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A CRAFT Approach To Verbal Abuse

Physical safety should come first in all relationships. But even in the absence of physical violence, a Loved One’s verbal abuse can be painful and damaging. As with other complications surrounding substance use disorder, CRAFT offers a clear, straightforward, and proven approach to dealing with harmful talk from a Loved One. Allies’ Laurie MacDougall outlines the fundamentals.

Editor’s note: in November 2020, Allies in Recovery CEO Dominique Simon-Levine published a Position Statement on CRAFT, Meth and Violence for our organization. In June 2022, Allies member Kelly posted a follow-up question: “Is verbal abuse also considered violence in this case? Long rants directed at the Loved One?”

Allies writer and podcast host Laurie MacDougall responded to Kelly’s question in detail. The following is the text of that reply.

Hi Kelly,

Verbal abuse often comes along with a Loved One’s substance use disorder (SUD). Although it is not physical violence, it can leave emotional scars and be deeply painful, demeaning, and difficult to cope with.

If there is physical abuse, we urge you not to try implementing CRAFT. Safety takes precedence and is of the utmost importance. Domestic violence should be addressed before starting anything new. To read more about how to keep yourself safe when there is physical violence, please see our eLearning Module #2, which is dedicated to that subject.

Otherwise, I would strongly suggest heading right over to Modules 5, 6 and 7 to start building up a defense to curtail the negative impacts this type of abuse can, and probably already is, having on you. Learning how to set strong emotional boundaries, and to manage the distressing feelings triggered by a verbal attack, will benefit you and your Loved One both.

Bring on the boundaries

As soon as you start to feel some kind of emotional/physical reaction to what your LO is saying, that’s an indication that it is time to set a boundary. Press the PAUSE button. Step away. Use your communication skills and get space. What you say to your LO might sound like this:

I’m finding myself upset right now, and I’m going to have to get some space from this conversation. I’d only be useless at the moment, but I will come back once I’ve calmed myself down.

And then exit. With this approach, you’re doing three positive things:

  1. You’re using “I” (feeling) statements to express your emotions and not placing blame on your LO for your distress. You’re taking responsibility for keeping your emotions safe from the badgering.
  2. You’re modeling how adults handle difficult feelings: adults don’t engage, and don’t just let the verbal assault continue.
  3. You’re letting your LO know that what they have to say does matter, that you’re not just abandoning the conversation.I know, I know: your LO will probably not be all that happy when you don’t continue to engage. Heck, they are not used to the new you. People fall into particular roles and behaviors, and when one person changes things, the other has to respond differently and may not be comfortable with that. How dare you!

I know, I know: your LO will probably not be all that happy when you don’t continue to engage. Heck, they are not used to the new you. People fall into particular roles and behaviors, and when one person changes things, the other has to respond differently and may not be comfortable with that. How dare you!

We’re not talking 24-hour fixes

The point is: be prepared for the behavior of your LO to get worse before it gets better. You may have to leave the house, go for a drive or a walk. But the more you hold to this boundary by calmly and patiently refusing to engage when your LO is verbally out of control, the easier it will become. I have found that after about three times sticking to it I start to see progress.

Also be prepared for some backsliding over time. When that happens, try to go right back into healthy-emotional-boundary mode.

Don’t forget to care for yourself

The next thought is how to self-comfort and cope with your feelings when you do walk away from the verbal assault. This is where Module 7 comes into play. Module 7 teaches that when we are in the middle of a crisis with intense thoughts and emotions, the first step to healing is to let those thoughts and emotions in. Try not to push everything down; just let it be. There is a reason we have difficult feelings, even if the picture isn’t clear in the moment. The state of chaos is only temporary. You can’t (and won’t) stay in a whirlwind in your mind and body forever.

Once things start to settle, that’s the time to consider alternative thoughts and ideas. These are not necessarily “fluffy lovely” thoughts. They are more realistic thoughts about what you and your LO are thinking and feeling, and why. Here are some questions to consider:

What am I feeling right now?

  • Where is this feeling coming from?
  • What is motivating my LO to behave this way?
  • Why am I angry/sad/frustrated, etc…?
  • Is it helpful if I react to how I am feeling?
  • Is my LO doing this to me? Or is there a deeper cause?
  • Do I have to react or could I wait it out until I can gather my thoughts?

Continue to ask yourself as many questions you need to start to calm down and to have a more rational of view of the situation.

Give yourself permission to have these difficult thoughts and feelings. We are human after all. Maybe thank your feelings and thoughts because they serve a purpose and are an attempt at keeping you safe. But also tell them it’s time to take a step back and rest.

The more you manage the difficult thoughts, the more you lessen the intense, destructive feelings that drive us to react. As you calm your thoughts, your emotions are easier to manage as well. This will give you time to think through how to respond instead of react to your LO.

Pull out those CRAFT skills from your toolbox and get creative with a well thought out response to the painful verbal attack. Create an emotional boundary that will unburden your LO and their behavior as the force that drives how you think and feel. Instead become empowered to manage your own feelings, thoughts, and RESPONSES.

And don’t forget about the many support groups and resources available through Allies in Recovery. We’re here for you in many ways, Kelly. You are not alone.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)