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Why Open Communication Is Vital When a Loved One Is Using Substances

Keeping the door to connection open when addiction is involved.

Key points

  • Parents are likely to experience a rollercoaster of emotions when their child is struggling with substance use.
  • It can be hard work creating space for the child to feel safe and consider positive changes.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open instead of shutting the door is key and may help save a life.

The door opened, and out of the bedroom came my 22-year-old son… who, depending on the day, is the love of my life, the creator of a fear that crushes my heart, the inspiration for my (usually regretted) rage, the stimulus for jags of sobbing, and the cause of the simplest heart-swelling joy I have ever experienced. All in one person… amazing!

At that moment, as I watched the last episode of my favorite Netflix series, I wasn’t sure whether to give him my attention or not; sometimes he wants to talk, sometimes not, and I had been working hard at noticing the “communication lights” he might be showing: openness to talking or needing space at that moment so that we could connect more when we did talk.

But this was different: As I glanced over, I realized he was just standing still, looking at me, and then he knelt down on one knee as if he were going to pass out. “Mom… I think I’m overdosing,” was all he said.

This story, as relayed by a parent who had been working to help their substance-using son, was perhaps the best and worst moment of a parent’s life combined and encapsulates so much of what we know about helping another person consider change: the critical role of taking in and understanding their reasons for a given behavior (e.g., using substances), creating connection and safety, so they are more likely to step toward us instead of stepping away, having the capacity to notice ourselves in the process of helping, and taking the time to improve communication. Over the previous six months, this parent had been able to take their terror, anger, anxiety, and love, make room for all of it, and still do the work to create space for their child to feel safe and consider new paths forward. One of those paths turned out to be opening their door one unlucky night instead of leaving it shut.

The speed and look of change are different for everyone, every family, every situation, and every type of change. One size truly does not fit all, so getting to the place where change is being considered, acted on, and sustained… will look different with each person and family. But creating the conditions for change is something that can be learned, practiced, and developed, including allowing for many different paths to be taken. As our parent above said: “I spent the prior six months hoping he’d stop using, but also working to stay connected, understand his struggles, and give him more praise than grief. And when I reflect now on that terrifying moment when he opened the door of his bedroom, I only feel one thing: gratitude that, in that moment, he felt safe enough to tell me what was happening. I shudder when I think, ‘What if the door stayed shut?’”

Effectively encouraging change is hard.

It takes practice, failure, upset, practice, courage, allowing for hope, and more practice. And it is totally doable. There are evidence-based practices that families (and therapists!) can learn to create these conditions, allowing for increased compassion and connection, as opposed to disconnection and alienation. These important processes can be found in several evidence-based practices (CRAFT, motivational interviewing, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and the self-compassion work of Neff and Gerber) and are practices that can help families invite (instead of trying to demand) change.

We invite you to spend time with us here as we share these ideas and practices and hope they assist you in your loving and dedicated efforts to help facilitate change.

More from Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D., and Ken Carpenter Ph.D.
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