How To Approach A Loved One About Substance Abuse Concerns

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Excessive alcohol use in the United States has increased by an astounding 21% since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, according to Massachusetts General Hospital, but the truth is that substance use and abuse have been normalized — and even glamorized — by American pop culture for decades. Moms gather to drink wine while their children play, wearing shirts that display messages like "on cloud wine" and showing up to kids' sporting events toting a water bottle labeled "this is probably vodka." No one bats an eye.

In a climate where it's considered more abnormal to abstain from substances than it is to use them, it's not easy to identify a substance abuse problem. It's even more difficult to speak up about your concern for a friend or family member. If your worries have been elevated to the point where it feels worth it to have that uncomfortable conversation, here's how to approach it in the most compassionate way possible.

Speak only for yourself

One of the basics when it comes to resolving conflicts or addressing emotional issues within close relationships of any kind is focusing on "I" statements rather than "you" statements. Statements that begin with "you" feel accusatory to the other person and lead them to stop listening and react defensively. Starting your statements with "I" and sticking to discussing your own feelings and personal experiences will make them easier to receive and encourage reciprocity (via GoodTherapy). For example, "you're getting so drunk that you're stumbling around and falling on a regular basis" sounds much more inflammatory than "I feel really scared for your health and safety when I see you stumble or fall from drinking too much."

Be careful not to speak for other friends and family members, too. Also, be prepared to use specific examples of behavior that have concerned you, but stick to the incidents you've personally witnessed or been directly affected by. Avoid assuming the other person's intent or motivation and present only your perspective. Remember, you're here to express genuine concern, not to be right. This can look like limiting your statement to "I was really hurt when you didn't show up to my baby shower" rather than "we were all really upset when you no-showed for Melissa's birthday party because you knew there wouldn't be drinking." While you're speaking, be mindful of your body language. Fight the urge to cross your arm or take on other defensive postures, as this can set the scene for an adversarial exchange, according to PsychCentral.

Be prepared to follow through

It's tempting to give ultimatums when addressing your loved one's problem behavior with alcohol or other substances. And there isn't necessarily anything wrong with giving one, as long as it's given for the right reasons, delivered compassionately, and, most importantly, adhered to. Never give an ultimatum you won't stick to in the heat of an argument or out of frustration. Empty threats only lead to enabling the behavior you seek to address, as detailed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

If your life is being negatively affected by this friend or family's substance abuse, let them know that in a respectful manner and then inform them that if they don't get help, your relationship will be changing. If you've been giving them money or housing them to help finance their lifestyle, be prepared to follow through and stop providing it. If you don't feel capable of continuing the relationship unless their behavior changes, be prepared to end it unless or until they've received treatment or made significant changes. Your follow-through could be what saves their life if it's presented with love and compassion (via the American Addiction Centers).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).