I Want to Talk to My Son About His Substance Use, But I Don’t Know How
An AlliesinRecovery.net member asks us for guidance about when, and especially how, to raise the subject of her son’s substance use. Allies Director Dominique Simon-Levine reviews the key question to ask first—Is my Loved One using now?—and how using the CRAFT approach can help you answer it and take the next steps.
This question originally appeared on our “Pose a Question” blog for members of AlliesinRecovery.net.
“Thank you for all you do. I have been using your site for some time and have appreciated the guidance, the CRAFT educational groups, and the blog postings. I have been through the CRAFT eLearning modules, and I love listening to the “Coming Up For Air” podcasts. Everything is so helpful. When listening to the podcasts, I have picked up so much information that goes along with the modules.
In one of those podcasts, there are good discussions about disengaging with your loved one when they’re using and engaging when they’re not using. From the podcast, it is obvious that, like me, many people have a hard time knowing when their loved one is definitely using, although sometimes it’s very clear-cut. What I am experiencing with my loved one is that he may be using early in the evening, but by the time he gets home later at night, it really is difficult to tell.
I have been assessing his level of engagement with me and am still finding it difficult. I am trying not to get too caught up in it, but it can be tough to know when exactly I can reward and when to pull away. He has done nice things when I think he might be high, and he does nice things when he isn’t. But I’ve also seen the side of him that no mother wants to see—he has been belligerent, money-seeking, and likely withdrawing. I also see that his mood elevates before be goes out some days, so that may be a precedent, but his mood seems pretty stable as of late. I recall what Dominique said in one of the podcasts about the maintenance level, so I suppose that could be happening.
I have been using CRAFT tools for months and they have helped me in the way I see this situation. It is challenging at times because I am the only one in our home that practices this method. My son knows that I am aware of his use, yet he still avoids the subject with me. He does not want to talk about it, but I am feeling a vibe that his avoidance may be a way to protect me as he doesn’t want to hurt me. My relationship with him has always been good, and I am his target when things go wrong…not uncommon I think!
I would like to know if anyone has any tips on when to engage the loved one about drug use. It seems when my loved one is not using and in a great space, the focus is on positive reinforcement and good conversation. It is very hard to bring up substance use when things are going well. Are there any suggestions you could give on how to broach those more difficult conversations? Examples of when to do so? I have heard in several podcasts that being positive and easy on yourself is a great thing, and that that doesn’t mean there won’t be any hard conversations. But when is the best time for them? I would love to hear some stories or examples of how other people approach talking about use, and what worked best. I appreciate that everything is individual, and one size does not fit all.
Thank you again for all you do.”
Welcome to the site. It sounds like you are finding the information on our site helpful with your son, and it’s good news that his mood is more stable. Still, you’ve identified two places that are difficult for you with CRAFT. Thanks for sending in your questions; they are two “biggies”.
Are they using? It’s not always easy to tell
You are not the only one to have trouble telling where the line is between use and non-use. It would be nice if it were black and white, but that is almost never the case. Being falling-down drunk is clear, but “just maintaining” vs. “being high” on heroin can be hard to distinguish. For instance, your loved one maintains by taking a Suboxone strip bought on the street when he goes to work to avoid getting high, craving, or withdrawal. You have decided to consider that maintaining with a Suboxone strip as non-use. You will want to behave and communicate differently when you assess your loved one is not using in the moment. Let me explain.
The exercises in our eLearning CRAFT Module 3 “What’s Going on when my loved one uses?” are there to help you build a practiced eye. I would go through them again, and then review what you wrote.
Some examples of the signs of substance use: their eyes look different; facial expression; style of dress; how they walk or talk; behavior; mood; what they say; how they smell. There may be other signs you note as well.
How has it changed? You’ve been watching him through the CRAFT lens for a while now. You recognize the mood shift up before he goes out: is that enough to say that those are the occasions when he uses early and comes home late? You say it is hard to tell when he comes home late. Without asking your son if he has been using, answer this question:
Has your son been using on the nights when you see his mood go up before going out, and he stays out late? Add in your instinct, your experience, and your answers from Module 3.
Instinct, experience, and CRAFT guidance can get you there.
Consider rewards, disengaging, and allowing natural consequences
While it is almost never black or white, perhaps you answer YES with 60% confidence that your son is using. You are only 60% sure, but you need to behave and communicate like you are 100% confident he is using (our eLearning CRAFT Module 6, “My Loved One is Using Right Now: Now What?”).
If Yes: Remove rewards, allow natural consequences, and remove yourself (we discuss all of this in Module 6).
