Intervention strategies for families

To help an addict or alcoholic, your role is not to decide on treatment for your loved one. Your role is to guide them towards deciding for themselves. More here on how to effectively intervene and get help for addiction…today!

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Treatment is the best answer we have for substance abuse

A central goal of our work at Allies in Recovery is getting your loved one into treatment. You may be quick to tell us that your loved one has already been to treatment and that it didn’t work. There are several possible explanations for this.  Perhaps:

  • The treatment was of low quality.
  • The treatment was not the right match for your loved one.
  • Your loved one wasn’t really interested in recovery and didn’t show up or put in the required effort.

But take heart! Lining up the right treatment, at the right time, is difficult. Often, it takes more than one attempt for treatment to be successful.

More here on intervention strategies (and really important principles to keep in mind) as you try to find help for a loved one. Then, we invite your questions or comments about how to best intervene for a family member at the end.

First, know that motivation comes and goes

Motivation – for any behavioral change – comes and goes, as you’ve probably already seen.  This is especially true with substance issues. A federal study found that 50% of people who admit to having a problem with drugs or alcohol are resistant to doing anything about it.

In an earlier post on this site How to intervene so an addict or alcoholic hears your message (Nov 20), we talk about how to gauge your loved one’s motivation for change and how to talk to a loved one about treatment.

So, you’re thinking of following our suggestions and you now have an idea of when your loved one is more motivated to accept help. You finally get to that place where you’re speaking about treatment with your loved one, with your list of options researched and ready, and … you get turned down.

How frustrating, to have researched treatment and rehearsed what you are going to say, just to get a “no” in response. If “no” is the answer you get, back down quietly and wait for the next opportunity that’s conducive to trying again, saying something like:

“Thanks for listening to me, we’ll talk about this some other time.”

They turned you down? This is not a time to push your cause.

You’ve probably been at this long enough to know you can’t force your loved one to do anything, and this absolutely includes going into treatment. Your loved one is an adult and must be the one to decide when they’re ready to make a change.

The path towards treatment can be a rocky road, but it’s important to hold fast. If you get a “no”, you step back, hold tight, and wait for that motivation to reveal itself again.

The story that follows is true. We’ve changed the name of the young woman.

Claire’s story

We recently worked with the parents of a young woman in her early 20’s named Claire, who’d left her hometown to follow a boyfriend to the Caribbean, where his family was from.

Her family had been sick with worry for the girl, who’d been in this bad relationship now for years, unable to break away.  Every couple of months Claire would decide she was ready to leave, and would turn to her family for help. The family had been burned by past attempts at helping her out. They would help Claire set up only to see her abandon new jobs, her home, and her things, and return to the boyfriend.

It was happening again. Claire was texting everyone and Facebooking friends and family saying the situation was bad, that she needed to leave, that she was desperate. Her parents were, understandably, on high alert, yet they felt paralyzed.  Should they bail her out again? They were filled with doubt.

No, this time they would practice tough love, they told us. They would refuse to talk to Claire. They explained they were exhausted by the situation. “Leave her to figure it out for herself … We’re sick of being tricked, and we very much doubt her motivation to really leave this guy”.

Rather than blindly bail them out, shepherd them towards treatment

We convinced Claire’s parents to focus on treatment this time. We suggested they set up in a way that would assess her motivation for change. No bailouts. Instead, the family would shepherd Claire towards treatment.

The parents agreed, and started to look for treatment. They found few options. The parents weren’t sure that Claire was fully addicted, but they believed she was at high risk for becoming so, and for self-harm. It was also likely Claire was in a domestically violent situation.

There was a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group starting in her hometown. Insurance wouldn’t cover it, so after a lot of discussion, her parents, who were divorced, agreed to pay the $3,500 for the 14 weeks, and to pay the airfare home.

The father was out of town on business for the next several months, and it was agreed the daughter could stay at his house. Both parents agreed to give her sufficient money to live on for the first three weeks, at which point she was to find a job.

Planning and contracting

We wrote up a simple contract that included the group therapy, its cost, the details of the ticket home, housing, the pocket money, and expectations around getting a job. Should Claire stop attending, the money and housing would be denied.

The deal hinged on Claire calling the psychologist to be assessed for the group. The outlines of the contract were sent to her in an email along with a carefully worded message from both parents, expressing their love, and explaining how they were willing to help.

Claire never called the psychologist.

Getting turned down feels better than getting tricked

The parents were devastated but they also felt something else. They felt like they had done everything they could to help their daughter, they didn’t get “tricked”, and the money was still available for when Claire did decide to seek help. They felt surprisingly clear about this effort to reach out to Claire, something they had never felt before. For her part, Claire learned the limits of what her parents would do for her, and was reminded of the need for treatment.

It took another three months before Claire accepted her parents’ help and boarded that plane. She willingly went into a structured dialectical behavioral therapy partial hospitalization program lasting one month. She was ready to hear what the program had to say and became their star pupil.

She never went back to that boyfriend because she had learned to expect more for herself. She was learning to make healthier choices and this past December, Claire passed her six-month sobriety date.

Your loved one needs to decide on treatment herself

Remember that treatment remains the best tool we have to address addiction. Your role, if you choose to take this responsibility, is not to decide for your loved one. Your role is to guide them towards deciding for themselves.

For you, this means energy spent on research. It means accepting to hear a “no” the first time or several times. It means moving away from bailouts and protecting, and moving towards clear, respectful communications in which you are crystal clear about what you’re willing to help with, and what you would like in return.

Are you in a critical situation now?

Please let us know how we can help. We invite your questions or story about a family situation in the comments section below.

About the author
Dominique Simon-Levine is a Ph.D. substance abuse researcher, who is in long-term recovery. She runs an award-winning program for families called Allies in Recovery. Founded in 2003, Allies in Recovery has helped hundreds of families to climb out of the abyss of addiction. Her work is featured on HBO and on
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