How to talk to someone about their drinking or drug use

Tips to help you talk to someone about their drinking or drug use, including what to say, what reactions to expect and where to get support for them and yourself.

Talking to someone about their drinking or drug use

If it’s become clear that someone you care about has issues with alcohol or drugs, it can be hard to know what to say or do. 

This is a challenging situation.

If you do decide to raise the subject with your friend or family member, these tips may help.

Prepare yourself

Think about what you’re going to say. Prepare yourself to be as calm and positive as possible.

Find the right moment

Aim to talk to your friend or family member when they aren’t intoxicated. Think about when this might be. Watch for ‘green light’ moments when they are engaged with you and seem open to talking. Avoid moments when they are upset or agitated. 

Keep the conversation short

You aren’t going to sort everything out in one go. It’s more helpful to see this as the start of an ongoing conversation. Aim to have a short conversation today then pick it up another 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.

For me and many others I know, those initial conversations with family and friends are what spurred us on to seek longer-lasting support. Karen, client from Wigan

Start your sentences with “I”

Starting your sentences with “I” helps you to say how you feel without making the other person feel defensive. Talk about how concerned you are – “I feel really worried about you”.

Avoid sentences that start with “you” – “You’re a mess”.

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

If things get heated, it’s best to back off. 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?”.

Think about writing a letter

Writing a letter is a good way to start a conversation. If communication has broken down between you and someone else, a letter can also be a good way to open up the conversation again.

Suggest they get some support

Make sure you know what support is available for your friend or family member and have the details handy when you talk to them.

They can:

Get support for yourself

You’re in a challenging situation and it’s important to put your own wellbeing first.

You don’t need to do this alone – there's plenty of support available for you too.

You can:

More support for friends and family

  • Drugfam – online one-to-one and group meetings for families affected by someone else’s drug use. Phone their free helpline on 0300 888 3853
  • Scottish families affected by drugs and alcohol – support by phone, email or webchat. Phone their free helpline on 08080 10 10 11
  • The 20 minute guide – practical tips for parents and partners of people who drink or use drugs