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Supporting a loved one

If someone in your family is using drugs, it can cause an immense amount of stress and conflict. It’s completely normal to feel helpless, frustrated, worried and upset. The person taking drugs might be acting very erratically – maybe they’re becoming aggressive, angry and violent, or withdrawn and detached, or both at different times. You might not know how to act around them, or how they’re going to behave when you see or talk to them. Their drug use might be affecting your whole family.

There are no simple answers or easy solutions, but the following strategies can help you talk to your loved one and start to work through the issue together.

What is drug dependence?

There isn’t just one type of drug dependence, but a range of degrees. It could be a mild dependency, or it could be compulsive drug use (often referred to as addiction), or anything in between. It’s impossible to say how long or how often a person has to use a drug before they’ll become dependent because it varies between people and between drugs.

It’s important to remember that the majority of people who take drugs don’t become dependent on them.

Know the risks

Learning about different drugs and their effects can help you understand the situation your family member may be in. It can help you weigh up the risks to the person using drugs, and the risks to those around them.

How you can help

Family members are often in a good spot to help people make safer choices about drugs, and to help them access support services.

If you believe that your family member is using drugs, try to stay calm and think about how to approach them. If you stay calm and respectful it can help keep communication open between you instead of them shutting you out. Verbal or physical confrontation with them will only make the situation worse.

Resist the urge to search their room for evidence, because it will probably do more harm than good. Creating an environment of suspicion and mistrust just makes it less likely that they’ll open up and be honest with you.

Instead of accusing your family member of using drugs, try expressing your concern about how they’re acting. You want to create the opportunity for them to talk to you about whatever it is that’s going on in their life.

Define the problem

This is hard, because it’s really a matter of personal perception. Many experts agree that a drug problem is not measured by how much, how many, or what types of drugs someone is using. It’s better measured by how that use is affecting their life, and the lives of those around them.

Share the problem

Talk to your other family members about the problem. Are they prepared to help address it? How? Having this conversation helps set expectations about how your family will get through this. It also helps create a supportive family network so that no one feels isolated and overwhelmed by the situation.

It’s important that those close to your family member who’s using drugs share their knowledge about what’s going on with each other. That way, you can adopt a consistent approach and prevent the person from taking advantage of those close to them.

Plan a good time to talk

Think about when and where you can try to have a calm conversation that is as free of distractions (like phones) as possible. Remember that if someone feels ambushed, they might be more likely to react defensively. You should also avoid having a serious talk while the person is under the influence of drugs.

Explain the problem

One of the most important steps you can take is to acknowledge what’s going on and explain how you’re feeling to the person using drugs. Talking to them probably won’t bring about instant change, but it’s a start.

They need to be ready to change before they’ll stop using. If you can keep communication open, then you can be there to support them when that happens.

Conversations like this are never easy, but these guidelines can help:

  • Explain how you’re feeling, and how their drug-taking is affecting you
  • Give concrete examples of their behaviour and how it makes you feel
  • Try to remain calm and logical, and stick to the point you’re trying to get across
  • Refuse to be drawn into an argument
  • Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements

Try  ‘I’m really worried about …’
Instead of  ‘You should …’ or ‘You must …’

 

Try  ‘I feel … when you …’
Instead of  ‘Your problem is …

 

Try  ‘I am concerned that …’
Instead of  ‘You’d better … or else …’


Ask calm, respectful questions like:

  • ‘What do you like about using drugs?’
  • ‘What don’t you like?’
  • ‘Where does that leave you?’

Try not to force the issue. It’s okay to leave the questions hanging there.

These suggestions may be easier said than done, but it’s important for the person taking drugs to realise why their behaviour is a problem and how it’s affecting their loved ones.

Listen

If your family member wants to tell you something about their situation, listen carefully and without judgement.

Allow and encourage them to speak in full sentences, without interruption.

When they’re done speaking, repeat back to them what you’ve heard and understood so any misunderstandings can be cleared up.

Don’t try to solve their problem – it’s their problem. Real, long-term change will only happen when the person takes responsibility for their actions and deals with the consequences. You’re not helping them (or yourself) by ‘cleaning up’ the mess they create.

Money matters

Knowing whether to give money to a family member who is using drugs is a complicated issue. You don’t want to enable their drug use but you also don’t want to see them in debt or resort to illegal means to obtain money from elsewhere.

It’s a good idea to give it some thought and make a well-considered decision. Whatever you decide will be right for you, as long as you don’t give them more than you can afford, or resent giving them money.

Set boundaries

You should communicate rules about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in your home, and the consequences of breaking those rules. Work out your limits, be clear and direct, and stick to what you say. Try not to include ultimatums that you aren’t prepared to follow through on.

Consider a range of treatment options

There are lots of different treatment and support options available. Look at different approaches, and consider the personality of the person who needs help when thinking about what might work for them.

Even if a person isn’t ready to stop using drugs yet, treatment options that focus on reducing the harms of use can still help.

Read more about treatment.

Acknowledge the small changes

It’s hard to stay positive when someone you love is struggling with drug use and the problems it can cause. But try to recognise the positive steps taken, both by the person using drugs and yourself, towards dealing with these challenges.

 

Get support for you and your family

This can be a very difficult time for everyone involved, especially if the person using drugs isn’t ready to change. Even when they do decide to make changes it can still take a long time, and there can be lots of setbacks along the way.

Remember that the person using drugs is the only one who can change their behaviour. What you can control is how you deal with the situation. Looking after yourself is a really important part of helping the person who is using drugs, and the rest of your family.

You don’t have to deal with it alone. Consider:

Talking with a friend

It’s easier to talk to someone you trust and are comfortable with. They might already know that something is bothering you. Talking about how you feel can help get things off your chest, clarify your thoughts, and help you work out what you’re going to do. They could even have been in a similar situation themselves, or know someone else who has been.

People are usually very happy and willing to help their friends, but often have to be asked. Your friends might notice that you’ve been upset but don’t want to pry, or might assume that if you want to talk you’ll let them know.

Talking with a professional

Talking with someone outside your daily life, like a professional counsellor, can help too. They’ve talked with lots of people in similar situations and can help you learn ways to cope with the problem and the stress it brings. You’ll find professionals with experience dealing with drug problems at your local community health centre, or at an alcohol and drug treatment agency.

Joining a self-help group

Some people join self-help or support groups to share their thoughts and experiences with other people who are facing, or have faced, similar problems. There are several types of self-help groups for family and friends, and each has a different style. Trying going to several different meetings before you pick one that’s right for you.

Having a family member using drugs might feel isolating and embarrassing, like no one else is dealing with these problems. Trust us that you aren’t alone. Many families have struggled, worked through, and recovered from their loved ones becoming dependent on drugs. Don’t underestimate the power of hearing other people’s stories of overcoming the same thing that you’re going through.