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How to Help Someone With Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol

Addiction impacts not only the person who misuses substances but also those around them.1 But knowing how to help someone with addiction can be challenging, and it can feel even harder to provide support while still taking care of yourself.

You can’t force a person to stop using substances, and you can’t force them to enter treatment if they’re not ready. However, you can show your encouragement, love, and support and help them enter addiction treatment when the time is right.

How Addiction Affects Loved Ones

Addiction, clinically referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic, relapsing brain disease in which a person continues using alcohol or drugs despite the harmful consequences to their health and overall well-being.2 A person struggling with addiction is typically unable to stop using a substance through willpower alone, which can sometimes be difficult for families and loved ones to understand fully.

Addiction can affect family and loved ones in different ways depending on various factors, such as family dynamics and the person struggling with addiction (e.g., child, parent). Addiction can impact loved ones in several ways, including:3

  • Emotional and mental exhaustion: Loved ones often experience increased anxiety and stress as they witness the person they care about struggling with addiction.
  • Increased risk of domestic violence: Addiction can contribute to domestic violence, creating an unsafe environment for everyone in the household.
  • Family conflict: The tension and challenges posed by addiction can lead to conflicts within the family, affecting overall family dynamics.
  • Heightened awareness: They become more sensitive to changes in their loved one’s behavior and mood.
  • Increased risk of addiction: In cases where a parent has a substance use disorder (SUD), children may be at a higher risk of developing addiction themselves due to environmental and genetic factors.
  • Isolation: Loved ones may feel emotionally disconnected from the person struggling with addiction, leading to a sense of helplessness and loneliness.
  • Economic consequences: Addiction can strain the family’s finances, as resources may be diverted to support the addiction or address its consequences, such as medical bills or legal issues.

How to Recognize Addiction

Only qualified health professionals can diagnose a substance use disorder (SUD).2 However, if you are wondering how to help someone with substance abuse, knowing the criteria for SUD can be helpful. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), lists the following criteria for SUD:4

  • Using the substance in larger amounts or for a longer time than originally intended.
  • Being unable to cut down or stop using the substance, even if the person wants to.
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of the substance.
  • Experiencing intense urges or desires to use the substance (known as cravings).
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at home, work, or school due to substance use.
  • Continuing substance use even though it causes or worsens social or interpersonal problems.
  • Giving up social, recreational, or occupational activities due to substance use and withdrawing from family or friends to use the substance.
  • Using the substance in dangerous situations (such as while driving or operating machinery).
  • Continuing substance use even though the person knows they have a physical or psychological problem that is probably caused or worsened by substance use.
  • Needing to use more of the substance to experience previous effects (known as tolerance).
  • Experiencing unpleasant or uncomfortable symptoms if they try to stop using (known as withdrawal).

Proper diagnosis is important for the person and their family and friends because it can help identify the problem and provide a starting point for getting the right help with addiction treatment.2

How to Help Someone With Addiction

Recovery from addiction is challenging and there are no quick fixes. Individuals struggling with addiction may continue to use substances, straining their relationships with family and friends. If you are wondering how to help a person with drug addiction, these tips can help:5, 6, 7

  • Educate yourself: Learn about addiction and its effects to better understand their situation.
  • Express concern: Communicate your worry and support without judgment.
  • Encourage professional help: Suggest therapy, counseling, or treatment programs.
  • Set boundaries: Define clear limits to protect yourself and maintain a healthy relationship.
  • Avoid enabling: Don’t participate in or support their addictive behavior.
  • Offer emotional support: Be a source of emotional comfort and encouragement.
  • Attend support groups: Join groups like Al-Anon for your support and guidance.
  • Stay patient: Recovery is a process with ups and downs; patience is crucial.
  • Celebrate milestones: Acknowledge and reward their progress.
  • Prioritize self-care: Take care of your well-being to better help your loved one.

How to Talk to Someone With Addiction: What to Say and What Not to Say

You might feel anxious or worried about talking to your loved one, and that’s completely normal. There’s no exact way of knowing how to help someone dealing with addiction, but these tips can help you start the conversation:8, 9

  • Choose the right time: Find a calm, private environment for the conversation.
  • Be compassionate: Show empathy and avoid criticism.
  • Use “I” statements: Express your concerns with phrases like “I’m worried about you” to avoid blame.
  • Listen actively: Allow them to share their feelings and thoughts without interruption or judgment.
  • Provide information: Share options and resources and information on types of treatment.
  • Stay calm: Keep emotions in check, even if they react defensively.
  • Reinforce support: Remind them that you care about their well-being. You might say, “I am here for you no matter what, and I want you to know that I am willing to help you.”

While the above tips can help you start the conversation, there are also things you should not say to a loved one struggling with addiction. Keep these tips in mind:8, 9

  • Don’t oversimplify: Avoid oversimplifying the challenges of addiction by saying, “Just quit.”
  • Avoid negative comments: Avoid negative comments about their choices or life.
  • Avoid stigmatizing language: Refrain from labeling them as an “addict” or using stigmatizing terms.
  • Avoid ultimatums: Refrain from using ultimatums to force change.
  • Don’t compare experiences: Avoid comparing their experience to others.

What Is an Intervention?

An intervention is a process of respectfully approaching a person about their addiction and behavior to encourage them to seek help. It is a structured event that is best supported with the help of a professional to avoid an aggressive environment that could feel threatening.10 An intervention usually takes place at a specific time and includes the support of family, friends, coworkers, and other people involved in the person’s life, along with guidance from a trained interventionist.10

No research supports the effectiveness of confrontational interventions, and they could backfire or escalate, especially if they are not properly conducted or managed.10 If you are interested in having an intervention, seek professional guidance or encourage your loved one to talk to their doctor first. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that people may be more likely to listen to professionals than to conversations with family or friends, as these can be more emotionally charged.10

Help for Families Coping With Addiction

Seeking support for yourself is just as important as getting your loved one help with drug addiction. Your needs are just as important as anyone else’s.

Families often take part in family therapy as a way of obtaining support, and it is often a component of addiction treatment programs.3 Family therapy can address underlying communication issues or other concerns to help support behavior change.3

Additional forms of support can include mutual support groups for families and loved ones of people with addiction, such as Al-anon, Nar-anon, SMART Recovery for Family and Friends, or Codependents Anonymous (CoDA).2, 11, 12

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Help

Individualized treatment plans that consider a person’s unique needs are important for recovery and helping someone with addiction return to a productive and healthy life.19 One type of addiction treatment isn’t better than another and many treatment options will include services like behavioral therapies, group therapy, family therapy, and individual counseling.19

Common types of treatment include:2, 13, 14

  • Detox is often the first step in the recovery process. It can help a person manage withdrawal while under supervision.
  • Inpatient or residential treatment involves living at a treatment facility and receiving round-the-clock care and support. A person may participate in different forms of therapy and other services to address their addiction.
  • Outpatient treatment involves living at home but traveling to a rehab facility, one to several times per week. They receive support and participate in different therapies.
  • Support groups, like 12-step programs, help people maintain sobriety by receiving support from others in recovery.
  • Aftercare or continuing care includes any form of ongoing support, such as individual counseling, group therapy, or medication management. It takes place after formal treatment has ended and helps people prevent relapse and stay sober. Many rehab facilities offer aftercare planning.

Finding Help for Addiction to Drugs and Alcohol

At American Addiction Centers, we understand the challenges related to addiction and know it can be hard supporting a loved one with an addiction. If you or your loved one are interested in learning more about treatment options, please call our confidential and free helpline to speak to a caring admissions navigator 24/7 at . We can help you find addiction treatment and check your insurance so you or a loved one can start recovery today.

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