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How To Start a Conversation About Addiction With a Family Member

How To Start a Conversation About Addiction With a Family Member

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Nearly 20 million individuals and their families are affected by addiction or substance use disorders every year. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution for helping a loved one who is struggling, research shows that family support can play a major role in helping a loved one navigate recovery.

But before you can support a loved one through the recovery process, you have to initiate a delicate – and often difficult – discussion about what they’re going through. Here are some tips on how to start this conversation with a family member.

1. Equip yourself with a basic understanding of addiction 

Before you begin a conversation with a loved one, it can help to educate yourself about substance abuse disorders and other forms of addictive behavior. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic brain disorder. And the Cleveland Clinic affirms that: “Addiction doesn’t happen from having a lack of willpower or as a result of making bad decisions. Your brain chemistry changes with addiction.”

It can also be helpful to understand the signs and symptoms, the potential underlying causes, and the available treatment options. This knowledge will not only help you approach the topic with confidence, but also enable you to provide informed support to your family member and suggest next steps in the recovery process. 

2. Choose the right time and place

Timing and environment are important factors when discussing sensitive issues like addiction. Choose a time when both you and your family member are calm and free from distractions, and consider when your loved one may be most receptive to your questions. 

You should also opt for a private setting where your family member feels comfortable sharing, and avoid locations that could trigger negative emotions or bad memories (e.g. for some, a childhood home will feel safe, for others it may cause agitation or stress). Also consider going for a walk or engaging in a low-effort activity during the conversation as this can keep tensions at bay.

3. Express concern and empathy

Start the conversation by expressing your genuine concern and empathy for your family member. Using "I" statements to convey your feelings without placing blame or judgment is often a good strategy. This can also help show that you are there to assist them rather than tell them what to do. For example, you could say, "I've noticed some changes in your behavior lately, and I'm worried about you" rather than "You're behaving irresponsibly, and it needs to stop." Asking questions about how they’re feeling and what you can do to help can also lead to a more productive conversation.

4. Focus on behavior, not character

When discussing addiction, it's important to separate the behavior from the individual's character. Avoid labeling or stigmatizing your family member, which can push them away or cause resentment, and instead focus on specific actions that you've observed. This helps place emphasis on the fact that they are dealing with a disease that is influencing their actions, not that they are behaving this way by choice. Be clear and honest about how their behavior is impacting their own life and the lives of those around them. 

For example, statements like “Over the last year, we’ve noticed you’ve been more distant than usual from your family and friends,” or “When you’ve been drinking, you seem to raise your voice more at me and your mother, and it really upsets us,” are likely more effective than “You should spend more time with your family instead of drinking so much” or “I don’t know why you have to be such a jerk to us, what’s your problem?” 

5. Listen without judgment

Engaging with a loved one and acknowledging their experiences is critical to building a supportive relationship. Give your family member the space to share their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment. Shame can play a huge role in how those dealing with addiction tell their story, so it can take time to build the sense of trust needed for them to be open about their experience. You can do this by maintaining eye contact, gently asking follow-up questions, and offering supportive responses that convey a genuine sense of understanding like “I can’t imagine going through that, that sounds really difficult.” Avoid interrupting or jumping to conclusions, and instead, strive to fully understand their perspective.

6. Offer resources and your support 

Let your family member know that they are not alone and that you are there to support them in their recovery journey. Encourage them to seek professional help and provide information about available resources such as support groups, counseling services, or treatment programs. Offer to accompany them to appointments or meetings, or ask them if there’s someone else they’d feel comfortable going with them. While they may not be receptive to these options right away, it’s important to offer consistent reminders about these resources in a respectful way – it can take time for someone to be open to professional help.

7. Follow-up and stay engaged

After your initial conversations, continue to follow up with your family member regularly. Check in on their progress, offer encouragement, and provide ongoing support as needed. Be patient and understanding, recognizing that recovery is a personal journey for them that may have hurdles and setbacks along the way.

8. Seek out your own support network 

Families with loved ones navigating addiction and recovery can often benefit from connecting with people who are going through (or have been through) similar situations. It can be especially helpful to seek out relevant books, online resources for families, or join a support group like Al-Anon or the NAMI family support group

Are you already supporting a loved one in the recovery process? Learn more in this article about how to support them through their successes and setbacks in their journey.

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