Ask a Therapist: My Son Deals With Substance Use, How Can I Help?

Ask a therapist, depressed son

Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

A Reader Asks

My adult son is depressed and he’s an alcoholic. He often calls when he’s been drinking to tell me how awful he feels, but he lives in another state and I don’t see him often. How can I help him?

—Joni, 66

Amy’s Answer

Sending long-distance help to someone with substance abuse problems and mental health issues is tough. And I’m sure it’s so hard for you to hear him share his pain knowing he’s so far away. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to support your son if he wants to make some changes. 

Provide Emotional Support

You said your son calls when he’s drinking. Does he remember these conversations when he’s sober? Do you ever discuss those calls when he’s not drinking?

Talk to him about what’s going on when he’s sober. You don’t want to shame him but you do want him to know that you hear he’s in pain.

Instead of saying, “You called me last night crying about how horrible you feel,” say something like, “I want to continue our conversation from last night. It sounds like you have been feeling pretty down lately.”

Then, just listen.

Allow him to talk openly about what he’s going through without offering advice—at least not now.

Validate how he feels by saying something like, “That must be really tough to feel that way.” Resist the urge to cheer him up and don’t tell him things will get better. For now, just meet him where he’s at—in a rough place.

There’s a good chance he won’t want to talk about things when he’s sober. He might be embarrassed by the fact that he calls you after he’s been drinking. Or, he might feel a little better when he’s not drinking—and therefore, might insist those things he said weren’t a big deal.

If he doesn’t want to talk, don’t force the conversation. Just let him know you’re there for him. Continue inviting him to talk on a regular basis when he’s sober.

Visit In-Person If You Can

If you’re able to visit with your son in person, seeing him face-to-face might be a good idea. Seeing him might give you a better indicator of how he’s really doing.

This might also give you insight into how much he’s drinking. And it might clue you in to how depressed he really is. He may minimize these things when he talks to you on the phone.

An in-person visit may also give you an opportunity to present some facts to him. Saying something like, “You’ve lost weight since I saw you last,” or “I notice you start drinking every afternoon,” might open the door to sharing your concerns.

Provide Resources

Encourage your son to get help and provide him with some basic information on where he can turn. He might start by talking to his physician who may refer him to a therapist, substance abuse counselor, a psychiatrist, or even an inpatient rehab center depending on his needs.

You can also encourage him to try therapy. If he’s hesitant to talk to someone in person, he could try online therapy.

There are many online therapy services and providers who are equipped to manage mental health and substance abuse issues online.

Keep in mind, you’re just there to offer encouragement. Don’t waste your time researching his insurance options or the therapists who have openings in his area. That’s his job if he’s interested in getting help. 

Take Care of Yourself

Of course, you can’t force your son to get help if he doesn’t want it. But, there may come a time when you decide to establish some healthy boundaries.

For example, you may decide to stop talking on the phone with him when he’s been drinking if these calls are upsetting to you. You might say something like, “I’d love to talk to you about this when you’re sober. I’m going to end this call now because you’ve been drinking, but I’ll talk to you tomorrow about it.”

Your boundaries shouldn’t be about controlling your son’s behavior but instead should address the steps you need to take care of yourself. And if answering the phone when he’s intoxicated is creating a lot of stress in your life, you’re not obligated to stay on the phone.

Get professional help for yourself if you want someone to talk to. Dealing with a loved one’s substance abuse and mental health issues can be a lot to deal with. Whether you attend a support group like Al-Anon or you see a therapist for yourself, get the support you need to feel your best when dealing with this difficult situation.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips on how to set boundaries.

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By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.