Approaching a young family member you suspect of abusing drugs or alcohol
The other day a good friend wanted to know how to talk to her 25-year-old daughter, Sarah, about her drinking. During the big playoff game between the Seahawks and the Packers (now that was a miracle!), Sarah drank almost two six-packs of beer! Sarah’s parents were concerned and wondered if Sarah had a problem. They weren’t sure what to say to her.
A few days later, a parent asked me—“How do I talk to my 22 year old son, Bill, about his daily marijuana use?”
Anyone can develop a drug or alcohol problem. But how do you know if it’s a serious concern? Take the self-administered test by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-- https://ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/alcohol-abuse-self-test. The questions focus on how an individual is using alcohol, its influence on one’s life, and its effect on others. The bottom line—if the use of alcohol or drugs is having a negative effect on your life, you have a problem.
Family history is important. In Sarah’s family tree, individuals on both sides struggled with alcohol problems. Genetic loading for chemical dependency raises the risk of developing an alcohol or a drug problem. It’s an important consideration in evaluating your own drug or alcohol use
Binge drinking can be a major problem for young adults. The National Institute of Alcohol abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as 4 or more drinks in a two-hour period for women and 5 or more drinks for men—causing a blood alcohol level of .08. At 8-9 beers during a football game (3 hours), Sarah was binge drinking! In a survey conducted in 2012, 25% of adults 18 and older reported an episode of binge drinking within the last 30 days. Heavy drinking is defined as having 5 more drinks in one sitting on 5 days or more in the last month.
Marijuana abuse. Marijuana use, now legal in Washington, can become a problem too. Recreational users who smoke pot with friends from time to time are probably not too different than social drinkers. But getting stoned everyday (and sometimes all day) can negatively impact relationships and work.
Talking to adult family members about their drinking or drug use. Don’t bring out the sledgehammer for the first conversation. Most adults with drug or alcohol problems leave a “trail of crumbs” behind their use. They want you to follow the crumbs and encourage them to address their problem---and they also hope you won’t. They know that they have a concern, but they also may be ambivalent about taking steps to reduce or stop their use.
Be gentle, kind, and sensitive. Discuss what you have observed or heard, without making judgments or calling out the National Guard. Don’t ask them if they have a problem—this may elicit defensiveness. Instead, ask them about how their use is influencing them--“What are the positives about your use? What are the negatives?” By taking a more neutral posture, it enables the adult to respond more thoughtfully, and hopefully, less reactively.
If your family does have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, share this information and describe how family member’s abuse has changed their lives.
Frequently, your family member may have been considering “cutting back” on their use. They may want to try that. Be encouraging. They need to find out for themselves what they can or can’t do.
Be prepared. Identify local alcohol and drug abuse services in your area-- http://snohomishcountywa.gov/462/Alcohol-Other-Drugs-Treatment and have them at the ready. Keep a sharp eye and be prepared to bring this topic up again based on what you are observing. Timing is everything.
Take the long view. Recognizing that you have a problem and then doing something about it can be a process that occurs over time. Be patient, but be persistent.
Share your experiences and perspective on this challenging issue!