How to Talk to a Loved One in Recovery

African-American father talking seriously to son

By Michael Desjardins, APRN PMHNP-BC, Psychiatric Supervisor

Loving someone in recovery is difficult. While you feel relieved that they’re sober, the fear of relapse may always be in the back of your mind. You wonder if they’ll revert to old, destructive patterns. You worry about whom they spend their time with and whether they’ll slip up if they attend that concert or go to that party. You may feel uneasy bringing up these concerns for fear of alienating or triggering them.

Here are some tips for effectively communicating with someone in recovery:

Start With the Small Stuff 

Begin with small issues and concerns and work your way up from there. Consider saving larger issues that may put your loved one on guard for a time when you’re with a therapist or professional who can help navigate the conversation. It’s imperative to set the ground rules and come from a place of trust when you discuss the “biggies.” Starting with the small stuff can be good practice for more difficult conversations.

Use “I” Language

“I” statements can diffuse a situation and help level the playing field rather than increasing a loved one’s defensiveness. Instead of statements such as, “You’re going to relapse, if you hang out with those people,” try an approach like, “I’m worried when you see friends you used to hang out with before treatment, because I love you and care about your well-being.” That said, sometimes the boundaries need to be black and white (while still using “I” statements), such as: “I want to be clear before you come home that there’s no place for heroin or cocaine use here. I love you so much and it really hurts to say this; but if you’re going to continue to use, you are going to have to do it somewhere else.” 

Own Your Feelings

Taking responsibility for your own feelings helps your recovering loved one feel less defensive and more open to discussion. Stay away from accusations or condemnation. For example, instead of language like, “If you do that, you will relapse,” say something like, “I’m worried about you. What can I do to help you through this time?“ Own your anxiety and anger and try not to project emotions onto your loved one. When we take responsibility for our own feelings and fears, we open the channels of communication, rather than creating conversation roadblocks.

Be in a Good Place Emotionally 

It’s hard to be objective when speaking with a troubled loved one because stakes and emotions are high. Save tough conversations for times that you feel centered, grounded and objective. Ways to feel grounded differ for everyone, but some activities to try include exercise, meditation, deep breathing, taking a walk, engaging in religious or spiritual activities, speaking with a mental health professional or attending a support group/family program.

Set Boundaries 

Establish ground rules before welcoming your loved one back into your home or re-establishing a relationship. Setting expectations for appropriate behaviors sets the stage for a healthy reunion and homecoming. It’s important to remember that the process of recovery can take months, even years to evolve into a solid pattern of healthy choices. Talk to your loved one about what works for them and express your need for honesty and accountability. If your loved one makes choices that appear to be placing their recovery at risk, talk to them about your fears and concerns. Also, let them know that you won’t support them, if they’re engaging in activities that compromise their recovery.

Try to Be Compassionate 

A person recovering from addiction is often leading a lonely life. They can feel alone in their recovery. People who haven’t struggled with drug or alcohol abuse may not understand how hard it is to change those patterns of behaviors that led to addiction. Often the best words from family and loved ones are words of love and encouragement. Help them understand you love them no matter what. The flip side is that if they do start using again, you love them so much you will not stand by and let them escalate into relapse. The hard part of loving a recovering addict is the boundaries that must remain in place; not only for their health and sobriety, but also for your health and well-being.

Don’t Be Their Therapist

Do your best to support and love them, but don’t try to be their sponsor or therapist. Counselors and therapists are the ones who should be providing treatment for those recovering. They’re specially trained in communication approaches and therapeutic interventions that can help motivate change without putting the individual on the defense. If the treatment center your loved one attended has a family program, make sure to take advantage of this resource.

See a Mental Health Professional 

Just the act of loving a person with an active addiction can be traumatizing. Taking care of ourselves and addressing unresolved issues with and feelings toward our loved one is one of the best actions we can take to support them. Using a professional/ family program as a sounding board for our hopes, fears and resentments makes us less likely to project those fears onto our loved one. It also helps us to be authentic in our actions and interactions with them, which supports honest, open communication.

Practice Patience

Recovery is a dynamic process that can be viewed as a “spiral up” or, in the case of relapse, a “spiral down.” Rather than a linear process, recovery can involve slips or even relapses before the individual establishes healthy, sustained sobriety. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and that means managing expectations, using healthy communication skills and making sure we’re taking care of ourselves.

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