7 Ways to Communicate Better With A Loved One Struggling with Substance Use

loved-one-struggling-with-substance-use

Working through addiction and substance is very challenging for the individual, and has a big impact on friends and loved ones, as well. It can be difficult to know what to say to a loved one who is struggling and how exactly to show your support.

Today we are grateful to hear from Erica Lubetkin, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, about her 7 tips to communicate better with a loved one who is wrestling with substance use or addiction.


circle headshot for blog.png

About the author: Erica Lubetkin is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in private practice in New York City. She works with individuals, couples and families who struggle with anxiety, depression and addiction. Erica works with clients to learn coping skills and gain deeper meaning and purpose. She received her Master’s in Mental Health Counseling from the City College of New York and has additional training in behavioral therapies including CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training.) Erica is also a Coach at @wethevillage.co where she co-facilitates weekly online gatherings with @janepollymacky on various CRAFT skills. If you’d like to connect with Erica, check out her social @ejltherapy or email her at ejltherapist@gmail.com.


Supporting a loved one struggling with substance abuse can be really challenging.

If you are supporting a loved one who is struggling with substance use, or know someone who is, it’s important to know that you can be a huge factor in helping your loved one make positive changes in their lives. There are many skills that can help facilitate this, which you can find at WeTheVillage.co (@wethevillage.co), an online platform for family members and loved one’s supporting someone with substance use.

I run weekly meet ups with the founder Jane Macky based on the CRAFT methodology (Community Reinforcement and Family Training). At the core of all these skills is a necessity to learn how to communicate in an effective way that will be heard. The meet ups are equal parts skill building plus sharing and support. We know it can be lonely to help a loved one who is struggling, so in providing community, we hope to be able to help you take the right next steps and tools for action. There are evidence-based answers and we are making that knowledge more accessible!

A little bit more about the importance of communication 

From a young age, we are conditioned by our surroundings to communicate our needs in a specific way. Or, perhaps, we were brought up in an environment where we weren’t free to share our needs, experiences, or concerns. No one ever really sits us down and teaches us the best ways to communicate with others, so in life we tend to wing it, go with our gut, or shy away from communicating all together. Now, when dealing with something as intense as addiction and thinking about communicating in that context: it can usually be fueled with intense emotions, yelling, defenses, anger, and rarely leads to anything positive. That’s why it’s so important to learn and practice these 7 Tips for Positive Communication. They will not only help you get through to a loved one who is struggling, but they will help you in every aspect of life.

At the core of every relationship is communication. If we can’t tell each other what we need, what we want, how we feel, as well as what we appreciate about each other, change is unlikely to occur. When we communicate with our loved ones in a positive way, we’re more likely to get what we want. Positive communication is contagious and as you learn how to communicate effectively, your loved one will begin to learn as well. It will open the door to more satisfaction for YOU in other areas of life as well (like social support).

Before having a conversation with a loved one struggling with substance use, it’s important to ask permission to have a conversation. This allows the other party to play an active participatory role in the dialogue versus a passive recipient. Ultimately, this lowers defenses as well. 

7 Positive Communication Skills to Help a Loved One With Substance Use

1. Be brief

By keeping it short, you get your point across more effectively. If you go in with a long monologue, you’ll likely lose your main point. The briefer the better.

2. Be positive

Even though it can be difficult, try to look at the positive side of a situation.

Instead of “I hate it when you drink,” you may want to try “I love being with you when you’re sober.” Being positive can also refer to keeping the conversation open and going – creating an open dialogue with open-ended questions. If you ask, “Did you drink today?” you’re likely to get a yes or no response. If you ask “What did you do after work today?” it leaves room for more information sharing which is positive communication.

3. Be specific and clear

Concentrate on one area.

Before you have the conversation, be clear about what you want to focus on. If you say “tidy up,” that’s not specific enough. Really narrow it down to something very tangible, such as, “please put your dirty clothing in the laundry basket.” The more specific, the more likely it will get done. Think of this like small attainable goals. Yes, we may want the main goal to be tidying up, but in order to get our loved ones to be motivated and gain momentum, it’s better to start with smaller, tangible, specific asks.

4. Label your feelings

“I feel…”

Speak in the “I” when labeling your feelings. For example, “I feel anxious when you don’t answer your phone.” See how that differs from saying, “You make me so anxious,” which puts the responsibility of our feelings onto the other person – leading to them feeling even more ashamed or guilty.

5. Offer an understanding statement

For example, "I understand why…” or “I know that sometimes my reaction to your drinking is filled with anger, which isn’t helpful. Let’s work together to solve this.”

6. Accept partial responsibility

Taking some ownership in the past communication breakdown lets your loved one know they’re not the only one at fault.

For example, “I know that this is partly my fault because...”

7. Offer to help

“I’d like to…”

Make a list of possible ways they can manage stress that don’t lead to excessive drinking. For example, “I’d like to help by signing us up for yoga after work and we can go together” or simply, “How can I help?”

A helpful tip is to write out what you want to say before you say it, and go through a role-play either with another family member, a therapist, or a friend. Switch who plays who. Sometimes if we role-play as the receiving party, it can be very helpful! Rehearse and revise as needed.


Keep in Touch

We hope these tips have been helpful for you in understanding ways to communicate with a loved one who is struggling with substance use. We know this topic can be challenging and we are here to help. To see Erica talk through these tips, check out our Instagram stories (and highlights on this and other topics) @findmywellbeing. Email connect@mywellbeing.com with any questions, or share your therapist preferences to get started with your own therapist today.

What topics do you want to hear about most? We’d love to source experts to share more perspective with you. Let us know at connect@mywellbeing.com.


Connect with your therapist match today

We make the therapist search process easy, fast, and personalized.
Get started today by sharing your preferences in our brief, confidential questionnaire below: