How to Help Someone with Drug or Alcohol Addiction
Addiction affects not only the person who misuses substances but everyone around them as well.1 If you have a loved one struggling with drug or alcohol misuse, you may feel challenged with how to support them while still caring for yourself.
You can’t force a person to stop using substances, and you can’t make them enter treatment if they’re not yet ready to do so. However, you can show your love, support, and encouragement and help them enter addiction treatment when the time is right for them.
If you don’t know how to support a person with drug or alcohol addiction, this article can help. It will explain how to help an individual struggling with addiction and include information about:
- How addiction affects loved ones.
- How to recognize addiction.
- How to help someone with drug addiction.
- What to avoid when helping a person struggling with addiction.
- Enabling and setting boundaries.
- Help for families and loved ones.
- Drug and alcohol addiction treatment options.
How Addiction Affects Loved Ones
Addiction, or a substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic, relapsing brain disease in which a person continues substance use despite the harmful consequences to their health and overall wellbeing.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 fully understand and cope with.
Addiction can affect family and loved ones in different ways depending on the individual family dynamics, who has an addiction (parent, child, etc.), and other factors.1 A few ways addiction can impact loved ones include:1, 7, 22
- Feeling mentally and emotionally drained.
- More alert to a loved one’s changes in mood or behavior.
- If a parent has a SUD, children may be more likely to develop a SUD.
- Possibility of violence in the home.
- Poor communication.
- Feeling isolated from a loved one who is struggling.
- Conflict in the home.
- Economic consequences.
The causes of addiction can vary and it is a chronic disorder, but it is also treatable. Help for individuals with a substance use disorder is available through various forms of treatment, therapies, and support.3 The following sections will help you understand common signs of addiction and how to support a loved one who is struggling.
How to Recognize Addiction
Only qualified health professionals (such as a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or other licensed and appropriately qualified mental health professionals) can diagnose SUDs.2 However, knowing the criteria for SUDs can be helpful if you suspect that a loved one is struggling with addiction.
The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, lists the following criteria for SUDs: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 Drug Addiction
It is not easy for a person to recover from addiction, and there’s no quick, easy fix or cure. A person may keep using substances even though it hurts their friendships and family relationships. It’s not just because they don’t care about loved ones, but because their brain has changed due to the addiction.5
You may feel desperate and want to make a loved one go into treatment or get help, but you can’t force a person with a SUD to stop using substances or go to rehab. However, you can support them in several ways, including:2, 6, 7, 8
- Educating yourself on addiction.
- Expressing hope that change is possible.
- Maintaining your commitment to loving and encouraging them.
- Be honest yet compassionate when expressing your feelings and concerns.
- Maintaining healthy boundaries.
- Remaining patient.
- Avoiding blame or accusing the person of doing something wrong.
- Realizing that the person can’t stop using without help.
- Researching treatment facilities and calling rehabs to discuss treatment options.
- Offering to accompany your loved one to the doctor. A physician can evaluate the addiction and discuss appropriate treatment options.
It’s normal to feel stressed, angry, or anxious about the situation. Make time to care for yourself and ensure that your needs are met. Join a support group for loved ones of people with addiction or seek individual counseling to help you cope.8
If your loved one is having a medical emergency or experiencing signs of an overdose (such as loss of consciousness or slowed or stopped breathing), you should seek immediate medical attention and call 911 right away.9
How to Talk to Someone with an Alcohol or Drug Addiction
You might feel anxious or worried about talking to your loved one, and that’s completely normal. It may be helpful to set aside time to talk when you and your loved one are sober and you’re both feeling calm.11
There’s no perfect way of knowing how to help someone dealing with addiction, but a few ways to start the conversation can include:10, 11
- Emphasizing your love and concern, such as saying, “I love you and I am concerned about your drinking/substance use.”
- Sticking to the facts and providing examples like, “I am worried by your angry behavior when you drink/use drugs.”
- Letting them know that treatment can help, and they don’t have to do it alone. You might say, “I know it is not easy for you, but I have read that many people can stop drinking/using drugs if they get some type of treatment.”
