How to Talk to Your Loved Ones About Treatment

By The Fix staff 10/17/18
A well-planned conversation can save your loved one’s life.
Two women having an angry conversation

First you might notice irrational behavior from your family member. Then, they might miss appointments or forget significant dates. After a while you might find that money or other valuables are missing.

Loving someone with addiction is exhausting and heartbreaking. Family members get a stone-cold sober look at how their loved one’s substance abuse is affecting their lives, and often feel helpless to make any changes. Traditionally, recovery communities have thought that you need to wait until someone hits rock bottom before helping them get treatment. However, we now know that a well-timed and thoughtful conversation can help encourage people with substance use disorder to get into treatment sooner.

However, it’s important to plan out how you will talk to your loved one about their substance abuse, according to the experts at Sierra Tucson, a treatment center in Tucson, Arizona, that provides a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach to treatment. Here’s how to have the critical conversation in a way that will avoid blame and hurt, and might encourage your loved one to get help for their substance use disorder.

Identify your most important message.

If you’ve been living with someone with substance use disorder, you likely have a long list of grievances and hurts. However, the conversation with your family member isn’t the time to bring these up. Instead, you’ll want to focus on the one most important message that you want your loved one to take away.

Before you start talking with your loved one, find a way to convey this in a way that is succinct and straightforward. You might say, “I am afraid that you are going to overdose and die. I really believe you need treatment in order to save your life.”

Be specific.

Once you’ve identified the most important message, think of a few specific examples that support your point. Delusion and denial are part of the disease of addiction, so having concrete examples of their behavior might help your loved one see a pattern. It’s important to focus on facts, not emotion. That way, when your family member insists that they are fine or in control, you can point out instances when that hasn’t been the case.

For example, if you believe your loved one’s addiction is threatening their life, point out times when they’ve been in danger. For example, you could say that they drove intoxicated, got into a physical fight, or had previous overdoses.

Separate fact and opinion.

When you’re considering what you want to say to your loved one, make sure that you’re bringing up facts, not opinions. You might feel that your family member is being childish, irresponsible or embarrassing. However, keep those opinions to yourself. Instead, focus on facts, like their frequent absences at work or delinquency on bills.

Remember that addiction is a disease.

Many family members are hurt and angry about their addicted loved one’s behavior. However, during this conversation it’s critical to be empathetic and kind, rather than conveying your negative emotions (there will be a time for that in the future). Remind yourself that substance use disorder is a disease, which is separate from the person who you love. Disconnecting the disease of addiction from the person can help you to sympathize with your loved one, who has had their life interrupted by this illness. Remind yourself that seeking treatment is scary and your loved one is feeling very vulnerable at this point. 

Stick to your points.

Many people with substance use disorder are defensive when they are confronted with the facts of their illness. Your family member might lash out, telling you that what they do is none of your business. They might turn the tables, pointing out your behaviors, or they might insist that they are fine.

It’s important that you stick to your main message even when your loved on tries to deflect. If they are angry, don’t engage, but reinforce your points with your specific supporting details. If they continue to escalate, walk away. Leaving the conversation is a better option than confronting your loved one with anger, which can just do more harm.

Be ready to act.

If all goes well, your loved one will be willing to consider treatment after you’ve discussed how their addiction is affecting their life and yours. It’s critical that you’re ready to take advantage of this breakthrough. Before starting your conversation, have a short-list of appropriate treatment centers on hand. Offer to make calls to treatment centers and the insurance company with your loved one in order to get them into treatment as soon as possible. If you don’t strike while the iron is hot, they might change their minds.

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