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How-To Talk About Substance Abuse With a Loved One

Substance abuse is something that affects an estimated 1 in 7 Americans. And even more startling, approximately one person in the U.S. dies every 19 minutes due to an overdose.1 Substance abuse is no laughing matter, and because it affects so many people close to us it is important that we address the issue when we can. Let’s face it: talking about addiction isn’t easy, especially if you are worried about the person you suspect has a substance abuse problem, or if they are a peer in the workplace. However, if you are concerned that someone in your life is struggling with substance abuse you may want to directly confront them about it.

Ultimately, it can be intimidating to approach someone you care about that may have a substance abuse issue. So, follow these 5 tips!

How-to approach someone about substance abuse:

  1. Talk to People You Trust. Many times when you are facing something difficult in your life, it is a good idea to talk to people in your life that you trust the most. This usually includes old friends, family members, or even trusted co-workers. No matter where your closest advisors are, you may need to enlist their support in order to successfully prepare for the substance abuse discussion with the person you are concerned about. The goal of preparing your confrontation is to ease any stress you have over the initial resistance, or defiance.
  2. Consider Your Approach. When you need to have an open dialogue about substance abuse, you may need to consider your own feelings first. It is almost easier to prepare your mind for a confrontation, than your heart. So, don’t skip this important step! Start by making a clear distinction between your feelings for the person you want to confront, and their addiction. Then you can draw a clear line between their offensive behavior, and the person themselves. This is a much-needed protective barrier for yourself during a candid talk about substance abuse with anyone you care about.

Start by using phrases like, “I love and support you, but I don’t support what happens when you self-medicate, drink, or use drugs.” This type of gentle approach can help to ease tension, and stress during a confrontation about substance abuse.

Also, remember to try using only the facts as much as you can. For example, instead of saying things like “When you drink or use drugs, you act like you don’t care about anybody’s things, and you break my stuff.” Instead, try approaching this type of concern by saying something like, “I feel like when you drink, my experiences with you have been negative. I remember you drinking, and breaking things I cherished like my Mother’s antique vase, and it makes me feel scared, and worried when I think about it.” By using the word, “I,” instead of  “You,” you may be able to keep the dialogue focused on the person’s behavior, and protect your emotions more effectively if the person you are approaching becomes defensive, or angry.

Then, if you are able to avoid a negative reaction from them, you can ask the person if they are open to changing their behavior. You may say something like, “Are you willing to talk with someone about how this problem is affecting our family?”

If they say, “Yes,” you can help them schedule an appointment with a healthcare specialist that deals with their type of addiction specifically.

  1. Make Time. You may not realize it, but making the time to talk about substance abuse with someone you care about is important. And when you do, the talking also matters. So, don’t just jump into a conversation about substance abuse lightly. Make time not only to prepare, but also to create a comfortable place to have the talk about substance abuse – with time to spare!

Carve out a space on your calendar with enough time to allow the conversation to go where it needs to, without worrying about how much time it will take. It can make a BIG difference in the outcome of your confrontation.

  1. Have a Plan. Once you have prepared for a conversation about substance abuse, you will need to accept the fact that it could take on a life of it’s own. So, develop a comprehensive plan that you can follow during the dialogue just incase it takes a turn you were not ready to handle. During a conversation about substance abuse is NOT the time to just fly by the seat of your pants.

One way to develop a plan for what you are going to say is to practice the confrontation with someone that can help you play a role. They may be able to ask you questions as you deliver what you want to say, and then throw you off guard a little. This way, you can really know what will happen if the person says something in response to you that you didn’t anticipate.

  1. Watch Your Language. When you have something important to say to someone, you need to remember that every little bit can make a difference in the outcome. Have you ever considered just how frightening it could be to struggle with substance abuse? It can be pretty scary so, oftentimes people who are confronted about it may react with fear, or anger. One of the best ways to avoid this type of reaction is to be very calm in the way you communicate.

Here are a few tips:

  • Stay seated, and invite the person to also sit comfortably
  • Use a slow, calm tone of voice – and never yell
  • Use open-handed gestures if you tend to speak with your hands
  • Try to look them in they eye when you can, and always keep your gaze soft

Tips to avoid:

  • Aggressive postures including standing, shaking your fists, or pointing
  • Accusing
  • Backing away
  • Crossing your arms
  • Cocking your head
  • Profane language

Can Confrontation Help My Loved One?

Historically, many people have used the confrontation approach for addressing substance abuse in their friends, family, and loved ones. But that doesn’t mean that every talk about substance abuse ends well. So, follow these 5 tips on how-to talk about substance abuse with a loved one. Studies have shown that in addition to following these tips, you will need to express trust and caring to the person you are addressing. This can help them to know that you truly have their best interests in mind.2

Substance abuse confrontations can be positive when they are delivered with the right kind of support. If you notice any potential signs of substance abuse in a loved one in your life, don’t wait to consider talking to them about it. It could change their life and yours for the better!



  1. Josh Hafner. Surgeon general: 1 in 7 in USA will face substance addiction. Nov 17,2016.
  2. Douglas Polcin, Ed.D., Nina Mulia, Dr.P.H. Substance Users’ Perspectives on Helpful and Unhelpful Confrontation: Implications for Recovery. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2012 Apr-Jun; 44(2): 144–152.


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