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First steps: How to effectively start helping a loved with problematic alcohol and drug use

By Tim Woodley

In this article, the Help Me Stop team will describe to you several key points that will help you act in a positive and productive manner during this challenging time.

If your loved one feels as though they’re being forced into something, they’re more likely to be resistant to it. If they do follow through under coercion, its often the case that their efforts have less real meaning to them deep down – a problem that makes lasting change less likely.

However, if the person in question feels as though something is their own decision, they’ll be much more likely to see things through. Remember, the goal of your conversations with a loved one with problematic alcohol and drug use is to help them come to the decision of accepting they have a problem that needs acting on.

With this in mind, here are a few key points to help you shape a productive, supporting approach.

Accept that you might need to learn about drug and alcohol misuse before you act

Drug and alcohol misuse brings with it emotions that can be extremely intense in the moment. Family members and friends, acting out of love and care for the affected party, can feel obliged to act immediately and decisively. While this is appropriate in principle, it often has unfortunate consequences and can drive the individual away from professional help.

Simply put, this is because the path to recovery – and the vital support of friends and family along the way – lies at first with learning. The concept of ‘tough love’ is an appropriate example here; when a friend or family member uncovers a loved one’s drug or alcohol problem or reaches a point where they can tolerate its presence no more without action, it’s common for an aggressive approach to be adopted.

In its own way, this makes sense at first; you may feel that the individual simply needs more motivation and that your forcing them to act will help. Regrettably, this often backfires, with the afflicted individual commonly rebelling against the very people they require comfort and support from the most. Worse still, ‘tough love’ often builds into the mind of the affected individual a more hostile, threatening view of treatment than is actually the case.

Practical steps on talking to and dealing with a person with problematic drug and alcohol use

So, we’ve learned that we need to learn more. That’s a great start on guiding your loved one towards recovery. With that established, here are some practical, short tips to consider.

Keep conversations generalised: Being open-ended rather than accusatory is important. Avoid attributing blame or putting them on a guilt trip.

Know when to stop a conversation: You’ll often find things will get heated. When this happens, calmly walk away instead of arguing.

Avoid criticism: While it’s understandable to want to criticise, it will do little to nothing to actually help them.

Demonstrate concern: Showing concern without judgement is soothing and supporting to a person with problematic alcohol and drug use. It shows you’re safe for them to open up to.

Don’t give solutions unasked: It’s all too easy to try and ‘solve’ a person’s problems when all they’re trying to do is vent their frustrations and feelings. Avoid offering solutions if you haven’t been asked to.

On the importance of boundaries

Clear boundaries will keep unintentional or intentional manipulation to a minimum. Be firm, but do so without judging their actions.

Being empathic does not mean you have to roll over and accept their behaviour, nor does it mean you have to enable their drink and drug use. Setting boundaries is key to creating strong relationships in all walks of life. Boundaries establish guidelines for suitable behaviours, responsibilities and actions. Drug and alcohol use can distort family roles, turning family members into caretakers, scapegoats, doormats, enablers and pleasers. Setting boundaries can negate these things and will stop them from taking root.

When your boundaries are weak – or don’t exist at all – you are compromising your own needs as well as enabling your loved one to “get away with things”. When you set boundaries with an affected loved one, you increase the chances that he or she will seek help.

Setting boundaries involves taking care of yourself, understanding your wants and needs, and determining what you don’t like, want or need. It also involves clear communication with your loved one with real consequences that you will need to follow through on – all of which is difficult to do if you don’t know what you are doing. If you are still unsure about how to proceed, it’s important to seek guidance from professionals.

We hope we’ve helped!

Dealing with a loved one’s problematic drug and alcohol use is never easy. The Help Me Stop team hopes we’ve provided useful information to you today. If you’d like to contact us at any time, please call us on 020 191 89202 or by email via our contact form.