In the United States, just less than half the population of adults have encountered substance abuse in their family. Studies suggest that substance abuse can negatively impact the nature and quality of family relations and specifically the ways in which the dynamics of family communications are impacted.

Research indicates that living in a family affected by substance abuse can permanently impact the nature and quality of that family’s communication.  The communication dynamics identified in affected families are described as aggressive, protective, adaptive and inconsistent.

How do these communication dynamics play out in a family where substance abuse is present?

Adult children of substance abusers describe the communication dynamics in their family as –

•    aggressive communication- heightened conflict, tense communication, and overt slandering

•    protective communication- superficial, limited or indirect communication

•    adaptive communication- functional communication

•    inconsistent communication- struggles over power and control, mood fluctuation

Aggressive communication includes conflict, with a sense to “walking on eggshells”.  This style of communication gives the utmost importance to the aggressors needs over any others.  Aggressive communication establishes superiority by the aggressor as they put down and criticize others. Verbal aggression includes sarcasm, harsh words, and condescending statements. Nonverbal aggression includes intrusion of personal space, aggressive gestures, and ridiculing faces.

In a family that uses protective communication, there is very little that is shared about themselves or their family. The protective communication style is a safety strategy, keeping secrets so the truth about their family doesn’t create negative judgment from others.

Growing up in a family of substance abuse, becoming accomplished as an adaptive communicator is a useful form of self-preservation.  The functional adaptive communication style is where one becomes a master at reading the room and adapting to any, often unpredictable, situation.

The inconsistent communication style is one of mixed messages.  In a family of substance abuse, there are often many inconsistent messages of affection and aggression.  This communication dynamic forever affects family members, teaching them distrust in themselves and communication; they become unable to discern what communication is real and what is not.

Growing up in families where you learn to adapt to survive, often creates challenges later in adult life. Skills learned for survival in childhood, follows many subconsciously into adulthood, doing more harm for adult relationships than good.

Assertive communicating is thought to be the most effective kind of communication.  Learning to be an assertive communicator is possible, but it takes awareness and work.

As an assertive communicator, one can authentically express needs, desires, ideas, and feelings while still being aware of the needs of others.  Communicating, where both sides are heard and valued, creates a winning situation.

Ready to leave behind the communication styles of your childhood?  Here are four ways to become an assertive communicator-

•    Take responsibility of your own feelings and use “I” statements when expressing them

•    Use non-verbal skills (eye contact) that create a feeling of connection

•    Learn the value of creating healthy boundaries which include saying “no”

•    Have confidence and honor when expressing your needs and desires

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.  We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble”-Yehuda Berg