How to Help a Loved One Who’s Struggling with Addiction

If you have a family member, friend, or loved one who is struggling with substances or addictive behaviors, you may wonder how to help.

For most of us, our understanding of how to deal with addiction comes from popular culture. Films and TV shows reinforce the idea that when you have a loved one dealing with addiction, you need to confront them. Common wisdom encourages people to give the addicts in their lives an ultimatum: shape up or I’ll cut you off. However, research shows that these approaches just don’t work.

From the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

There is no evidence that confrontational "interventions" like those familiar from TV programs are effective at convincing people they have a problem or motivating them to change. It is even possible for such confrontational encounters to escalate into violence or backfire in other ways.

Rather, there’s strong evidence that empathetic and empowering approaches are far more effective than confrontational approaches.

Understand Your Loved One’s Behavior

So where should you start?

It’s important to first get a better understanding of addiction and learn more about what drives your loved one’s behavior.

While on the outside it might seem like a person’s behavior is irrational, to them it makes sense. Drug and alcohol use, or other addictive behaviors, are not the problem in and of itself. These things are a solution to a much bigger problem.

For many people, addiction is a response to a bigger struggle, whether it might be trauma, abuse, isolation, or just having a tough time. In fact, at least two thirds of addicted people have suffered at least one extremely traumatic experience during childhood.

We also live in a consumer culture, where many addictive behaviors, such as drinking, gambling, gaming, shopping, etc, are socially acceptable ways to deal with difficult issues. Nearly everyone uses some kind of escape like this from time to time.

Addictive behaviors are an important coping mechanism in response to dynamic personal, familial, and societal factors. This is what keeps people turning back to these behaviors again and again despite negative consequences.

And everyone is different. There’s no one size fits all approach to dealing with addiction. Because each person’s issues with substances come from a unique set of circumstances, it’s important to address every person on an individual basis.

Say Something. It Makes a Difference.

It can be intimidating to bring up this topic.

Know that if you notice something about your friend or loved one, you are not the only one. They probably know that something is off, too.

Also, your words and actions can make a difference. Friends and family members have a huge impact on someone struggling with addiction. Isolation is a major contributor to addiction, so making the step to let a person know that you are there with them is a big step in and of itself.

When you do decide to talk to your friend or loved one, it’s important to come from a place of compassion and support. And it’s important to be honest.

Don’t focus on the substances or your loved one’s experience. No one wants someone else to tell them how they feel or what they’re doing wrong. Instead, talk about how their behavior affects you.

Instead of saying, “You drank too much. Don’t order another drink,” you might say, “Every time you drink, I worry that you will hurt yourself and that you will say hurtful things to me.”

You may have some information about potential ways that your loved one can get help. Invite your loved one into the conversation to keep them from receiving your suggestions defensively. You can lead with, “Could I offer a thought?” or “Would it be helpful for you to hear about…?” After you offer information, check in with them to see how they received it and stay open minded. You might ask, “What do you think?”

And ask lots of questions.

The more know about your loved one's behavior, the easier it is to collaborate with them to make a plan, setting a course of action towards change.

Take Care of Yourself

Dealing with a loved one who is struggling is hard. It can be frustrating and all-consuming, an emotional rollercoaster. Every day can feel like a crisis.

In the moment, it can feel totally appropriate to put your health and happiness on the back burner.

But you need to take care of yourself. Your ability to help your friend or loved one directly relates to your own wellness. Think of the safety protocols in a plane. You need to secure your oxygen mask before you can help the person sitting next to you.

If you don’t pay attention to your own needs, you risk burning out before you can actually help. Conversely, if you are well, you are likely to listen more carefully and help more effectively.

Acknowledge that the situation that you are in is stressful and be aware of your emotional states. This way you can relieve stress as it comes up and take breaks when you need them.

It’s also completely natural for negative emotions to surface. Being aware of this fact can help you pause and prevent yourself from acting impulsively. Taking out your anger and frustration on your loved one, while cathartic, can ultimately distance you and your loved one, pushing you further from your goals.

Feelings of doubt and shame may come up. There may be a small, nagging voice in the back of your head that wonders if you have contributed to the problem. You might blame yourself for your loved one’s setbacks, especially once you’ve opened up this dialogue and made your intention to help clear. In these cases, it’s important to know that these feelings are also normal and to treat yourself with compassion.

From the Center for Motivation and Change’s 20 Minute Guide:

You can apologize if you need to. You can ask for help and support from others who care about you or have gone through similar life circumstances. You can move forward and unload some of this baggage. Ultimately, these are all part of finding compassion for yourself.

Finally, seek out people that will listen to you and support you. Your loved one needs a community of support in their journey to recovery. Likewise, you need a team of allies, too. Even though it sometimes feels easier to retreat, taking care of yourself and giving yourself support will make you more powerful and able to help your loved one through this tough time.

Evo Health and Wellness is an outpatient addiction treatment program in Venice, California that respects where you are and where you want to go. Learn more about Evo's program.

Resources

Center for Motivation and Change - 20 Minute Guide for Parents and Partners

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Addiction

References

L. Khoury et al. “Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an Urban Civilian Population,” Depression and Anxiety 27, no 12 (2010): 1077-86.

A.S. Hampton et al., “Pathways to Treatment Retention for Individuals Legally Coerced to Substance Use Treatment: The Interaction of Hope and Treatment Motivation,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 118, nos. 2-3 (2011): 400-07

W.L. White and W.R. Miller, “The Use of Confrontation in Addiction Treatment: History, Science, and a Time for Change,” Counselor 8 (2007): 12-30.