If you loved one is using substance in a way that is causing them problems and negatively impacting your family, you probably just want them to stop! You wish they would get their act together and cut it out. Or you are completely confused and scared by the choices they are making. Or nine million other feelings that are perfectly understandably.

When thinking about the problem, most family members focus on that decreasing, stopping, or “suppressing” problematic behaviors. This is a very natural response to problematic behaviors. When you see something you don’t like, you want to make it stop! It makes sense that our first response would be to target what we don’t like and work to eliminate it. The problem that arises is that it is very hard to get rid of behaviors like that! Your loved one’s use makes sense, to them at least, and they get something from using. Simply stopping a behavior also stops the reward, which is very difficult for people. We need another way.

That “other way” is to focus on the behaviors you would like to see – the behaviors that you would like to take the place of the ones you would like to reduce (substance use, fighting, shutting down, spending etc). For example, if your partner avoids talking to you at home because of past arguments; a healthy alternative would be to try and have a conversation about a topic they have tried to raise in the past or something that interests them. Talking to you is the opposite of sitting in the other room having a drink and, if the conversation goes well, it may open the door for more engagement and reduced drinking. Similarly, if your friend is constantly going outside to smoke cigarettes because they are anxious, you might suggest going to a yoga class with them with the hope you can support the use of a different coping strategy.

Focusing on the behaviors you want to see, instead of the ones that you want to get rid of, is helpful in many ways. First, it may be difficult to convince someone to stop doing something that they find rewarding or are ambivalent about. Focusing on adding something else into their lives may be more palatable for them. A core part of behavior change is adding new behaviors, not subtracting out or erasing old behaviors. It is very difficult, and often impossible, to erase old behaviors. Reinforcement is the way new behaviors get added. Second, when you focus on behaviors you want to see, those behaviors start to compete with drug and alcohol use which helps build a foundation for longer term change.

When you’re thinking about how to help your loved one change, think less about the behaviors you would like to see them change and instead identify a specific, alternative, healthy behaviors you would be willing to support. The more you can focus on reinforcing a new behavior, the more likely they will be able to change.