Be the Change: Jen Whitehead – Helping a loved one who struggles with substance abuse


For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 08-31-2023 2:29 PM

If you have a loved one struggling with substance abuse, you may be wondering how you can help them make the decision to change.

It's common to feel scared or angry at their unhealthy choices, and you may have absorbed the cultural message that there's nothing you can do to help without enabling them. However, science offers some alternative options for helping someone change.

Step 1: Shift your understanding

The first step is to shift your understanding of substance use. Your loved one's behavior serves a purpose for them, and it's important to understand how your loved one perceives the "benefits" to their substance use. By doing so, you can develop empathy for what they would have to give up to change.

For example, if you think your loved one is using substances to help cope with stress, anxiety or depression, then helping them find coping strategies may be helpful. This may even include individual counseling to help learn helpful coping strategies. It's also important to recognize that there's no one- size-fits-all solution for helping someone change – there are so many avenues to getting well! This could be outpatient counseling, recovery coaching, medication or meditation. The approach will depend on the individual needs of your loved one.

It's also important to remember that ambivalence is normal when it comes to making behavioral changes. It's normal (and expected!) that when any of us make a change, we're often initially on the fence about it. We see reasons for wanting to make the change, and we see reasons for not wanting to make a change. Try to appreciate that their reasons for both changing a behavior and not changing it are reasonable, and don't give into arguing. Arguing with ambivalence will only make them dig their heels in and defend their reasons for not changing.

Step 2: Invite change, don't force it. 

Confrontation and consequences are not effective ways to help someone change, as they only focus on squashing bad behaviors. Instead, it's important to notice your loved one's good behaviors and help them engage in new behaviors that can eventually replace the destructive ones.

Step 3: Find healthy alternatives

Change is difficult, and old behavior patterns cannot be erased from memory. To stop using substances, your loved one must learn how to stop and replace the behavior with something else. Learning communication strategies that will help you start talking about the problem in a constructive way will be helpful. Also, you can introduce new behaviors and reward your loved one for doing them, as well as set limits around destructive behaviors and allow natural consequences to play a role in motivating them to change.

Step 4: Your own self-care

If you love someone with a substance-use problem, worry, fear, anger and helplessness probably consume a large amount of your time. Taking care of yourself is vital to helping your loved one and the rest of your family. Identify areas of your life that need a change or attention – this can help you feel less stressed and improve the quality of your life. This could include things like visiting with a friend, going for a hike or taking time to organize your finances.

Another form of self-care is managing your emotions. This will lead to a healthier relationship with your loved one. When you act on your emotions by confronting, breaking down, yelling or stonewalling, not only will you feel worse, but this will ultimately divert attention from your loved one's actions by making the problem about you, and not their substance abuse.

Lastly, remember – you are not alone. You may wonder if anyone can really understand what you're going through; yet millions of people have walked down similar roads. Many of these people are not doing it alone; they're seeking support from others. This link will lead you to find others on a similar road.

Information on self-help meetings for families:

Support groups and community resources guide:, and look for Support Groups & Resources.

Jen Whitehead is student assistance counselor at Keene High School. She is a member of Be the Change – Behavioral Health Task Force, which is comprised of concerned citizens and organizations in western Hillsborough County focused on educating and promoting local resources for prevention, treatment and recovery from substance use disorders and behavioral health challenges. She can be reached at