4 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Struggles with Substance Use Over the Holidays (and 4 Things to Say Instead)

The holidays are a challenging time for many of us. This is especially true for friends and family who may be struggling to overcome addictions or with the unhealthy use of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. Below are ways to start conversations this holiday season that are more productive and are less painful to those struggling with addictions.

Use the following suggestions to get those conversations off on the right foot.

1. Rather than asking, “Why haven’t you stopped that already?”
Try this instead: “I can see that you’re trying to make some changes. I’m happy for you!”

For many people, recovery from using a substance is a long journey. Whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, or heroin, it’s rarely easy to change. Substance use is more than just a behavior that we can choose to start or stop. Substances have an impact on the way our brains work, forcing us to change our brain chemistry AND our patterns of behavior when we stop using them. This isn’t easy! If you have a family member who is trying to change their substance use, this may be a big challenge for them, and they need your support. Recognizing that someone is making an effort can have a big impact.

2. Rather than saying, “That’s disgusting.”
Try this instead: “I appreciate that you’re trying to cut back. Let’s catch up some more inside when you have a minute.”

Some substances can be pretty unpleasant. For example, not everyone enjoys the aroma of cigarette smoke. The loved one who is using knows this and they’re not trying to be disrespectful. If being around it bothers you feel free to move away, but make sure your loved one understands that it’s not them you’re moving away from, it’s the substance.

Substance use can be perpetuated by feelings of shame. Telling someone they are gross, or that they smell, or that they are a failure for still using will not help them to change their use. In fact, it can make that use worse.

3. Rather than saying, “You know, my coworker’s nephew’s neighbor’s roommate tried hypnotism / acupuncture / medication / therapy / dancing naked under the full moon and it worked great for him. You should try it!”
Try this instead: “How can I support you?”

There are tons of different options for treating substance use. There are medical interventions, evidence-based therapy practices, alternative medicines, peer recovery programs, and more. Unlike those ugly holiday socks, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for substance use. What worked for your coworker’s nephew’s neighbor’s roommate might work for your family member, or it might not. You certainly don’t want them to feel like a failure if they have already tried that hypnotism/acupuncture/medication/therapy option and it didn’t work for them. The best thing you can do is offer support for your loved one. It’s best to offer suggestions only when asked.

4. Rather than saying, “Don’t come over until you’re off of that stuff.”
Try this instead: “I want you to know that I care about you. Want to get some coffee?”

Maybe you’re really not comfortable with any substance use, or you have a child with an allergy to cigarette smoke. There may be any number of other reasons that you’re not ready to open your home to your loved one who is still struggling. It is possible to set a clear boundary and still be supportive. If the boundary means spending time together outside of your home, then that’s fine! Just be sure to follow through. If you say you’re going to get some coffee, then get some coffee. Show your family member that even though you don’t accept their use of substances, you still accept them as a person.

Want more information? Visit findtreatment.gov and nami.org for more resources for family members. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to The Center for Mental Health to learn more about the treatments we offer at 970.252.3200 or visit our website at centermh.org.