Looking After You and Your Family
It can be stressful when someone in your family is impacted by alcohol and other drugs or mental health challenges. It’s important to look after yourself during this time, even if you’re worried about your family member. There are lots of tips on this page for taking care of you and your family.
When someone is having problems with alcohol or other drugs, or experiencing other mental health challenges, it can affect the whole family. You might be feeling worried, anxious, angry, guilty, or confused. When you’re worrying about your family member it can be easy to forget to take care of your own health and well-being. However, when things are stressful it’s even more important than usual to make time to look after yourself.
If you’re getting support and looking after your own wellbeing, you will feel better and you will be better able to help your family. It’s a bit like when the flight attendant on a plane explains the emergency procedure and tells you to fit your own oxygen mask before you fit someone else’s – you need to be able to breathe before you can help someone else.
Where can I get more information?
Click on the video below from Connect4Health which talks about why it’s important for families to have support.
Sometimes when you’re focused on someone else’s wellbeing it can be easy to miss the signs that you’re stressed or need support. Some of the signs that you might be stressed or need support include:
- Having problems sleeping or waking up in the morning
- Worrying all the time
- Eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
- Getting distracted easily
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Feeling run down or getting sick
- Drinking more alcohol than usual
- Feeling restless, snappy or cross
- Getting very upset about even small things
- Spending less time with friends
These are some of the common signs of stress, but they are not the only signs. The effects of stress can be different for different people and there is no right or wrong way to feel. It’s important to pay attention to your own signs and symptoms. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help – it can really help to talk to someone about what’s going on.
Self care is anything that you do to look after yourself. It can be as simple as taking the time out to make a cup of tea or go for a walk, or it might be something bigger like going to see a counsellor or joining an art group.
Self care is about being kind to yourself. It’s about looking after your physical, emotional and spiritual health and reaching out for support when you need it. Self care sometimes takes effort and time, but it shouldn’t feel like a chore.
Self care is different for different people – it’s about finding what works for you. Some ideas for self care might include:
- Writing in a journal
- Making a cup of tea or a hot drink
- Listening to or playing music
- Calling a friend to chat
- Getting a massage
- Playing a game of sport or exercising
- Cooking your favourite meal
- Burning incense or essential oils
- Spending time with a pet
- Having a hot bath or shower
- Going away for a few days
- Spending time with friends
- Speaking to a counsellor
- Taking time to think about your needs
- Attending a support group
- Painting, drawing or artwork
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Yoga or pilates
Take some time to work out a self care plan that works for you. You can also encourage other people in your family to work out their own plan. There’s more information on making a self care plan here.
Where can I get more information?
Click on the video below to watch a ‘TED Talk’ on the importance of self care and looking after your emotional well-being.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice which involves training your brain to pay attention to the present moment, rather than getting caught up in thoughts and emotions about the past or the future. Being mindful is about taking the time to pay attention to your surroundings and notice your thoughts — without judging, criticising or trying to control them. Mindfulness is about experiencing and noticing feelings, smells, sounds and experiences around you – even if they are unpleasant.
‘Mindful’ vs ‘Mindless’
A good example of the difference between being ‘mindful’ and being ‘unmindful’ is in eating chocolate. Have you ever had the experience of sitting on the couch watching television or sitting at your desk at work, eating a packet of chips or a block of chocolate? You’re not really paying attention to what you’re doing or how each piece of food smells and tastes, or how it feels in your mouth. Before you know it, you’ve eaten the whole packet without realising it – you might even start to feel guilty or get annoyed at yourself. This is an example of being ‘unmindful’. If you were to eat the chocolate or the chips ‘mindfully’, you would focus on what you’re doing and pay attention to the smell, taste and feel of each piece of food. You would probably eat much more slowly, taking notice of these sensations and any thoughts that came into your head — but not getting caught up in them. After eating, you would be able to clearly describe the experience — and you might even notice things about the chocolate or the chips that you’ve never noticed before.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Research has shown that mindfulness can improve your physical and emotional well-being, and even lead to long-lasting changes in your brain. People who practice mindfulness regularly often find they feel calmer, more relaxed and can deal better with stressful events. Mindfulness is used by psychologists in the treatment of anxiety and depression, but is something which you can learn to practice yourself.
Practicing mindfulness every day can help to reduce stress and clear your head. A counsellor will be able to teach you how to use mindfulness, and there are also some great websites and apps for your phone with guided mindfulness exercises for you to use at home. We recommend the list below, but there are many others you can check out also.
- Smiling Mind: Smiling Mind is a free app and website that provides guided mindfulness meditation exercises for different age groups. Visit the Smiling Mind website here or download the free app from the Apple store (iPhones) or Google Play (android phones).
