How to Help an Addicted Friend or Relative

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People who know someone struggling with an addiction often wonder how to help an addicted friend or relative. The decision to try and get help for someone you care about who has an addiction is never easy. Fortunately, with your support, they have a greater chance of overcoming their addiction. Each situation is unique, but there are some general guidelines that will help you approach this task.

Do

  • Focus on building trust

  • Be honest

  • Respect privacy

Don't

  • Threaten

  • Criticize

  • Expect immediate change

Expect Difficulties

There are many reasons that helping someone you care about with their addiction can be difficult:

  • They may not agree that they have a problem.
  • They may not want to change what they are doing.
  • They may fear consequences e.g., losing their job, going to prison.
  • They may feel embarrassed, and not want to discuss it with you.
  • They may feel awkward about discussing personal issues with a professional.
  • They may be engaging in the addiction as a way to avoid dealing with another problem that bothers them more.

There is no fast and easy way to help someone with an addiction. Overcoming an addiction requires great willpower and determination, so if they do not want to change what they are doing, trying to persuade them to get help is unlikely to work.

However, you can take steps that will help your loved one to make changes over the long term and will help you to cope with a loved one with an addiction.

Step 1: Establish Trust

This can be hard to do if the addicted person has already betrayed your trust. However, establishing trust both ways is an important first step in helping them to think about change. Trust is easily undermined, even when you are trying to help.

Avoid These Trust-Destroyers:

  • Nagging, criticizing, and lecturing the addicted person.
  • Yelling, name-calling, and exaggerating (even when you are stressed yourself).
  • Engaging in addictive behaviors yourself, even in moderation (they will think you are a hypocrite).

Be aware that:

  • Although you just want to help the addicted person, they may think you are trying to control them, which can lead to them engaging in the addictive behavior even more.
  • They probably use addictive behavior at least partly as a way to control stress. If the atmosphere between you is stressful, they will want to do the addictive behavior more, not less.
  • Building trust is a two-way process. Trust is not established by putting up with bad behavior. If you have no trust for your loved one and do not feel it can be established at the moment, you should read Step 2.
  • People with addictions rarely change until there is some consequence to their behavior. Don’t try too hard to protect the addicted person from the consequences of their own actions (unless it is harmful to themselves or others, for example, drinking and driving).

Step 2: Get Help for Yourself First

Being in a relationship with a person who has an addiction is often stressful. Accepting that you are going through stress and need help managing it is an important step in helping your loved one, as well as yourself.

Step 3: Communicate

Although you may feel tempted to let your loved one know that their addiction is a problem and that they need to change, the decision to change is theirs. They are much more likely to be open to thinking about change if you communicate honestly but in a way that does not threaten your loved one.

Step 4: The Treatment Process

The treatment process will vary according to the kind of treatment your friend or relative is getting.

If you want them to change, you will probably have to change too, even if you don’t have an addiction. If you show you are willing to try, your loved one will be more likely to try as well.

If you are involved in your loved one's treatment:

  • Remember to keep working on establishing trust. Re-read Step 1 before going to counseling with your loved one.
  • Be honest about your feelings, what you want to happen, and what the addiction has been like for you.
  • Do not blame, criticize or humiliate your loved one in counseling. Simply say what it has been like for you.
  • Do not be surprised if your loved one says that things you are doing are contributing to their addiction. Try to listen with an open mind.

If your loved one has treatment alone:

  • Respect their privacy in everyday life. Do not inform friends, family or others about your loved one’s treatment.
  • Respect their privacy in therapy. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push for them to tell you what happened.
  • There are many different approaches to the challenge of how to help addicts, but remember, change does not happen overnight.
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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Gottman Ph.D., John and DeClaire, Joan. “The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships.” Three Rivers Press, New York. 2001.
  • Hartney, Elizabeth, Orford, Jim, Dalton, Sue, Ferrins-Brown, Maria, Kerr, Cicely and Maslin, Jenny. "Untreated Heavy Drinkers: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Dependence and Readiness to Change." Addiction Research and Theory 2003 11:317–337.
  • Love EdD, Patricia, and Stosney, Steven Ph.D. “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It: Finding Love Beyond Words.” Broadway Books, New York. 2007.
  • Orford, Jim, Dalton, Susan, Hartney, Elizabeth, Ferrins-Brown, Maria, Kerr, Cicely and Maslin, Jenny. “The Close Relatives of Untreated Heavy Drinkers: Perspectives on Heavy Drinking and Its Effects.” Addiction Research and Theory 2002 10:439–463.
  • Orford, Jim, Natera, Guillermina, Copello, Alex, Atkinson, Carol, Mora, Jazmin, Velleman, Richard, Crundall, Ian, Tiburcio, Marcela, Templeton, Lorna and Walley, Gwen. “Coping With Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures.” Routledge: London and New York. 2005.