How to Help a Family Member or a Loved One with Addiction: A Resource Guide
Addiction is a disease that not only affects the person with the substance use disorder (SUD), but also those surrounding them. As a friend, family member, or loved one of someone who is misusing drugs or alcohol, you may be feeling confused, frustrated, and unsure of how to be of help.
Although you cannot force your loved one to change their ways, there are several things that you can do to both help them and take care of yourself during this difficult time.
Signs Your Loved One May Have a Substance Use Disorder
Although different substances have varied effects, some general signs can indicate that someone you care about may have a problem. When looking for warning signs of addiction, you should consider physical, mental/emotional, and behavioral changes. These can include the following:1
- Taking substances for longer and/or in larger amounts than intended
- Wanting to cut down or stop substance misuse but not succeeding in attempts to do so
- Spending an excessive amount of time misusing, obtaining, and recovering from substances and substance misuse
- Experiencing intense cravings
- Continuing to misuse substances despite the negative consequences that are likely to result, or have resulted, from doing so
- Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, school, etc. due to substance misuse
- Continuing to misuse substances in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so (e.g., when driving a motor vehicle)
- Continuing to misuse substances despite being aware that doing so exacerbates other physical or psychological health problems
- Needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effects (known as tolerance)
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cutting back or quitting substance misuse to avoid withdrawal
Effects of Addiction on the Family
While your loved one is probably struggling with many side effects of their addiction, there’s a chance that you’re contending with a lot as well, such as:2
- Economic strain due to helping your loved one pay their bills, legal costs, or deal with other expenses.
- Emotional hardship because of feeling angry, anxious, worried, depressed, guilty, or embarrassed.
- Unhappiness with your relationship with your loved one.
- Familial instability, perhaps resulting from abuse or violence.
It may also become stressful if you have a desire to want to help your loved one with the challenges associated with their substance misuse. However, in many cases with families, what is perceived as “help” often turns into enabling, which can impact the family unit even more.
Talking to Your Loved One About Their Addiction
The idea of talking to your loved one about their addiction may cause you to experience all kinds of emotions. You may feel anxious about what their reaction will be or become stressed when attempting to figure out exactly what to say to them. Thankfully, approaching your loved one with your concerns can be done in an effective manner. Consider the following:3
- Determine a time and place to have this conversation. Ensure that you and your loved one are in a setting where it is private and comfortable, as well as free of distractions.
- Share your concerns with your loved one. This is the time to be direct yet compassionate with how you are feeling.
- Listen to what they have to say. Do not judge or attempt to correct what they are saying, rather actively listen to them.
- Tell your loved one that you want to help them. Let them know that you can help by looking up different addiction treatment options, make initial calls to facilities for them, and so on.
- Remain patient with your loved one throughout the entirety of your conversation. Try to accept your loved one’s addiction for the disease that it is and understand that getting them help may take continued efforts.
The use of confrontational and coercive interventions, such as those shown on television, is not supported by the evidence as an effective tool for creating lasting change. There are, however, supportive interventional approaches that have been effective in guiding a resistant family member into accepting and entering treatment. These approaches are typically done in concert with certified mental health professionals.3
Helping vs. Enabling A Loved One: What’s the Difference?
Unfortunately, addiction doesn’t just affect the person who has a substance use disorder—it often affects the entire family. Your loved one may be in denial, rationalizing their addiction, or projecting onto other members of the family. In cases like these, family members often respond in complementary ways to protect themselves from the consequences of their loved one’s addiction, ultimately resulting in isolation of the affected individual as well as family members.4
Sometimes, when wondering how to help a loved one with addiction, you might begin taking steps that instead enable their substance misuse by minimizing the consequences of their actions.5,6 A parent bailing his or her child out of jail repeatedly, or a spouse reporting to his or her partner’s employer that they are sick when actually they are unable to get up for work due to the previous night’s substance misuse, are just two examples of what enabling behavior looks like.
Although enabling doesn’t often feel like a negative action, it can help reinforce the behavior you may be trying to prevent.5 By helping your loved one avoid the full consequences of their actions, you could be unintentionally making it possible for them to continue problematic substance misuse. Learning how to establish healthy boundaries is part of the recovery process.4
Family Member Addiction Resources
Remember, you’re not alone in your struggles with managing a loved one who is abusing drugs or alcohol. You can turn to your support network for help, and you can reach out to many organizations that assist families and loved ones of those with substance use disorders. Remember, it is understandable and encouraged to ask for help when you are trying to help a family member recover from addiction.
We are also here for you at Recovery First. On this page you’ll find several different guides to help you learn about addiction, treatment, and recovery, as well as how approach your loved one about their substance abuse. Also, you can reach our admissions navigators at any time of the day or night at 888-375-5081 with questions, concerns, and solutions to how to get your loved one the best care for their situation.
We’ve created several guides for family members on the topic of helping a loved one with addiction. You can find them below:
- Recovery First’s Guide for Families
- Guide for Spouses/Partners
- Guide for Parents of Adult Children
- Guide for Children of Addicted Parents
- Guide for Friends
- Guide for Coworkers/Managers
In each the guides above, you’ll be able to find helpful information regarding:
- What substance misuse can look like.
- Discussing drug or alcohol abuse with your family member.
- Establishing boundaries in your relationship with your loved one.
- How to help a family member get into rehab.
- Addiction treatment options.
- The differences between inpatient/residential treatment facilities and outpatient program.
- Different approaches to pay for treatment.
- How you and your loved one’s support network can help their recovery.
Addiction Is Not a Choice, It’s a Disease & Not Your Fault
It may be hard to see the forest through the trees when it comes to your loved one’s addiction, but it’s important to remind yourself that you are not the cause of their addiction, nor can you control or cure it.7
Addiction is a chronic brain disease. Long-term substance abuse and addiction can change your loved one’s brain chemistry: drug or alcohol abuse over time can compromise their ability to choose, and drug use can become compulsive.6 You did not cause the substance abuse.
With that in mind, you can help. Encourage them to see a doctor. Provide them with details about treatment. Let them know how their drug or alcohol abuse is affecting your family.
It’s not easy to have these conversations—there’s a good chance your loved one will be defensive. But with your support, and the help of medical professionals and treatment, they have a chance at recovery.