- Acknowledge their feelings. Let them talk and listen without judgment or arguing.
- Reinforce that you want to help and that you’re going to stick by them. You might say, “I am here for you no matter what, and I want you to know that I am willing to help you.”
What to Avoid When Helping a Loved One with a Drug Addiction
Arguments or blame are not helpful and can increase feelings of stress, anger, and defensiveness.2 If you feel overwhelmed or your loved one is resistant, avoid pressing the issue if they don’t want to talk. Come back to the discussion later when they are more receptive, or you are both feeling less emotional.
It’s important to maintain trust when helping someone with an addiction. They need to feel that you’re on their side. Some of the things to avoid include:2, 12
- Making them feel guilty.
- Acting like you’re a martyr.
- Covering up or making excuses for their behavior.
- Yelling or screaming.
- Talking to them when they are under the influence.
- Stigmatizing language like referring to the person as an “addict” or “alcoholic.”
Challenges of Supporting a Person with Addiction
Common challenges a person may experience when loving/supporting a person with an addiction can include:1, 7
- Not having healthy boundaries. You might not be able to tell where you and your loved one’s emotions end and begin. You might let them get away with behaviors that you wouldn’t tolerate from others.
- Stress. Supporting a loved one with an addiction can add stress to your life because you’re not sure what they may do, how they’ll act, or how to help them.
- Neglecting your own needs. You may be so focused on the needs of your loved one, you may neglect your own physical or mental health needs.
- Ignoring abuse or neglect. You might justify their behavior, make excuses, or say things like “they can’t help it.”
- Relationship conflict. You might have increased arguments or fights, which can be difficult especially if children are present.
- Social isolation. You might feel embarrassed about the problem and avoid seeing friends or family or seeking help for yourself.
What Is an Intervention?
An intervention is a process of safely and 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 a confrontational environment that could feel threatening.23
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.13
There is no concrete research that supports the effectiveness of confrontational interventions, and they could backfire or escalate, especially if they are not properly conducted or managed.23
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.6, 23
How to Stop Enabling and Set Boundaries
Enabling is behavior that allows a person to continue abusing substances and avoid taking responsibility for their actions.14 A person who enables often feels powerless over a loved one’s behavior.14
Having boundaries helps you know where your feelings and responsibilities end and the other person’s begin. Boundaries can be thought of as personal guidelines or limits that dictate ways for other people to treat you.15 If you don’t set boundaries, you might find yourself saying or doing things you don’t feel comfortable with and feel resentful about it later.16
Setting healthy boundaries isn’t always easy, but it can protect you from the negative behaviors of others, help you practice self-care, avoid enabling, and better communicate your needs in relationships.15
A lack of boundaries can be a feature of codependency in relationships. People who identify as codependent often find they are desperate to fix others.24 They may also display certain patterns of behavior related to control, low self-esteem, denial, avoidance, and compliance.24
Enabling behaviors can include:1, 16
- Financially supporting the person.
- Calling in sick to work for them.
- Making excuses to others for their behavior.
- Pretending not to see their behavior/substance use.
- Using substances with them.
- Bailing the person out of jail or dealing with their legal issues.
- Blaming yourself for their problems.
Help for Families of Drug Addicts or Alcoholics
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, 17, 18
Drug and Alcohol Treatment Options for Loved Ones
Individualized treatment plans that consider a person’s unique needs are important for recovery and helping the person 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, 20, 21
- Detox. This is often the first step in recovery, which helps a person safely and more comfortably manage withdrawal while under supervision.
- Inpatient or residential treatment. People live at a treatment facility and receive round-the-clock care and support. They may participate in different forms of therapy and other services to address their addiction.
- Outpatient treatment. People live at home but travel to a rehab facility, one to several times per week. They receive support and participate in different therapies.
- Support groups, like 12-step programs. This helps people maintain sobriety by receiving support from others in recovery.
- Aftercare or continuing care. This 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.
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 free, confidential helpline to speak to a caring admissions navigator 24/7 at . We can also help you check your insurance so you or a loved one can get started in recovery today.