There is so much talk about how to refer to my addicted child. Is language important?

“I have a daughter in recovery who routinely refers to herself as an ‘addict’ and worse. I have tried to educate myself; everything I have read tells me that language is important and we should not be calling people by their disease or using negative, stereotypical names when referring to people with a substance use disorder.  She insists that she is proud of all she has overcome and that the she is entitled to call herself anything she wants.”

I’d like to congratulate you on staying informed, Mom. The latest research suggests that language does matter. Dr. John Kelly from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute and his colleagues have done extensive work around the subject of language. Their research shows, among other things, that medical care is affected by choice of language. (

We can look toward the extensive research that shows the importance of person-centered language and the detrimental impact of pejorative language, or we can just use common sense. Who benefits from using terms that keep a person locked into the most painful parts of his or her life? I can’t imagine that anyone does. When we use person-centered language and refer to our loved ones as a son or daughter who has a substance use disorder or who is in recovery, they are portrayed as people with a disease, rather than as an addict, which reduces them to their disease itself.

I understand that many people who have overcome addiction have suffered greatly and wear the term addict as a badge of honor for all they have overcome . What they may not realize is that, as Kelly’s study shows, the way they refer to themselves might actually jeopardize the way they, their friends, and loved ones are given medical care. Employment, housing, and other opportunities are also affected by the labeling of any person from a marginalized population. I would ask your daughter if she thinks it is worth jeopardizing herself and others to continue to use that language.

You may have to agree to disagree. As we have all learned, we have little or no control over our loved ones. But perhaps if you present reasonable requests and data to back up your position, she may be willing to adjust the way she refers to herself outside of her own community. Keep up the good work, Mom. 

Stay strong,
Coach C.

Disclaimer: The above advice is not meant to be construed as medical or legal advice. If you need professional medical, psychological, or legal advice, please contact a doctor, lawyer, or medical center.

Maureen Cavanagh is a peer recovery coach and interventionist who works with families and loved ones supporting a person struggling with a substance use disorder on their own recovery. She is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings and Magnolia Recovery and Consulting, and the author of If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Addiction and Recovery, published by Henry Holt/Macmillan, and NAADAC-approved FAST: Family-Focused Addiction Support Training. You can learn more about her at

Each new edition of MomPower will feature questions from you, our mamas, along with my replies, to help educate and guide you toward the answer that works for your family. If you’d like your concern featured, please send a brief question to with MomPower in the subject line. Reach out. You are not alone.

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