
- Be sensitive in your wording and mention the changes you’ve seen. “I’ve noticed you’re taking more painkillers than usual. How are you feeling lately?”
- Use first-person language to create a personal message. “I feel frustrated when hangovers cause you to miss our daughter’s basketball games.”
- Have treatment information ready and available before you start the conversation. “We did some research and found a great outpatient medication-assisted treatment program for you.”
- Stay calm and show compassion. “I know this is hard, and I know you’re scared. But I’m here for you, and I’ll support you the whole way.”
- Share the family’s plan for recovery. “You’re not in this alone – we all need help. We found a family therapist who can help me, your father, and your sisters.”
- Avoid making angry accusations or blaming. “You don’t care about your family. All you care about is shooting more heroin into your veins.”
- Never talk “at” your loved one. “You don’t listen when you’re drunk! You never do anything to help around the house. You’re the problem.”
- Don’t bargain or make agreements that allow the addiction to continue. “If you promise to stop using opioids in the house, I’ll give you one last chance to make this right.”
- Don’t act judgmental. “You could stop using painkillers if you really wanted to. You’re just weak.”
- Avoid making the situation seem insurmountable. “I can’t handle this. You and your addiction are just too much for me.”
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Guidelines for a Productive Conversation
When talking to someone about their addiction – and your concerns about it – it’s important to understand they may not be ready to hear what you have to say. They might say you have nothing to worry about. They might find it extremely hard to ask for or accept your help. Despite their reaction, the best thing you can do is listen, ask leading questions to understand how they feel, and show your loved one compassion when talking about what’s happening in their lives.
By keeping the channels of communication open, it’s easier to help your loved one and work toward acknowledging they need help to overcome addiction.
Don’t bring up the subject when your loved one is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When someone is high or intoxicated, it’s hard to have an honest conversation. They are more likely to lash out, dismiss the notion they have a problem, or place the blame on others.
Ensure you have plenty of time to have this conversation. This isn’t the kind of chat you wrap up in under ten minutes. Your goal is to have an open, honest, two-way conversation where you’re able to state your concerns and understand your loved one’s perception of the situation.
When you sit down to talk, let your loved one know you care for them – and that’s why you’re having this conversation. You’re concerned for their well-being and want to see them healthy, happy, and living life to their fullest potential.
Talk about some of the behaviors you find concerning and let them know you’re worried about the negative impact of their drug or alcohol use. Tell them you worry that continued drug or alcohol use will take an even bigger toll on them.
List the behaviors you’ve observed, state that you are worried about the effect drinking or drug use is having and express concern about continued use.
Ensure you create a two-way dialogue by asking open-ended questions.
If your loved one emphatically states they do not have a problem, ask if you can talk again sometime soon. The goal is not to convince them they have a problem; the goal is to let them know you’re worried there is one and your belief is based on behaviors you’ve observed.
Don’t expect this first conversation will be enough to make them realize they’re struggling with addiction or immediately seek treatment. This might be the first time your loved one has stopped to consider whether or not they have a problem.
What You Should Avoid During the Conversation
Here are some things you don’t want to do when talking to your loved one about their issues with opioid or alcohol addiction:
Do not threaten: Despite any frustration you might feel, don’t try to “scare” your loved one straight. Saying you’re going to kick them out, take away the children, or stop associating with them will only push them further away. Making threats could even push them deeper into addiction.
Don’t try to force them: You can’t force someone with an addiction to stop using drugs or drinking. What you can do, however, is provide the support and encouragement to help them want a life free from the shackles of addiction.
Don’t give a lecture: Accusing someone of choosing addiction over the love of family members or comparing them to a sibling who doesn’t misuse substances won’t help your message get through. Lecturing can make them feel like a burden and reaffirm the negative perception they already have of themselves.
Don’t use stigmatizing language: Never use terms like “alcoholic,” “drug addict,” “junkie,” or “wino.” Addiction is a chronic disease, and it’s vital to use language that frames it that way. Instead of labeling your loved one with stigmatizing language, focus on the real challenge by using phrases like “problem with opioid painkillers” or “problem with alcohol.”
Don’t use guilt as a weapon: Don’t use statements designed to guilt your loved one into sobriety like: “You’re ruining my life by shooting heroin every day,” “Don’t you ever think about your family before you stick a needle in your arm,” or “You can’t love me because you choose alcohol over me every single day.” Addiction is a chronic disease that goes much deeper than the simple act of making a choice.
Don’t feel like you’re unloved: Addiction is a disease, but it can be treated. A loved one’s continued use, setbacks, or relapses are not a reflection of the love they feel for you or the strength of your relationship. And they certainly don’t mean your loved one doesn’t love you or have a burning desire to want recovery.
Do not blame yourself: This is a big one. No one can “cure” someone else’s addiction. Even if you could fix the problem for your loved one, it isn’t your responsibility to do so. They have to make a personal commitment to sobriety, then do the work to achieve it. The best thing you can do is support your loved one’s recovery, seek help for yourself during their treatment process, and celebrate each healthy milestone achieved.
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