Anyone who has witnessed a family member or a friend struggling with addiction knows how difficult it can be not only for the addict, but also for those around them. Caregivers may feel overwhelmed and frustrated in their efforts to get their loved one to change.
If you know someone who has had substance dependence, you may have experienced one or more of the following situations:
- Keeping your loved one’s behavior a secret from others
- Giving in to the other person against your better judgment just to keep the peace
- Finding that the addictive behavior is taking over everyone’s thoughts and time
- Neglecting your own self-care while trying to be helpful to others
Often these situations result in additional problems and escalate to ongoing conflict, confrontation, arguing — and even violence.
“Research has shown that arguing and confrontation actually increases a person’s resistance to change,” says Dr. William Brock, a psychologist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “When we truly care about someone and feel frustrated and helpless to support them, emotions tend to run high. Conflict is common and this leads to resentment and resisting change.”
What can you do to help a loved one who is struggling with a substance abuse problem? Dr. Brock offers some tips from the perspective of encouragement rather than perpetuating the struggle.
- Recognize that you have rights in the situation. You have the right to say no and to follow your own values.
- Take care of yourself first. That puts you in a better position to help others.
- Recognize that it is not your fault. Although you are part of the family system, you cannot cause another to drink or use drugs. That is each person’s individual decision.
- Don’t try to communicate when the person is under the influence. Try statements like, “Maybe we can talk in the morning about what happened tonight.”
- Avoid nagging, scolding, arguing and other unproductive forms of communication. While the natural reaction is to yell at a loved one, it is counterproductive.
- Remain calm and use communication skills designed to increase communication. For example, you might ask, “What would you have wanted to do differently last night?”
Dr. Brock stresses the importance of finding the positive in the other person’s behavior, no matter how difficult it may seem. For example, you could say, “I'm glad you are thinking you would like to drink less at these family events.” Also expressing empathy — by restating what the other person has said — shows that you understand his or her struggle.
“If you are trying to help someone make a change in their life, think about ways you can set aside your own frustration while you listen differently and help your loved one move toward getting help,” says Dr. Brock. “Repeat and reaffirm any talk about seeking help or treatment.”
For additional guidance and resources, Dr. Brock recommends the following books: Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change; Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading and Threatening; and SMART Recovery Family and Friends Handbook.