Are you worried about a friend’s drug or alcohol use? You can help them by being there for them and by knowing how to talk to them about it.
If you’ve noticed that your friend is using drugs or drinking more and it’s affecting their life, it can be hard to know what to say or do.
This might be one of the biggest challenges you face in your friendship and the most important thing is to look after yourself and get some support if you need it.
If you do decide to raise the subject with your friend, or maybe it’s a family member you want to talk to, these tips may help.
- Prepare yourself – Think about what you’re going to say. Prepare yourself to be as calm and positive as possible.
- Timing is everything – Try not to start the conversation with your friend when they are drinking or taking drugs. They won’t necessarily be in the position to listen to what you’re saying and take it all in. They might even react badly as their emotions are altered by whatever drug they are taking. Think about the best time and place to start chatting to them. Watch for ‘green light’ moments when they are engaged with you and seem open to talking.
- The practicalities – Try to use open body language, appear relaxed and uncross your arms and legs. Start the conversation when no one else is listening or able to distract you (unless you feel unsafe – then have someone in the next room or nearby). Talk side to side rather than face to face – ask them if they want to join you on a trip to the shops in the car, or go for a walk, or sit on a bench.
- Keep the conversation short – You aren’t going to sort everything out and help them with their problems all in one go. It’s more helpful to see this as the start of an ongoing conversation. Aim to have a short conversation and then pick it up another time. Perhaps once they know you are ready and willing to talk they’ll approach you next time. Aim to keep your sentences short and your language simple too. This will make it easier for your loved one to understand and absorb what you’re saying.
- Start your sentences with “I” – This helps you to say how you feel without making the other person defensive. Talk about how concerned you are – “I feel really worried about you.” Avoid sentences that start with “you” – “You’re a mess”, “You need to stop taking drugs”.
- Be patient – These are very early conversations. Allow your friend or family member plenty of time to think and to respond. Try to listen to what they say without judging.
- Be ready for a negative reaction – People often become defensive when their drinking or drug use is challenged. This may look like aggression, but it’s more likely that your friend or family member feels threatened.
- Back off if it gets heated – This doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Just say something like, “OK, that’s enough for today but please can we keep having these chats?”
Suggest they get some support
Make sure you know what support is available and have the details handy before you talk your friend. Our webchat is a great place to find info on the support and services that would be ebay suited for your fiends needs.
Get support for yourself
You’re in a challenging situation and it’s important to focus on your mental health and wellbeing. You don’t need to do this alone – there’s plenty of support available for you too.
Try to stay hopeful. Plenty of people manage to cut down or stop drinking or using drugs, so it is possible to turn things around.
Even if your loved one has cut down or stopped before and has ended up taking drugs or drinking again it doesn’t mean hope is lost, it shows that change is possible.
When to get them help
Physical alcohol withdrawal is a medical emergency. If someone is physically dependent on alcohol, it’s dangerous to stop drinking suddenly.
If they have any of these symptoms, speak to a doctor as soon as possible:
- Shaking, trembling or seizures (fits)
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
- Nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting
- Racing pulse or heart rate
The doctor will be able to assess their risk and suggest treatments to keep them safe and help them feel better.
When your friend is drinking too much or using drugs it’s easy to start saying negative things or blaming each other. Things can get heated pretty quickly.
These simple communication tips will help to keep your conversations calmer and more positive.
Watch and listen for green lights
Imagine there are traffic lights in conversations to tell you when to stop or go. The light is green when your loved one is engaged with you, willing to listen and be constructive. The light is red when your loved one is shouting, swearing, going silent or not listening.
Red lights are frustrating, especially when you really want to see change. But if you ignore red lights you may end up fighting, saying things you regret and not moving closer to positive change. If you get a red light, it’s best to let the conversation go. But let your loved one know you want to pick it up at a later time.
Ask open questions
Open questions are ones where there is no “yes” or “no” answer. For example, “What was the best thing about your day?” is an open question but, “Did you have a good day?” isn’t (because you can answer yes or no). Open questions encourage people to open up in conversations. They also help you understand what is going on for the other person.
Some open questions you could try are:
- What are some of the things you like about drinking/using drugs? (starting with positives can help to build trust)
- What things do drinking/using drugs get in the way of?
- What are the things that make you want to drink/use?
- What worries you the most about not drinking/using drugs?
Be patient and give your loved one time to think and to respond.
Use “I statements”
“I statements” are a way to say how you feel without making the other person defensive. They can help your loved one hear what you have to say and understand how their actions affect you and other people.
To use “I statements” build your sentences like this:
- I feel (say how you feel)
- When (describe their behaviour in a non-judgemental way)
- Because (explain how the behaviour affects you or other people)
Here’s an example:
- I feel really worried
- When you stay out all night
- Because I’m scared that you’re in danger
You can also use “I statements” to say positive things:
- I feel really happy
- When you’re at my house with me
- Because I like having you around and knowing you’re safe
Using “I statements” may feel awkward at first. With a bit of practice, it can become a natural part of how you talk in your family. Avoid using “I statements” when someone is drunk, high, coming down or hungover. Wait for those “green light” moments.
Sometimes the more you try to make someone see your point of view, the more they shut down. Listening has the opposite effect. The more you listen, the more people open up. Often when we think we’re listening we’re actually judging, disagreeing or busy putting together our response. The secret to listening is to do just that – listen.
Do your best to hear what your loved one is saying without judging them.
Helping them to eat and drink good food, relax, get through a lapse or relapse or access professional support are just a few of the ways you can help a friend when they’re struggling.
Drink and diet
Someone who’s stopped drinking may not feel like eating and drinking. Help them stay hydrated by offering them non-alcoholic drinks. Avoid coffee, energy drinks and anything else with caffeine, as these can make it harder to sleep.
You could also consider preparing healthy foods in advance, so there’s something ready for them when they do feel hungry. Adding in a multivitamin and isotonic drinks can help make sure they get important nutrients and minerals they might be missing. People who have stopped drinking often crave sweet foods. Fresh fruit is great to have around as it makes a healthy alternative to sugary snacks.
Help them through lapses and relapses
A lapse is when someone drinks after not drinking for a while. A relapse is when someone goes back to drinking regularly. Lapses and relapses are frustrating, but they’re a normal part of the process when someone has stopped drinking.
A single lapse doesn’t mean someone has failed. With support and encouragement, they can avoid a full relapse. If someone does have a full relapse, it might make stopping more difficult – but if they have managed it once, they can do it again.
You won’t always be able to prevent lapses or relapses. But you can make them less likely by knowing your loved one’s triggers: the situations that make them crave drink.
We all have limits when it comes to other people’s behaviour. You may draw the line at being lied to, for example, or being sworn at. These limits are sometimes called boundaries.
When you have healthy boundaries it means everyone knows where they stand. For example, if you all agree there should be no smoking in your home, everyone is clear and it’s more likely your no smoking rule will be followed. Healthy boundaries make our relationships stronger. They also encourage everyone to take responsibility for their own behaviour.
If your friend doesn’t want to talk, you can set a boundary by saying, it doesn’t have to be now, but we’ll have the conversation soon. If they completely refuse to engage with you, you will have to decide for yourself what your boundaries are and whether it’s detrimental to your own wellbeing to keep being their friend.
Find professional support
You and your friend don’t have to go through this alone: we can help you find professional support.
If your friend is not already attending an alcohol service, we can help them find a service.
You or your loved one can also get free and confidential advice through our webchat service.