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Tips to cope for a family member of someone with a substance use disorder

Well, you see, he went through a divorce. And moved back in to living with me. And that thing was giving him stress. He has been sober for many years. But it was the stress you know. So, he started going out at all hours and it was like he never stopped. The ex-wife has said now he can’t see the kids anymore, his brother wants nothing to do with him. They just say, ‘he’s an addict’, ‘he is a waste.’ But I know he is not just that, he is so much more.
(Mother of a substance user)

It can be very overwhelming when a family member has a substance use disorder. But there are ways you can support them and yourself along the journey to recovery:

Tip #1 – Educate yourself.

The more you understand about what addiction is and how it impacts people, the more helpful and empathetic you can be. Learn about the specific substance your family member is using, and what the recommended treatment options are. Don’t blame yourself. It’s important to recognise that you are not responsible for your family member’s substance use disorder. Addiction is a complex issue with multiple factors at play.

Tip #2 – Express your love and concern.

It is important to let your family member know you’re worried about the impact of their substance use. Try express yourself in a loving and empathetic way. Whilst it’s hard to not be angry at them or criticise them, it’s important to remember that substance abuse is a mental health issue.

Use “I” statements.  When discussing their substance use, express your feelings and observations using “I” statements. This helps them listen without immediately getting defensive. For example, say, “I’m worried about your health and safety when you use drugs” instead of “You’re making me worry because you’re using drugs.”

Timing and setting can make a difference. Your chances of having an effective conversation are higher if you pick a time when your family member is relatively calm and sober. Be sure to pick a suitable and private space.

Tip # 3 – Strongly encourage them to seek professional help.

If your family member is serious about stopping their substance use, they will need to seek professional treatment, such as counselling, therapy, and/or a rehabilitation program. Offer to help them find a professional or accompany them to appointments if they need you to.

Tip # 4 – Understand relapse

A relapse is when someone returns to using a substance after a period of being sober. Be aware that relapse is common in recovery. Try not to view this as a failure, but rather a common detour along the pathway of recovery. Responding with support and encouragement can be crucial to them getting back on the path to recovery.

Tip # 5 – Set boundaries.

Whilst maintaining empathy and support for your loved one is important, your health and safety matters just as much. To protect yourself and other family members from the consequences of substance use, you will need to establish and directly communicate healthy boundaries. Let your family member know what behaviours you will not tolerate and what the consequences will be, should they disrespect these boundaries. If you set up boundaries, it’s vital that you follow through on the consequences, if the boundary is broken, otherwise your boundary setting won’t be effective. This is why it’s important that the boundaries and consequences you establish are realistic, so that you are able to enforce them.

Tip # 6 – Avoid enabling.

It’s important you identify things you may be doing that enable your family member to continue using a substance. For example, giving them money to buy drugs, or making excuses for them. Once you’ve identified these enabling behaviours, it’s important that you stop doing them, as this will ultimately be important in their recovery process.

Tip # 7 – Encourage a support network.

You can’t be your family member’s only support. They will also need to access support from a broader network. You can help your family member build/access a support system, which should include support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Tip # 8 – Seek your own professional support.

It is so challenging and draining supporting a loved one as they’re navigating the challenges of addiction, which is why it’s very important that you are also receiving support. Dealing with a family member’s substance use disorder brings up a lot of difficult emotions. It also often involves a lot of interpersonal difficulties between you, the loved one and other family members. Seeing a psychologist and/or attending a support group for family members of people with substance use disorder is recommended. The more supported you are, the easier it is to maintain your support for your loved one.

Tip # 9 – Develop a safety plan.

It’s helpful to have a safety plan outlining what to do in case of an emergency. The plan will help you if your family member’s substance use ever poses a risk to their or others’ safety. This plan should involve seeking professional help or involving law enforcement if necessary.

Tip # 10 – Remain hopeful.

There will be times when you and your loved one are feeling hopeless. By you holding on to hope, it’s a great source of strength for your loved one when they’re not able to do so for themselves. Remember, recovery is possible. Keep in mind that you cannot control their choices, but your support can make a significant difference.