How to Talk To Your Loved One About Substance Use

Medically Reviewed

Talking to a loved one about their use or abuse of addictive substances falls into the “difficult conversations” category for many people. It’s not hard to see why. Coming to terms with the fact that a person is hurting their health and well-being with a harmful habit can be difficult to face and accept. There also are concerns about how the person will react upon hearing the other person’s concern and if this conversation attempt will lead to a confrontation that ends in an irreparable rift.

But once the reality that something must be said has set in, the next hurdle to clear is deciding what to say to the person and figuring out the best way to say it. It’s also important to think about next steps and solutions so that the person can start recovery. A lot of what happens next depends on the person who struggles with substance abuse. However, the way the issue is raised can influence the results.

While it is often challenging to do, there comes a time when someone must step in and talk with a loved one about their drinking, drug use, and other habits that do not promote health and safety. Substance abuse and addiction rarely affect only the person who’s at the center of it. That person’s friends, family members, coworkers, and associates are also affected as well.

Addiction is known as a “family disease” because it often brings feelings of shame, pain, and stress to everyone. Relatives can also experience anger, betrayal, and a loss of trust in the person who’s using. It can be difficult to repair these relationships, but it is possible. Making the time to speak with someone is the first step to either repairing that breach of trust or keeping it from happening in the first place.

If you find that you are in the position of having to talk with someone about their substance abuse, here are tips on how to approach the topic. Before you bring up the subject, consider doing the following:

Learn about substance abuse and addiction. Before you approach the person, find out more about the substance use disorder that is affecting them. Learn about addiction and the factors that can cause it. There is a lot of stigma and stereotypes concerning substance abuse and addiction that stop people from getting the treatment they need. You will want to learn what those are and avoid them when speaking with your loved one about their problem.

You also may discover that you, too, have preconceived ideas of what addiction is or what leads someone to use substances in the first place. Remaining open as you learn can give you ideas about the best way to open up the conversation. There’s a great deal of information online about the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction and what to do when they appear. Understanding these areas will make you feel more prepared. Also, doing your homework may give you a better idea of where you want to start.

Timing your talk can make all the difference. Find a time to talk with your loved one when the person is sober, and you both have had some rest. Also, make sure they can be physically and mentally present. If the person is hungover or in substance withdrawal, your message will likely be lost, and your efforts may go unnoticed.

Keep in mind that people use addictive substances for various reasons. Among them are stress, anxiety, depression, and many more. Approaching the person when they are feeling uptight and indulging in substances is not a good time for a heart-to-heart talk. Attempting this conversation at the wrong time may also add to your stress, which will derail your plans to discuss the issue.

Be honest. Honesty may be unwelcomed at this time, but it is essential in helping your loved one face their substance problems. Speaking the truth is important, but it’s also vital that you show kindness and compassion when you speak to your loved one about their issue. The goal is to express your concern for the person’s well-being and persuade them to seek help. That said, now is not the time to bite your tongue and not say how you feel.

When you speak with your loved one, give examples of substance use you have noticed and how such use led the person to affect you and others. You can also share with them the consequences of their behavior, both to themselves and others. You also may want to share any boundaries you have in place and explain what will happen when the line is crossed. Everyone’s well-being matters.

Stay focused on the outcome. Be prepared for pushback when you bring up this subject with the person who is using. People who struggle with substance abuse are often defensive, defiant, and in denial about their problem. Despite this, you must still try to reach them so that they can see what’s happened and get help. Because you’ve done your research, you may feel better prepared for the backlash. Having those facts on hand can help you keep the bigger picture in mind. You may hurt when you rip off the bandage, but it is the start of healing and a new beginning.

Plan for the next steps. While you may not know exactly what the outcome will be, it pays to be at least one or two steps ahead of your loved one. Much of their response will determine what happens next. Come to your talk with a plan. If your loved one agrees to seek help after you have expressed your concerns, have resources on hand to share with them. Having these will help them see you’re serious about getting them to change. A list of places to go will also reduce the chances of them backing out with an excuse that they didn’t know where to go for help. You can give them a few 12-step support groups to look into, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, among many more.

There are also self-guided options your loved one can look into as well. These include SMART Recovery®, a free resource that uses a four-point approach in helping people work through substance abuse disorders, as well as other kinds of disorders that involve gambling, overeating, and other problems. This kind of resource is likely best for people who are either in the very early stages of substance abuse or dependence or people who are working through their recovery after completing a treatment program.

Serious or severe cases of addiction are best addressed with an effective treatment program. A facility equipped with a staff of addiction care and medical professionals can give you and your loved one guidance on where to go and what to do next.

Treatment Options and Help

It will take a great deal of patience to see a loved one through healing from problematic substance use and addiction. Ending chronic substance abuse and addiction takes a lot of time, and the recovery process will not happen overnight. It may even take a few years, so keep in mind that this is a journey for the long haul for your loved one and everyone involved.

That said, ending substance use disorders is not impossible. Addiction is a disease, and it is treatable with the right interventions, therapies, and medications. Getting outside help from accredited facilities that specialize in treating people with is an effective way to address this health issue. One key area of treatment is setting up a relapse prevention plan that can help the recovering person remain sober and give them a strategy to use to avoid using again.

Depending on your loved one’s situation, treatment can take place in a variety of settings along the continuum of care. These include residential and outpatient treatment programs. Medical professionals can help determine the best placement during the medical detox process, which includes a thorough assessment of the person’s physical and psychological needs. The most effective programs start with detox and encourage the person to enter a treatment program. While there is no set length of time for professional treatment, at least a month is required. Three months, or 90 days, is ideal. A longer treatment period can increase the success rate of recovery, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The right program can help them end destructive patterns and start a new life, one that promotes peace, wellness, and mindfulness. There’s no time to waste when getting help. You must get help for your loved one as soon as possible.

More than 14,000 specialized drug treatment centers in the U.S. help people with substance use disorders, NIDA says. With so many options, you’ll have to do your research to find the one that offers the right treatment.

NIDA offers a starting point for your search. It recommends that you ask five questions to consider when reviewing treatment program options. The questions are:

  • Does the program use treatments backed by scientific evidence?
  • Does the program tailor substance treatment to the needs of each patient?
  • Does the program adapt treatment as the patient’s needs change?
  • Is the duration of substance treatment sufficient?
  • How do 12-step or similar recovery programs fit into drug addiction treatment?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) shares what you should consider when reviewing treatment options. Its questions cover accreditation, medication, evidence-based practices, and more.

You can also help by reviewing your loved one’s insurance plan when talking with treatment centers and finding out what options are available if they don’t have health insurance. Cost is not a factor when it comes to treatment that can save someone’s life. Call the facilities you are interested in to hear about the options they provide. Cost arrangements can be worked out, so stay encouraged in seeking rehabilitation help.

Every moment and deed count as the clock ticks away. Do not delay in getting help for a person who’s grappling with addiction or substance use disorders. The faster they get into treatment, the faster the healing can begin.

Also, don’t forget to take care of yourself as well. Living with substance use disorders and addictions can be hard on everyone, even when they’re not yours. Make sure you have a supportive network of people who care and understand the unique struggles you face. It is important to reach out to your loved one, but remember that it is that person’s choice. You also have choices. You can support them, but take care not to enable them. They have to do this on their own.

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