Family Recovery

Strategies for Communication
Grandfather with children
Table of Contents
"What affects one person in the family affects everyone in the family."

Elina Kala
MA, mental health professional

Regardless of the choices the young person makes, parents, siblings, and other family members have their own recovery from addiction. Step One for family members is, "We admitted that we were powerless over our child's (sister's/brother's) disease and behaviors, and our attempts to control it made our lives unmanageable."

Stick with the Facts

Be supportive instead of rejecting, curious instead of judgmental

Approach conversations with the spirit of wanting to understand their thoughts, feelings, or decisions, rather than assuming they're making poor choices, they're not working their recovery, etc. Approaching them with this stance is less threatening and more likely to promote communication, rather than causing them to feel defensive and blamed, which shuts down communication. It also sends the message that you believe they are capable of working their own recovery and running their own lives.

Imagine what would happen if you treated the person in recovery as an esteemed colleague

People tend to respond positively to respect. (If you treat someone like a three-year-old brat, they may act like a three-year-old brat, i.e., self-fulfilling prophesy)

Let Crises Happen

Example 1. If you are asking me for an answer right now, it is "no." If you give me some time to think about it, it is "maybe."

Example 2. Karen's example of coming home after work, teenager rushes in and asks for $50 right now to attend concert with friends. Karen considers running all over to accomplish this, but then realizes that this "crisis" does not have to be her crisis.

Be consistent

Once boundaries and rules are established for the young person, make sure to follow through with consequences. If a curfew is set for 11 p.m., and the consequence of breaking the curfew is that the young person doesn't go out for a week afterward and curfew is set at 10:30 p.m. thereafter–follow through! Mean what you say and say what you will do.

Stay focused

Example: the young person in recovery comes home one hour late for curfew; how would they divert your attention away from their being late? "But I was IN the driveway, and this is technically part of our home. And Mary was late last week, and you didn't do anything – that's not fair!" Your response could be simply re-stating your purpose: "I'm sorry, Johnny–this conversation is about you, you're late, and these are the consequences."

Live in the present

AA saying: if you have one foot in the past and another foot in the future, you are pissing on the present. There is endless opportunity to mull over the past and worry about the worst possible scenarios in the future and nobody can stop you from doing that. Meanwhile, you lose the now which is all we will ever have.

Promoting Good Communication

Instead of giving silent treatment or slamming doors, consider using words to describe your feelings. Be accountable for how you feel, think and act by using "I" language. We call this the "Assertiveness Formula."


  • "I feel frustrated when you don't take the garbage out because it was our agreement. I want you to be responsible and follow the agreement."
  • "Why" questions can be impossible to answer ("Why do you use drugs?") and may make the other person defensive. "What" questions can be more productive for communication. ("What did you like about using?" "What can I do to support your recovery?")
  • "I feel scared when you hang out with friends who use drugs because it is a relapse risk. I want you to have sober friends."
  • "And" instead of "but" (Listen to the difference: "I love you BUT I want you to go to that halfway house" vs. "I love you AND I want you to go to that halfway house".

Lastly, keep the lines of communication open. Parents and siblings can ask the person in recovery from addiction what he or she needs for support. The person in recovery can also be proactive and let family members know what he or she needs. We are all in this together. What affects one person in the family affects everyone in the family.

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