- Headspace Mindfulness Meditation: Headspace Mindfulness Meditation is a free app and website with different mindfulness exercises available for you to use. If you want to access more mindfulness activities, videos and audio files, you can subscribe to the app for a monthly or yearly fee. Visit the Headspace Mindfulness website here or download the free app from the Apple store (iPhones) or Google Play (android phones).
- 1 Giant Mind: 1 Giant Mind teaches you meditation in twelve easy steps. Visit the 1 Giant Mind website here or download the free app from the Apple store (iPhones) or Google Play (android phones)
- Mindful: The Mindful website has lots of articles, tips and resources for practicing mindfulness. There is also a monthly magazine called “Mindful” which you can subscribe to. Visit the website here to find out more.
- Self-Compassion: The Self Compassion website is written by educational psychologist Dr Kristen Neff. It has guided meditations and exercises in self-compassion to help people be as kind to themselves as they would be to a good friend. You can visit the website by clicking here.
When we’re stressed, sleep can be one of the first things to be affected. It can affect people in different ways. You might find it hard to get to sleep, or feel like you’re tossing and turning all night. Some people feel tired all the time and find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, or feel sleepy during the day.
If you find that you’re having problems with sleep, go and see your doctor or make an appointment with a psychologist or counsellor to get help. Whilst it can be tempting to use sleeping tablets to get to sleep, remember that these medications are highly addictive and can actually make your sleep worse in the long run.
Tips for better sleep
Some of the common tips for good sleep include:
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
- Keep your bedroom tidy and comfortable — it should be cool (but not cold) and dark with no mess
- Avoid drinking alcohol or taking any drugs (including caffeine and nicotine) in the afternoon or evening
- Keep your mobile phone out of the bedroom and avoid using your phone, laptop or tablet before bed. The blue light in the screen on phones and tablets can trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime and keep you awake at night
- Try not to watch television in bed as the light and noise can also keep you awake
- Have a regular bed time routine. This might include a warm bath or shower, a hot drink or doing mindfulness before going to sleep
Remember, if you’re having problems with sleep go and see your GP or make an appointment with a psychologist or counsellor who can help. Talking to someone about your problems and finding better ways of coping will help reduce your stress and worry levels, and your sleep will improve naturally over time.
Where can I get more information?
- The Centre for Clinical Interventions has a factsheet with tips for good sleep (‘sleep hygiene’) which you can view by clicking here.
- The Better Health Channel has some good tips on how to improve your sleep and avoid sleeping problems. Click here to visit the website.
- You can buy Dr. David Morawetz’s ‘Sleep Better Without Drugs’ program for treating sleep problems in hard copy, audio CD or as an e-book by clicking on the website here.
Talking to a family member about their alcohol or other drug use or mental health can be hard. You might not know how to bring up the issue, and your family member might feel ashamed, embarrassed, defensive, angry or upset. Even though it can be hard, good communication is really important and can help families to deal with their problems and develop strong and supportive relationships.
If your family member uses alcohol or other drugs, remember that making changes in alcohol or other drug use can be hard, and may take time. It’s not uncommon for someone to have to try a few times. Try not to think of it as a ‘failure’ if the person has slipped up after a period of not using – encourage them to keep trying and offer to link them in with a support service if they want.
Similarly, it can take time for someone to experience changes in mental health even if they are receiving treatment. Sometimes the symptoms of the mental illness will make it difficult for the person to seek help. For example, someone with severe depression may feel hopeless and believe that treatment won’t work. Someone with an eating disorder may be afraid of gaining weight if they start treatment. Try to separate the ‘person’ from their symptoms and remember that change can be scary – even if it’s something the person wants.
The importance of language and labels
The words you use can make a big difference to how you communicate and the messages that you send to other people. For example, words like ‘junkie’, ‘addict’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘druggie’, ‘anorexic’ and ‘schizophrenic’ are all labels. If you use a label to describe someone, they often get the message that their behaviour or illness is who they are — it becomes part of their identity. It can be hard for someone to be hopeful about making change in their behaviour if they believe that the problem is part of who they are, rather than something they do or a condition that they have.
For example, instead of saying that ‘my son is an addict’, try saying ‘my son has an addiction’ or ‘my son has a problem with alcohol’. In the same way, you could say ‘my wife has bipolar disorder’ rather than ‘my wife is bipolar’. After all, if your son had a physical illness like cancer, you would say ‘my son has cancer’, not ‘my son is cancerous’!
What are ‘I Statements’?
‘I statements’ are a good way to share your concerns or frustrations with someone without sounding like you are blaming, criticizing or judging them. It can be a useful way to communicate about difficult or emotional topics. ‘I statements’ focus on how you feel – not on what the other person has done. The ‘I statement formula’ is:
- ‘I feel …. when …… I would like it if …..’
