Harm Reduction for Families - Communicating with Love
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Communication. This is a HUGE topic which I can only hope to touch on here. But I hope that I can offer some suggestions, look for some possible answers from you all (families) and see what we know in science now. For more than 50 years, we professionals have made (still make??) terrible mistakes in our advice about communicating with loved ones who use drugs: DON’T BOTHER! We said things like, “All addicts are liars” and “They must hit bottom” and “You need to use tough love with addicts”. We called you all names: codependent, enabler, co-addict/alcoholic. Now don’t misread me here: we’re discussing a family which is a system. To use the favored metaphor from famed American educator and author, John Bradshaw, families are like mobiles: touch one side of a mobile and the entire piece shifts. This means all family members must participate in changing in order for change(s) to actually happen. Bradshaw (who also coined the terms “dysfunctional family” and “inner child” and some believe ushered in the self-help movement of the 1980’s) used to call the problem a “dis-EASE” with the world. I think that is still one of the best definitions of addiction we have. And it speaks to the trauma that all too often accompanies addiction/drug use. More on that in the future.
So, what does communication in a harm reduction world look like? Here’s an example from Patt Denning and Jeannie Little’s book, Over the Influence:
“You can love your child and kick her out of the house. You can kick her out of the house and pay her rent somewhere else. In these ways you can continue to love and support her and limit the damage she can do to your marriage, your house, and your other kids. In other words, you can make changes in your relationship with your loved one way before you are completely worn out. In fact you should.”
A second example is from the Center for Motivation and Change’s (CMC) booklet, “The Parent’s 20 Minute Guide” (they use the term “parent” to mean any caregiver). In the section titled “Helping with Understanding”, CMC makes the point that the behaviors your child is engaged in (ie, using drugs) make sense and we parents need to appreciate that relationship that our loved ones have with substances even as we struggle to understand it. Wow huh? This can be a tough request but here’s why it’s crucial to Communicating with Love:
“Feeling relaxed, exhilarated, less anxious, braver, funnier, and part of the group, are all potential benefits of using substances. If there were no benefits, there would be no use.” (emphasis mine)
This is enormously important for families to understand. Without this acknowledgement, little communication with love can happen. We need to remember that our loved ones’ actions have more to do with their personal reasons for using (the reinforcers) than us. This knowledge can help us to not take our loved ones’ actions so personally and to start to see the reasons for the substance use: loneliness, boredom, social/fitting in, anxiety, trauma, and more. The CMC 20 Minute Guide goes on to say,
“Understanding what your child gets from using can also lower your fear and anxiety, as it makes the behavior less random and more predictable. If he uses to fit in with other kids, then you know he’s more at risk when he’s out socializing than home with the family.”
With this information in hand, strategies can be launched with your loved one and everyone can be invited to brainstorm options when your loved one is faced with potentially triggering social situations.
The Guide also has worksheets, such as the one titled, “Behaviors Make Sense” which is designed for the parents to complete based on their understanding of their loved ones’ reasons for using drugs. I would suggest that these worksheets might be even more effective if completed with your loved one. That way you’re not left guessing about the relationship your loved one has with substances. It also allows for further exploratory conversations to better understand your loved ones substance use (it’s also possible that your loved one isn’t sure of all the reasons they use drugs; this openness to conversation could allow them time to consider why they use a substance(s)).
Denning and Little also provide some excellent guiding concepts for families to use, calling them “Harm Reduction Principles for Family and Friends:”
1. Promises only cause problems
2. There are no rules except the ones you make
3. You cannot enable drug use (unless you are supplying them)
4. Base your actions on your values
5. Base your actions on what you can manage
6. You have triggers too
7. Any limits you set are about you
I would add a couple of others:
8) Everyone’s doing the best they can so be kind/gentle with yourselves – and with your loved one (it may seem like your loved one cares more for drugs than for you right now but I doubt that’s really true)
9) You probably can’t solve this problem, but you can make it better or worse
10) For change to be successful for your loved one, you must also change
So perhaps now you’re thinking, “OK Dee-Dee this is all great but is there some research to tell us how to communicate with love?” Yes there is!
CRAFT. Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training, developed by Robert Meyers, PhD (Research Associate Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction) is an answer. Bob Meyers (full disclosure: I have been trained by Dr. Meyers in CRAFT) came to the field of addiction through his own family’s problems with substance use. He became convinced that there could be a better way to interact with loved ones using substances and focused his research on finding some answers to this lifelong idea. Taking Dr. Nathan Azrin’s Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) and combining it with his own brand of Family Training, Dr. Meyers developed CRAFT, now an evidence-based therapy/treatment.
CRAFT is unique in addiction counseling in many ways. One of the most important, in my opinion, is its focus on “catching people who use drugs doing something ‘right’”. In other words, instead of the main focus being on punishment for misbehavior, CRAFT encourages us to focus on the times when your loved one isn’t engaging in the ‘misbehavior.’ It also supports the idea that drug use (especially problem drug use) doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it happens within a system and all parts of the system must change. Too often the drug user is seen as the Identified Patient (or Problem aka the IP) and taken off to treatment to make changes which we’re often led to believe will solve all the family problems. However, if the system she is in doesn’t also make changes, how do we expect her changes to be maintained? This is what’s called “magical thinking” (which has sadly been perpetuated too often in my profession); it’s also a set up for failure. All too often treatment does fail too regardless of how much she wants to make a change(s).
Down Under, Tony Trimingham, founder of Family Drug Support (FDS Australia), shares some similar ideas in his “Letter to Family and Friends.”
