How to Help an Addicted Friend or Relative

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If you have a friend or relative who is living with addiction, you might be wondering how you can help. It's not always easy to make the decision to try to help someone who has an addiction, but your loved one will have a greater chance of overcoming addiction with your support.

While every situation is unique, there are some general guidelines that can help.

Do
  • Focus on building trust

  • Be honest

  • Respect privacy

Don't
  • Threaten

  • Criticize

  • Expect immediate change

Expect Difficulties

There are many reasons why it can be difficult to help someone you care about who has an addiction. Your loved one:

  • May not agree that they have a problem
  • May not want to change what they are doing
  • May fear consequences (e.g., losing their job or going to prison)
  • May feel embarrassed and not want to discuss their addiction with you (or anyone else)
  • May feel awkward about discussing their personal issues with a professional, such as a doctor or counselor
  • May engage in their addiction as a way to avoid dealing with another problem (such as mental illness)

There is no fast and easy way to help a person with an addiction. Overcoming addiction requires great willpower and determination. If someone does not want to change their behavior, trying to persuade them to get help is unlikely to work.

What you can do is take steps to help your loved one make changes in the long term. It's also important that you get the support you need to cope with a loved one who has an addiction.

Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) is an evidence-based method for helping families get help for addicted loved ones.

CRAFT has replaced traditional interventions as the preferred method of helping people with addiction get the help they need, such as therapy.

Step 1: Establish Trust

If an addicted person has already betrayed your trust, regaining and maintaining it can be tough. However, establishing trust both ways is an important first step in helping someone with addiction think about change.

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).

Trust is easily undermined, even when you are trying to help. There are a few things to keep in mind as you are thinking about talking to your loved one about their addiction.

  • Different perspectives. While you may only want to help your loved one, they might think you are trying to control them. These feelings can lead a person with addiction to engage in their addiction even more.
  • Stress can make things worse. Your loved one likely uses their addictive behavior (at least partly) as a way to control stress. If the atmosphere between the two of you is stressful, they will want to do the addictive behavior more, not less.
  • Trust goes both ways. Building trust is a two-way process. Trust is not established when you continue to put up with unwanted behavior. (If you currently have no trust for your loved one and do not feel that it can be established, move ahead to Step 2).
  • Understand the role of consequences. People with addiction rarely change until the addictive behavior begins to have consequences. While you might want to protect your loved one, resist the urge to try to protect someone with addiction from the consequences of their own actions.

The exception to allowing for consequences is if your loved one is doing something that could be 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. It's important that you accept that what you are going through is difficult and seek support. You also need to develop stress management strategies—an important step in helping your loved one as well as yourself.

You might want to consider participating in support groups, such as Al-Anon or Naranon. Children and teens can get support from Alateen.

Step 3: Communicate

You might be more than ready to let your loved one know how you feel about the issues their addiction has caused and feel a strong urge to get them to change.

While it can be frustrating, remember that the decision to change is theirs. A person with an addiction is much more likely to be open to thinking about change if you communicate honestly and without being threatening.

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.

Step 4: The Treatment Process

The process of treating addiction varies depending on the type of treatment that a person receives. If you are involved in your loved one's treatment:

  • Keep working on establishing trust. It might be helpful to re-read Step 1 before going to counseling with your loved one.
  • Be honest about your feelings. Tell your loved one what their addiction has been like for you and be honest about what you want to happen next.
  • Do not blame, criticize or humiliate your loved one in counseling. Simply say what it has been like for you.
  • Be prepared for blame. Do not be surprised if your loved one expresses things you have done or said are contributing to their addiction. Stay calm and listen with an open heart and mind.

If your loved one chooses to pursue treatment on their own:

  • 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.
  • Practice patience. There are many approaches to addiction treatment, but no change happens overnight.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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