How to talk to someone about their alcohol and drug use

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Talking to a loved one about their alcohol and drug use can feel uncomfortable and awkward. Many are afraid they are overstepping their bounds, or that bringing it up will hurt their relationship.[1]

While it’s natural to try and avoid the discomfort of addressing these issues with a family member or friend, the longer you wait to seek help for a substance use disorder, the worse the condition can become.

This information is designed to help you support a loved one in crisis by breaking the process down into small steps. This can help you think through how to communicate with your loved ones even if they don’t feel “ready”.

Every conversation counts. Think of the conversation as having four distinct components:

  1. Planning and preparation;

  2. Starting the conversation or an “opener”;

  3. Providing feedback; and 

  4. Exploring options together.

Every conversation counts. 

If your loved one isn’t open to the conversation, you may only get through step one, but that’s ok. Each of these discussions can help further the conversation and let the individual know that you are there for them.

Plan and Prepare

Think about what you want to say beforehand. The old adage of “think before you speak” is especially important when we are feeling emotional or worried about someone.  Managing your emotions and staying calm and compassionate is very important. You may feel anger, betrayal, or even shame, but being aware of how you are feeling and planning for the conversation in advance will help.  

It’s also important to consider timing. Find a calm moment without interruptions. Do not attempt to have the conversation when they are under the influence, when they are more likely to react negatively and less likely to understand you fully. 

Focus on showing empathy and listening without judgement.

The language you use around addiction is also important. Remember to avoid labels like addict, junkie, and alcoholic. Instead use phrases like trouble with drug use, or problem with drinking/ alcohol use. Problems and troubles are fixable and treatable; whereas labels make a person feel less than and blamed.

Starting the Conversation

Always begin the conversation with love and concern and try to avoid making any kind of accusations.

Starter talking points may look like:

  • I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking a lot lately and I’m worried about you.

  • I’ve noticed you’ve been using heroin again and I’m worried about you.

Listen and be patient. Make sure you give time for their response and listen carefully to what they’re saying.

Focus on empathy and listening without judgement. It is important to be mindful of your body language and tone, such as:

  • Staying seated

  • Using a soft, calm tone of voice

Avoid things like:

  • Standing

  • Crossing your arms

  • Pointing your finger or making any aggressive gestures with your hands

  • Using a loud voice or curse words

After you have started the conversation and are aware of your visual cues and body language, offer encouraging words, such as:

  • I want you to know that you are not alone.

  • It may not seem like it right now, but you can be in control of your life again.

  • I love you and want to help.

Provide Feedback

Once you’ve started the conversation, it’s helpful to provide specific examples. You can share your concerns about their behavior or your worries about their substance use and its effects on their health. Try to use non-blaming language. Do not raise your voice or get angry; instead share specific behaviors or incidents and how they worried you. 

Try and use pronouns like “I” or “we” to avoid making your loved one feel defensive. “I am concerned about the methamphetamines you are using.” 

Feedback talking points may include: