Helping a Loved One Struggling with Addiction
When you want to help a friend or loved one struggling with addiction, you might not know exactly what to do or say. It’s not always easy to know the difference between helping, enabling, and forcing someone to do something they may not be ready to do. The fact is, your loved one has the greatest chance of overcoming their addiction with your support. The most important thing to realize is that you can encourage them to seek drug addiction help, but they need to be ready to admit that they have a problem. You can’t make someone seek addiction treatment if they’re unwilling to do so. If you want to know how to help an addict, you might want to sit down and think the process through, make mental (or physical) notes, and prepare yourself so you’ll know what to say to someone struggling with addiction.
You Need to Help Yourself First
Taking care of yourself first is crucial when you have a loved one with an addiction. Dealing with their addiction can be stressful and draining, and you may feel that you have to give all of your love and energy to them to be helpful. However, this can be detrimental to your health and well-being.
If you can’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help anyone else; you’re not doing your loved one a favor by trying to be their hero. In fact, by taking responsibility for them, you not only prevent them from realizing the severity of their problem, but you also enable their substance abuse.1 top At the same time, you’ll also deplete your resources, which can cause increased stress and mental health issues.2 top
Instead of caretaking and enabling, try to first pause and evaluate the situation as objectively as possible. Acknowledge and accept that what you are dealing with is very difficult. Practice self-compassion and be kind to yourself—don’t feel like you need to rescue your loved one or put your needs last. According to Candace Plattor, M.A., R.C.C., an addiction therapist in private practice in Australia, many people in relationships with addicted people feel guilty, but it’s important to keep in mind that you did not create your loved one’s addiction.3 are you feeling guilty
Developing stress-management and self-care strategies will help you meet your needs first so that you can provide the best help possible to your loved one. You’ll need to find the stress-management techniques that work best for you. Some ideas include meditation, practicing yoga, spending time with supportive friends or family, and engaging in hobbies. It’s also important to ensure that you get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and look after your health and well-being.
Common Do’s and Don’ts of Helping a Loved One
When exploring how to help someone on drugs get treatment, keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all guide. There are many things you can do and some things you should avoid. You may not get it all right, but you don’t have to be perfect. Keep these tips in mind when you have the conversation.
Building trust by being honest, showing compassion, avoiding judgement, and respecting privacy should be the major concepts that guide your approach to helping your loved one. Criticism, preaching, guilt tips, quid pro quo, and expecting immediate change, however, should be avoided.
The saying that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar applies here. Try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and imagine how you might feel if someone was confronting you about a problem that was difficult for you to admit to. Creating a safe and open environment is more likely to help your loved one see the need for change. A threatening, judgmental, or lecturing approach will make them feel defensive, and your words will likely fall on deaf ears.
Don’t Expect Helping Them to Be Easy
You should try to be realistic when talking to your loved one about their addiction. There’s no fast and easy way to help them, especially if they aren’t willing to get substance abuse help. Trying to persuade them or giving them ultimatums about how to get help for drug addiction isn’t likely to be effective. Remember that overcoming addiction requires tremendous willpower and determination.
Bear in mind that you may need to approach the subject multiple times, as your loved one may not be receptive when you feel like talking about it. If you sense that they’re becoming agitated or annoyed by the conversation, back off. Some common difficulties you may encounter include the following:
- Your loved one may be in denial and not want to admit that they have a problem.
- They may acknowledge that they have a problem, but they don’t want to change.
- They may fear the consequences of their addiction, such as feeling that they could lose their job or custody of their children if they enter treatment.
- They may not think that they have the money, resources, or support to enter treatment.
- They may not want to look at the problems that led to their addiction, such as a family history of abuse.
- They may be afraid of the treatment process or fear being labeled an addict.
- They may have an underlying mental illness that they are not ready to deal with.
You might consider looking into a specific form of treatment geared toward providing help for families of addicts. Community reinforcement and family training is a treatment approach that offers support and guidance for families through a variety of interventions so that they can help their loved ones get addiction support. Interventions that teach how to help a family with addiction include:5 strategy
- Communication skills training.
- Motivation building.
- Treatment entry training.
- Safety training.
- Contingency-management training.
- Life-enrichment training.
Communicating Honestly with Your Loved One
Knowing how to help someone with addiction involves building trust in both directions. This is the most important step in encouraging them to think about making changes and getting them to engage in treatment. It won’t always be easy; try to remember to talk to your loved one in the way that you’d like to be spoken to. Avoid nagging, criticizing, and judging. It’s also important to avoid engaging in addictive behaviors yourself, because your loved one may not see why they need to change while you don’t. At the very least, you should avoid drinking or using drugs around your friend or loved one.
Points to consider when planning to talk to your loved one about how to get help for addiction include:6 planning a good time to talk and discussing drugs
- Realize that you may have different perspectives. Your loved one may not agree with your perception of the problem or they may feel that you’re trying to micromanage their lives or interfere when they don’t see a problem.
- Admit that the situation is stressful for you both. Not only does stress contribute to the problem, but it can also cause things to spiral out of control if the discussion gets heated or if you’re both unwilling to hear what the other person is saying.
- Trust works both ways. You should make sure that you don’t breach your loved one’s privacy by searching their emails or personal space for evidence of their drug or alcohol abuse.
- Avoid enabling— allow your loved one to experience consequences for their behavior. You may want to protect them, but if they don’t experience the consequences of their actions, they may not fully see the need to change.
Dealing with a family member with drug addiction can be frustrating, especially if they aren’t yet ready to change. While you may feel stressed, anxious, or angry at times, you should also remember that the decision to change is up to them. Keeping a calm and open approach to communication is important in encouraging change and effectively helping someone with drug abuse. Your loved one will likely be more willing to hear you if you talk to them in an honest, respectful, and caring manner, without being threatening or belligerent.
Create a Plan for Rehab When Before They’re Ready
Treating addiction is not a cut-and-dry approach. The type of treatment a person receives depends on the extent and severity of their addiction. It’s a good idea to educate yourself about different rehab centers and the types of treatment they offer before you talk to your loved one. That way you’ll be prepared to provide information if your loved one asks about how to get help.
You can call different rehabs and ask questions about their approach to helping those with addiction, such as how to treat addiction and what they offer in terms of helping an addict recover. The better prepared you are for the conversation, the more likely it is that your loved one will consider committing to treatment. Be sure to let them know that they’re not alone and that you’ll be there to support them throughout the treatment process.
If you are involved in your loved one’s treatment (such as through couples’ or family therapy or another form of counseling), you should continue to work on building and maintaining trust, being honest about your feelings, and avoiding criticism. The process can go up and down over time; your loved one may fluctuate between appreciation and blame or anger toward you. Be ready to handle these intense emotions and understand that it’s a part of the process. Seek therapy or support if necessary. Resources include support groups for families and friends of people with addiction like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.
On the other hand, if your loved one decides to pursue treatment on their own without your help, then it’s important to respect their decision and personal boundaries in everyday life and in whatever they’re working on in treatment or therapy. You can’t expect to know best how to support someone in recovery right from the start; it’s a learning process. Be willing to listen with a compassionate ear if they want to share with you. Remember to be patient and realize that your loved one has decided to undergo one of the biggest challenges they may ever face in their lives. Respect and affirm their desire to get help and be there on standby if they should ask for your support.
1. University of Pennsylvania Health System. (2003). Enabling behaviors.
2. MQ: Transforming mental health. (2018). Stress and our mental health – what is the impact & how can we tackle it?
3. Plattor, C. (2018). “I know I’m enabling but . . .” recovery from addiction in the family.
4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Helping a loved one dealing with mental and/or substance use disorders.
5. American Psychological Association. (2011). Community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT).
6. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Having the conversation.