“When we expect immediate changes and refuse to be with the person during the process we undermine the very goal we seek to accomplish.” 
I want to stop here for a moment to reflect on things that I’m suggesting families can do differently - I want to emphasize that I am NOT pointing these things out in order to lay blame. Never. Are there things we could’ve/should’ve done differently as families with loved ones who love drugs? Absolutely. Does that mean we are to blame/responsible for the drug use? Not likely. But we are part of the overall system - and therefore we must be willing to look at our part in the creation of that system of dis-ease we are all in squarely in the face. After all, isn’t that what we ask people who use drugs to do in treatment? What I’m saying is that when there’s a complicated, possibly chronic condition in the family, it affects everyone, therefore, the solution(s) has to involve everyone. Gratefully we now have more options & suggestions for families than the old “let them hit bottom” and “stop enabling/being codependent.” We can now say, “don’t stop loving your family member!” and “when our loved ones are ill we need to hold them closer.” Learning how and when to “hold them closer” so change can be possible is the challenge. One way of helping us may be to learn more about change in general. How does it happen? How can we help or hinder change? Is it ever successful?
We’ve learned a great deal about how people make change(s) in their lives. The researchers James Prochaska, Carlo DiClemente, and John Norcross discovered how change happens back in the late 1970’s which they called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) or Stages of Change for short. We’ve learned that instead of looking at abstinence as the best or only way to recover or change, incremental positive change may be the best route: “Any positive change” is the slogan the late harm reductionist, Chicago Recovery Alliance founder Dan Bigg who has used this slogan to describe how to view the small steps typically needed to move toward change. For many people, the best way to make change is to go mindfully and slowly, small step by small step, moving closer and closer – with some setbacks - toward the big change you plan to make. Think of how many people quit smoking (side note: The Stages of Change were discovered when the developers/researchers looked at some 1500 smokers). Usually smokers quit on their own, either with or without the help of aids as nicotine replacement (Nicorette gum, inhalers, lozenges; anti-craving medications). Others just stop, cold turkey. But most professionals now will suggest - for those not wanting that “cold turkey” method - a “warm turkey” approach is a good option especially for those who have a difficult achieving their goals with “cold turkey” methods. The same can be true for abstinence or moderation goals in drug/alcohol use. Families can now Google terms such as “harm reduction for families” and find options that may be more in line with their values/goals and those of our loved ones using drugs. With cannabis legal in more and more states every day, many of us have found that we are looking to this substance to prove helpful in treating addictions (we already know about its usefulness – alone or in conjunction with CBD - in treating anxiety, pain, depression and more for many people). Most families I work with now are more than delighted to have their former problematic drug-using loved one find relief and assistance in some form of cannabis.
Harm Reduction for Families at its core is about providing support to help families make decisions that fit their individuality: their values, their needs, their loved ones. It’s about helping families to see that abstinence is one possible outcome but doesn’t need to be the only one – nor is it always the best option for everyone. And by the way, one can definitely not be abstinent (defined as not taking any medication/drug) and still be “in recovery.” More and more families are coming to see harm reduction as a better fit for them than the old “hit bottom/throw them out” model as they see the harm that is caused to them and their loved ones by such traditional, zero tolerance policies. Families have also had enough of the old ways of thinking from my profession – the misinformation/scare tactics, the lack of nuance in treating them & their loved ones who use drugs, the one-size-fits-all approach – even the beloved American disease model of addiction has been challenged by many of the families I see! Family work in addictions is at a crossroads: in my opinion, it is the outcry from families that will be the reason new HR policies will be adopted. It is your voices that are the loudest, strongest, and which will be best received since frankly, families are seen as victims of addiction unlike “addicts” (I’m not suggesting this view is accurate or not, simply that it is a reality in our culture). Bottom line: once again it’s about LOVE. LOVE which is the center of positive and healthy communication – and something we can all improve on demonstrating within our families this minute. So grab one of these books - or perhaps you know of another one that fits your needs best – and start reading and practicing. It’s time for our Family Recovery movement. We must demand better, more from the professionals and other healthcare practitioners. And we must learn to improve our own communication with love.
 www.johnbradshaw.com.  Ibid. Accessed on 9.26.18.  Denning, P & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence, 2nd Edition. Guilford Press. NY:NY. p221. https://the20minuteguide.com/. Accessed on 9.26.18. p11-12.  Ibid  Ibid. p13-14.  Denning, P & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence, 2nd Edition. Guilford Press. NY:NY. p221.  www.robertjmeyersphd.com. Accessed on 9.26.18.  Statistics for success re: professional treatment is difficult. 30% is the highest publicized rate yet this number generally reflects only those who completed treatment, not who improved longterm. AA’s rates are about 5%.  https://www.fds.org.au/newsletters/letter-to-family-and-friends (accessed 10.22.2018)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model (accessed 10.22.2018)  Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA): www.anypositivechange.org  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1787547  https://www.projectcbd.org/about/what-cbd. Accessed on 10.25.2018.  https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-11_aamembersMedDrug.pdf  See works by Marc Lewis, Maia Szalavitz, Stanton Peele, Jeff Foote, Denning & Little, Andrew Tatarsky, to name a few professionals in the field who do not ascribe to the traditional disease concept of addiction. Dr. Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist, researcher and former drug addict who has authored several books on this subject: http://www.memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com/authors-bio/  Another book I suggest & use with families: William Miller’s (Motivational Interviewing) 2018 book titled, “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding.” It’s available at Amazon and beyond.