Helping Others Help You

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Helping Others Help You

If you are a parent or partner worried about a loved one’s substance use, you are very likely stressed out! Not just by the horrors of substance use itself, but also from the questions and comments you get from others:

“Boy, I saw your husband last night… Yikes!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you… At Christmas Shayna looked so out of it, is she okay?”

“You know, your son doesn’t really look so good when he comes over to see my son John. You should know, I think he’s using something.”

“I don’t know why you put up with her! Why don’t you kick her out?”

If any of these sound familiar, you might be thinking, “Is it not bad enough to worry all the time about someone and suffer the stress of their erratic behavior, without having all these other people share their worries with me too?!” Fair question.

Usually people are trying to help, be compassionate, or show concern. Sometimes, however, the magnetism of gossip may overrule empathy – or people have good intentions, but their ideas are so rigid about what you “should” be doing that it understandably comes off as pushy or condescending. People usually have no idea the uncomfortable, awkward, and stressful position they are putting you in by these questions/comments. You may be thinking, “I wish people would just keep out of my business” and find yourself having a strong desire to push people away.

We recommend that you try to resist this urge as studies show time and again that social connections during stressful periods have a profoundly positive effect on physical health and mental well-being. When someone is showing concern or compassion, it is likely worth your time to find ways of engaging that person’s help and support even though it might not be your first instinct to ask for that support.

There are also ways to coach people into giving you the support you need. For example, sometimes hearing other people’s concern can feel like it’s your job to convey it all back to your loved one who is using substances. You might be tempted to share what others tell you:

“You know, aunt Jane was really worried about you at Christmas.”

“Your friend John’s mom actually called me to make sure I knew you were using drugs!”

“People keep asking me what’s wrong with you.”

“Uncle Pat thinks I should just kick you out!”

The problem with this role? It typically does not work out very well. In fact, there is a significant chance that you will be blamed for lying (“I don’t believe they said that”), or influencing people against your loved one (e.g., “you told them to say that”), or putting a more negative spin on what people are saying “e.g., “you are making a huge deal of things so why wouldn’t they?, they don’t really know me”). Your loved one knows what you think, so their assumption is that you see everything through that lens. The better strategy is to step out of the way and suggest that the person expressing concern, talk directly to your loved one. This way their feedback can have a greater impact, especially if it comes from several different directions. The outcome will hopefully be that your loved one has a greater awareness that the rest of the world notices the downsides of their substance use, instead of minimizing it when you give them the negative feedback. For instance, which sounds like it will have a greater impact?

Your son’s friend John tells your son, “Hey, I have more fun when we hang out and you haven’t been smoking first. I’m starting to get worried about you.”


You tell your son, “I think John isn’t hanging out with you anymore because of your drug use.”

While your opinion matters (research clearly shows this to be true), spreading around the responsibility for giving feedback can increase the impact on your loved one as well as decrease the stress and pressure on you!

Take those earlier comments and think through how you might respond:

“Boy, I saw your husband last night… Yikes!”

You could say:

“Well, that doesn’t sound good. You know, it would be great if you could talk with him directly about what felt ‘Yikes’ about it. It’s better if he hears from people like you who he respects.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you… At Christmas Shayna looked so out of it, is she okay?”

“There’s definitely a lot going on. You know, it’s always helpful if other people besides me give her feedback like that – otherwise sometimes she can think I’m the only one who notices. Have you been in touch with her yourself to ask if she’s okay?”

“You know, your son doesn’t really look so good when he comes over to see my son John. You should know, I think he’s using something.”

“Thanks for letting me know, I’m definitely concerned. Do you ever ask him directly about the things you see that concern you. I think it’s helpful when more than just me let him know they notice something’s up.”

Additionally, asking others if they could talk directly with your loved one about how they feel and what they’re seeing might decrease your stress in another way: you might gain a person to talk to and get support from!

And how about responding to “I don’t know why you put up with her! Why don’t you kick her out?”  It’s probably best to find ways to limit your contact and/or discourage their questions. Having a game plan for how you’ll be in contact with them or specifically what you can say (in your own words, that you think will be reasonable for you to say in the moment) can help you feel more in control. For more thoughts and suggestions on that, stay tuned to next month’s newsletter!

About the Author:

Nicole Kosanke, PhD

Nicole Kosanke, PhD, is director of family services at CMC, where she specializes in working with family members of people abusing substances and in the assessment process for families and individuals with substance abuse issues. Dr Kosanke has been working in the research and clinical practice of substance abuse treatment for many years. She has most recently co-authored a book called Beyond Addiction (Scribner, February 18th) that is a compassionate and science-based family guide for navigating the addiction treatment world, understanding motivation, and training in the use of CRAFT skills. These practical skills include self-care, positive reinforcement, positive communication, and staying connected in a constructive, positive way to help your loved one. In 2007 Dr. Kosanke was featured in an O, The Oprah Magazine article about her client’s experience in treatment at CMC, which was later published in O’s Big Book of Happiness: The Best of O.