For example: ‘I feel frustrated when you don’t come home on time. I would like it if you can please let me know when you’re running late.’
You can try changing the way you raise a problem or issue with someone by using the ‘I statement’ formula. For example, instead of saying ‘You lied to me! I know you’ve been drinking, I can smell it on your breath’ you could try saying ‘I feel hurt when you lie to me about your drinking. I would like it if you could be honest with me about how much you’re drinking’.
- MensLine Australia have developed a helpful handout on how to use ‘I Statements’ which you can download here.
Good communication takes practice.
Some tips for improving communication with your family members include:
- Encourage open conversations and try to avoid having secrets or hiding things from each other
- Avoid blaming or judging each other – this can shut down communication
- Try not to have conversations when you or other person is upset, tired or hungry. If you can, choose a time when you are both calm and have enough time to sit and talk
- Let the person know that you are worried about them and care about them
- Try to separate the person from the behaviour. In other words, you can dislike or disapprove of someone’s behaviour (for example, using alcohol or other drugs, or restricting what they eat) and still care about and support the person
- Take your time, and plan out what you want to say before you bring it up. You might even want to jot down some notes on a piece of paper to help sort out your thoughts
- If the conversation becomes heated, take some time out and come back to it later. If you or the other person become angry or aggressive, end the conversation and walk away – it is never OK to be aggressive or abusive with each other
- Try to avoid ‘ganging up’ on one person during the conversation by having several people confront the person at once. Allow time for everyone to share their thoughts, even if you don’t agree with them
- Think about going to see a family counsellor to work on communication or make a plan together
Where can I get more information?
- The Better Health Channel website has information for families worried about someone’s mental health here.
- Visit the Mental Health First Aid website here to watch a video about how to talk to someone about their mental health.
- The headspace National website has tips for families about talking to a young person about their mental health and wellbeing here.
- Visit the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation ‘DrugInfo’ website or download their factsheet for families here.
- Click here to read a brochure by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) on talking to young people about cannabis use.
- Visit the Cracks in the Ice website here for resources on speaking with a family member about their methamphetamine (ice) use.
- Click on the video below by the Raising Children Network to watch an example of parents talking to their teenage son about his alcohol use.
It’s important to set boundaries and expectations with yourself and your family member about what is and is not OK in your relationship. This might be different for different families. If you feel unsafe or if your family member is being aggressive, do not try to enforce any rules or boundaries – leave the situation immediately and contact 000.
There is no right or wrong answer about whether or not your family member should be allowed to use alcohol or other drugs in your home – this is something you and your family have to decide on together. The most important thing is to clearly explain what your expectations and boundaries are. For example, you might agree that there is no alcohol or other drug use in your home. Or, you might set a rule that your family member is allowed to use alcohol or other drugs in your home, but only if they are honest about what and when they are using.
When you set boundaries, it’s important to have consequences and to follow through with these so that everyone in the family is on the same page and can make decisions about their own behaviour. It’s also important to set the consequences before the boundary is crossed – and make sure that everyone in the family understands what the consequences are. If your family member does cross a boundary, using ‘I statements’ and the communication tips listed above can help to raise the topic without the other person feeling blamed or criticised.
Where can I get more information?
- Family Drug Support have some great tips on setting boundaries on their website which you can read by clicking here.
- Sane Australia has information and tips on boundaries when caring for someone with mental illness on their website here.
- You can speak with a family support worker or counsellor at your nearest Mental Health and Wellbeing Connect service (formerly known as Family and Carer-led Centres). Click here for a list of Mental Health and Wellbeing Connect services in Victoria.
There are several fiction and non-fiction books about alcohol and other drugs that you might like to read.
Books and booklets written for families affected by alcohol and other drugs:
- Not My Family, Never My Child – Tony Triningham
- A Guide to Coping – Family Drug Support
- Why Can’t They Just Stop? (booklet) – Family Drug Help
- Is Someone You Care About Using Drugs? (booklet) – Family Drug Help
- Addict in the Family – Stories of Loss, Hope and Recovery – Beverly Conyers
- Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction – David Sheff
Books and booklets written for families affected by other mental health conditions:
- Between You and Me: A Book for Children Who Have a Parent with Mental Illness – FaPMI
- Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder – Paul Mason and Mandy Kreger
- Books for families impacted by eating disorders – Eating Disorder Families Australia
Books and memoirs written by people about their own problems with alcohol or other drugs:
- Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines – Nic Sheff
- We All Fall Down: Living With Addiction – Nic Sheff
- Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption – William Cope Myers
- Woman of Substances – Jenny Valentish
Fiction stories written about people using alcohol or other drugs:
- Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction – Luke Davies
- Go Ask Alice – Anonymous
- A Million Little Pieces – James Frey