Popular television shows have done a bit of a disservice to those living with substance use disorders. The same goes for families of those with addictions. We grew up watching interventions play out on daytime television. These programs led us to believe that an intense, and sometimes traumatic intervention was the single reliable way to solve addiction. But, if you live with a family member currently battling their own addiction, you know a solution is not that simple.
Addiction can be just as hard on friends and family as it is on the person with the substance use disorder. Because few of us understand the genetic and environmental factors behind an addiction, it’s hard to know where to start with a healthy response. Until you face substance abuse, you might know very little about it.
What Does a Family Do in the Face of Addiction?
How do you support your loved one, while keeping the rest of the family safe? How much do you allow them to push your boundaries and break the rules, how much do you enforce them? How far do you let the situation get before letting go?
The emotional trauma families go through as they watch a parent, sibling, or child go through addiction is real. There are many conflicting emotions of guilt, empathy, sadness, and anger. While people living with substance use disorders need support to work through their disease, their families need assistance as well.
If you discover a member of your family struggling with an addiction, what do you do? Here are a few suggestions for keeping the family bonds secure while offering a solid base of support during this crisis.
11 Tips for Dealing With Family Members With Addictions
1. Join a Support Group of Peers
Just like there are anonymous support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for those with an addiction, there are groups geared towards families. Both Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are organizations which provide a support system for friends and family members of people with addictions. They both follow the familiar 12 step mandate and meet regularly. There are very likely groups meeting near you already.
Importantly, they offer guidance from peers, especially when you feel the most alone. Although you may not want to speak with coworkers, other family members, or friends about your personal experiences – these groups are well equipped to help. They have been through situations similar to yours, and have the tools to navigate this challenging period safely.
2. Devour As Much Information As Possible About Addiction
Power is knowledge, especially when it comes to addiction. There is a lot of misinformation out there about alcoholism and addiction, thanks to years of exposure to television shows like Intervention. Thankfully, there is a lot of freely available information available today, which can dispel the many falsities society believes about this disease. Head to the library, start Googling, or seek information from peer support groups.
Educate yourself about addiction as a disease. Learning the scientific reasoning behind why your son, daughter, or parent is continuing to act the way they do can help you manage your feelings and expectations towards them.
3. Manage Your Expectations
That brings us to our next point: managing expectations. Real life isn’t as easy as a single intervention leading to sobriety. Often it can take years of addiction for someone even to consider rehab as an option. It can also take many attempts before true sobriety transpires. Families must be prepared for a long journey or recovery, and several setbacks along the way.
The road to recovery can feel like two steps forward and one step backward – it isn’t always linear. Families should manage their expectations along the way. Managing your expectations reduces the pressure your loved one may feel and may improve the outcome. With appropriate expectations, you’ll mitigate future disappointments, deteriorating relationships, and reduce overall levels of anxiety and anger.
4. Identify and Reduce Enabling Behaviors
Family is family. In any normal environment, it’s natural to offer comfort and support during hard times. If your mother or uncle needs help in tough times, the family is there to help out. Right?
When it comes to substance abuse, help can hinder. It enables those with the disease to continue down their path of destruction. Indiscriminately giving rent money, rides, and other types of support can make it easier for them to maintain their addiction.
The first step is to list the number of ways you enable them. Then, to the best of your ability, reduce these support systems. This means to stop handing out money or paying for their cell phone. Maybe it means not bailing them out as soon as they get into trouble. No enabling is to give them space to understand the severity of their actions. Set house rules and personal boundaries, and do not let the family member break those without consequences.
5. Schedule Family Therapy
Family therapy for substance abuse includes the person with the addiction. Family therapy is about understanding how each member of the group works together. How do other’s actions impacts each relationship in the family unit? It’s a means of support in times of crisis, like if one member is coping with a period of addiction. Scheduling family therapy can keep the family together, on the same page.
Therapists help the family problem solve and help facilitate difficult discussions. These hot topics might not be feasible without an unbiased professional guiding them.
6. Seek Personal Counseling
It is equally as crucial for those immediately involved with the person coping with addiction to also seek treatment. Personal counseling can help individuals come to terms with the situation. A counselor can help you set healthy boundaries and learn to reduce the enabling activities. A counselor can help family members manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues which may arise during this period.
You need to talk to someone just as much as the person facing substance abuse does.
7. Regularly Schedule Family Meals
Regularly scheduled family meals help maintain a sense of normalcy within family dynamics. Although the member with the addiction may not always be in attendance, family meals help other members heal and strengthen bonds. It may help to make rules about allowable topics of conversation, to avoid dinner time discussions dissolving into arguments.
Providing a warm and safe environment for the person in question at regularly scheduled times is also a valuable method of support. A big family meal is not an enabling behavior. If your son, daughter, or father knows they have a hearty dinner and loving support available, it can mean a world of difference. Addiction can often feel lonely and unloved, so a family dinner is a great way to break those assumptions.
8. Keep Your Boundaries
Addiction breaks down families and destroys relationships. One way to help keep relationships healthy is to focus on your health and well being. On your own, or with the help of your counselor, find out what boundaries make sense for you. Boundaries are about keeping you safe so that you can provide safety for those in need. In the words of Rokelle Lerner, a speaker on addiction recovery, “What I value I will protect, but what you value I will respect.”
9. Provide Options for Rehab and Recovery
Forcing someone into change often doesn’t lead to real solutions. Your family member with the addiction will need to decide to seek treatment on their own. With that said, you can make the decision easier by always having options available.
That might mean researching treatment options, rehab facilities or support groups for them. If you provide an array of possibilities, at regular intervals, eventually one may stick. Don’t feel disappointed if your loved rejects the first dozen attempts. Keep offering help and treatment plans in a non-threatening manner.
10. Be Consistent in Your Approach
One of the most important suggestions for dealing with a family member with addiction is always to stay consistent. If you create house rules, stick to them. If you threaten consequences for breaking said rules, keep them. IT very clearly can be hard to watch someone you love struggle with an addiction, but the only way they will seek help is by understanding there is no support for their behavior.
11. Approach the Situation from a Place of Love
Perhaps the most important, yet most challenging tip on the list is the last one. As much as you can, always treat the person with love and respect. After all, you want to encourage them to seek treatment and overcome their disease. Punishment and anger solve nothing. No matter what happens during the worst of their addiction, continue to approach the situation from a place of love. Your love and support are essential to them, even if their actions do not show it.
In the words of Sam Fowler, the young speaker in the TED Talks video at the top of this article, “Addiction is more dangerous for family members, than for the addict themselves.” As she explains, in the worst moments of someone’s addiction, they are numb.
The family surrounding them, dealing with the outburst, is sober. They are the ones genuinely managing emotional trauma and situational turmoil. It’s vital to create safe spaces for the family during these periods of crisis and find support networks to lean on to stay healthy and connected.