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  • Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

How to Communicate with Loved Ones Who Have Drug Problems

Updated: May 8, 2020

Posted September 30, 2019 on Psychology Today.

You can rise above negative feelings, do some good, and keep the door open.

If you want to help a friend or a family member with a drug problem, the most important thing you can do is keep the door open and offer appropriate and much needed support. It also might be the hardest thing to do if you’ve already spent years trying to provide assistance, nothing seemed to help, and the drug use has had a negative impact on you.

The fact is, we can’t force others to change. But we can maintain a positive connection and provide a supportive atmosphere in which change could occur. The challenge is to rise above negative feelings and offer as much encouragement and empathy as possible. It’s a tall order when you’re feeling hurt and resentful. Though it is difficult, many people can uncover and access buried feelings of affection if they actively look for them.

It doesn’t mean all is forgiven.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do to repair the damage to the relationship. It doesn’t mean you are not hurt and angry. (Those feelings can co-occur with love and affection.) But it does mean that you stretch yourself and dig deep.

Here are four tips on how to communicate in a way that may actually work: 

1)  Avoid Negativity

For starters, bear in mind that people with drug problems don’t often hear kind words from the people who care about them. Usually, the focus is on character defects and what they’re doing wrong. They’ve been criticized and judged harshly with messages that are internalized and echoed in their own discouraging self-talk: “What’s the matter with me? How could I be so stupid? I’m such a loser.”

Most of the people closest to a person with a drug problem are fed up, and understandably so. They’ve felt the impact of the drug use. They’ve been living on the edge, absorbing the blows and waiting for the other shoe to drop. They may demand action, as in: “What the hell’s the matter with you? You need to quit right now.”

Their demands are typically followed by dire warnings about the consequences of continued drug use, and perhaps even a threat of retaliation: “I’ve had it with you. One more time and I’ll….”

But it’s like beating a dead horse. Most individuals with drug problems already know something’s wrong, even if they won’t admit it. They might even be contemplating change. But they do not need and do not benefit from more criticism, or warnings, or threats. It doesn’t motivate them. It simply fuels defensiveness.

2)    Use kind words

If you have a trace of affection and goodwill left, tap into it and build from there. If it’s all gone, then frankly, you can’t be helpful at this point. You should pull back, ideally without rancor or criticism because that would be detrimental to your own well-being and to your struggling friend or family member. A simple “I can’t help right now” would suffice.

If, however, you still have positive feelings, then you can communicate them by letting your friend or family member know you care and that the door is open. You can express support by offering affection, by saying “I love you” or in less intimate relationships: “I care about you.”

Try to “sneak in” compliments whenever possible. Express words of empathy and sympathy, such as “I see how hard this has been for you and I’m so sorry to see you suffer.” This shows you see the world from their perspective, and that you care.

It helps if you can take a holistic view of the situation that goes beyond a focus on drug use and includes an understanding of how the problem evolved. If you understand the causes and circumstances, you can be more sympathetic and feel your own hurt and disappointment without taking it personally.

3)   Offer encouragement

“You can do it. You have the power to change things.” This helps counter the harmful ideology of powerlessness that dominates thinking about drugs. Of course, people can overcome a drug problem; millions of people have done it. We need to believe in our friends and family members.

Remember that everyone with a drug problem has a back-story that explains their drug use. You don’t have to pinpoint the specifics. It’s enough to realize that what might have started as a pleasant escape eventually evolved into a dysfunctional habit. Also, by encouraging people to find other ways to deal with their issues and personal torments, you can help them visualize and create a better life.

Of course, understanding causes and circumstances doesn’t excuse anything. It merely explains the situation in a sympathetic framework that allows you to view the person you care about in the most positive way possible. It helps you find your “caring heart.”

4)   Show your desire to help

Say things like, “I’ll support your efforts to change.” This doesn’t mean you can fix things. The person with the problem has to make the effort. But it does mean that when the effort is made, you will provide back-up.

By showing you are still on their side, and still believe that they have the power within themselves to make changes, you are offering valuable support.  

Your communication won’t fix the drug problem, but it will eliminate the negativity of more criticism, which adds yet another stressor to someone already suffering from a drug problem. It will also eliminate any excuse for inaction (“I only keep using drugs because everyone is hounding me”) and provide a positive environment for change so that those with a drug problem can reflect on the situation without expending energy to hold off a barrage of pressure and criticism.

And it puts you on the right side of the battle, where you are building up—rather than tearing down—your friend or loved one.

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