It’s important to emphasize here that you limit your punishment to the removal of rewards, and not stepping in and fixing things when their use is going to have a consequence in their life.
If he’s using, don’t fix him a meal, or sit and watch TV together, or act like he isn’t high and everything is alright.
We’ve discussed “natural consequences” in other blogs, so you can search on that (in our member site or on our public site). One example would be, if he loses his cell phone because he was using, don’t automatically replace it. You’ll want to distinguish between dangerous consequences and other natural consequences, of course. We give examples of this elsewhere.
If No: Reward (We discuss this in our eLearning CRAFT Module 5, “My Loved One Isn’t Using Right Now, Now What?”)
The 4 characteristics of a reward:
- pleasurable to your Loved One;
- free or affordable;
- can be given immediately;
- something you are willing to give.
This can be something like a dessert, a favorite food, a video game, flowers, music, tickets to an event, a musical instrument, clothing, sports equipment, a membership to a gym, a book, candy, jewelry, or something else. Your company can also be a reward.
Going back to Module 3 and working through the exercising after a couple months have passed is always a good idea. You will see how much you’ve learned just by building that practiced eye.
When to talk, and what to talk about
The other question has to do with when to talk to your Loved One about the drugs. Ideally, the only time you should need to talk about drugs is when you are requesting something from him, like staying away from the house when high or suggesting treatment. Talk of treatment or drugs is done carefully, semi formally, rarely. It’s a serious request to your loved one, and we explain it in our Exercise 21 in our eLearning CRAFT Module 8, “How Do I Get My Loved One Into Treatment?”
Here are the important elements of that CRAFT exercise for how to talk with your loved one:
- Remember, what you prepare to say can be said in response to a “wish” or a “dip” (see our recent blog post with a refresher on what we mean by a “wish” or a “dip”) by your loved one, or when they mention needing help. Your response can also be given more formally, say, around a table in a planned way at a time of your choosing. We discuss this kind of “planned conversation” in our eLearning Modules as well.
- First, show compassion, praise, or somehow recognize the attempts your loved one has been making to improve their life. Start with an “I” statement, like, “I know you’ve been struggling; I’m so proud of you for cutting back on weekdays,” or something similar.
- Next, own your part. “I know I’m the one who has been pushing for you to do something about your drinking/drug use/anxiety/depression…”
- Say how it makes you feel. “I feel so overwhelmed by what is going on with you; I am so scared for you.”…
- Offer to help. “I have this list, I have the name of a counselor, I have a few options…can we look at them together?”
Also see our eLearning CRAFT Module 8 for how to talk about drugs and treatment. There is a segment “Unpacking the World of Treatment” that gives you a primer on the kinds of treatment options out there.
Module 8 comes at the end of the eLearning Modules but is worth listening to at any point. By watching the videos in the module, you’ll get a concrete idea of how to engage your loved one into treatment and recovery work.
The only other time you might mention drugs is when you see your loved one high. If you can talk about drugs without setting off your loved one, you might say:
“I see that you are high, so I am going back to my room to read. Good night. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Many people find that talking about the drug does set off a fight, or a defense or denial, or all three. If you think it might in your son’s case, you might say instead:
“Glad you’re home safe. You don’t look well. Talk tomorrow. I am going back to my room to read. Good night.”
In both your questions, I sense a need to tell him things about the drugs. With CRAFT, you are going to communicate and behave in ways that discourage use, keeps you safe and calm, and sheds a strong light on treatment and recovery. You are not going to tell him things about his drug use.
I hope this makes sense.
One other aspect of CRAFT is how we use the term “engagement,” which I think is slightly different from how you’re using it.
Treatment/Recovery is the prize to keep your eye on
Your loved one can indeed be nice and engaging with you whether he’s using or not. But rather than monitoring his engagement with you, CRAFT is looking for you to guide and monitor his engagement with the journey to treatment and recovery. When we use the word “engagement,” we are looking strictly at engaging your son into recovery services (again, see Module 8).
You absolutely want to reciprocate and engage with your loved one when you decide he is not high in the moment. But if he tries to engage with you when he is high, you quietly and neutrally disengage yourself, remove rewards, and allow any consequences that are safe and tolerable for you.
This is hard for many families to do. When your loved one is chatty and engaging AND high, you have to forgo this moment of connection, and step away, allow natural consequences and remove rewards.
Does that help? Thank you for raising your challenges with several of these central CRAFT concepts. We wish you every success in supporting your loved one and caring for yourself.
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