How to Help Someone Struggling With Addiction

Caucasian couple sitting together comforting one another

Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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.

This article discusses some of the strategies you can use to help a friend or loved one who is struggling with an addiction. While every situation is unique, there are some general guidelines that can help.

Do
  • Focus on building trust so they will be more likely to listen.

  • Be honest and let them know how the addiction is affecting your life and your relationship with them.

  • Respect their privacy while being supportive. You can't force them into quitting, but you can be a source of strength.

Don't
  • Threaten. Giving ultimatums may lead them to hide the behavior.

  • Criticize. This can contribute to shame and lessen their belief in their ability to quit.

  • Expect immediate change. Recovery takes time and setbacks are bound to happen.

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 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 a great deal of effort and support. If someone doesn't 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, too.

Find an Approach That Works

There are a number of different treatment options that can be effective, so it is important to consider the options. Think about which approach might be best suited to you and your loved one's needs and goals.

Depending on the nature of the addiction, treatment might involve psychotherapy, medication, support groups, or a combination of all of these. A few options include:

  • Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT): CRAFT is an evidence-based method for helping families get help for addicted loved ones. It has replaced traditional interventions as the preferred method of helping people with addiction get the help they need, such as therapy.
  • Medications: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of medications—including Vivitrol (naltrexone), Campral (acamprosate), and Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone)—that can be effective in the treatment of alcohol dependence and other substance use disorders.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Addiction therapy that utilizes CBT focuses on helping people understand how their thoughts and feelings influence their behaviors. It works by helping people change the thought and behavior patterns that contribute to addiction.
  • Online therapy: Research suggests that online therapy can also be an effective treatment option for substance use disorders. Such programs often incorporate elements of CBT and motivational interviewing, which involves using structured conversations to help people think about how their life will improve by ending their addiction.
  • Support groups: Twelve-step and peer support groups can also be helpful during the recovery process. The groups are aimed at promoting sobriety and may take a variety of approaches. Some may promote total abstinence, while others focus on moderation. Many of these may offer in-person meetings, but online support groups are also available.

Other important factors that can affect a person's recovery include family involvement and other social supports. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that family therapy is an important part of an effective recovery plan.

Recap

There are a number of treatment options that can effectively treat addiction. Encourage your friend or loved one to talk to their doctor about using treatment programs, online therapy, or support groups as part of their recovery.

Establish Trust

If your loved one 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
  • Yelling, name-calling, and exaggerating
  • Engaging in addictive behaviors yourself, even in moderation, which can feel like hypocrisy

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 manage stress. If the atmosphere between the two of you is stressful, they may turn to their 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.
  • 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 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.

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, which is 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.

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.

Identify Treatment Options

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. Try to evaluate where you are with trust 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. Don't 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 without their consent.
  • 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.

What to Expect

Once your loved one has decided to begin treatment, it can be helpful to know what to expect. You might wonder how long treatment will last and what will happen during their recovery. The answer depends on a variety of factors including:

  • The severity of your loved one's addiction
  • The duration and frequency of their substance or alcohol use
  • Past attempts at recovery
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions
  • Motivation and commitment to recovery
  • Support and assistance available

Rehab programs usually last either 30, 60, or 90 days. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends that people spend a minimum of 90 days in treatment.

Long-term treatment and recovery will last for months or even years. Overall progress and setbacks during recovery can extend the duration of treatment. 

During this time, there are things that you can do to offer support. Learning more about the treatment process and offering help with immediate needs such as driving your loved one to appointments or attending support group meetings with them are all ways that you can support their recovery.

What to Expect in Rehab

If your loved one has decided to enter a treatment program for their addiction, they can expect to first check-in and complete an intake interview. This will allow the program to create a plan tailored to their needs.

The next step involves detoxing to remove any substances from their body. This process can take anywhere from three to 14 days and can be aided by medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.

After detox, the next step involves therapy to help them adjust and develop new thought and behavior patterns that will support their long-term recovery. 

A Word From Verywell

Having a friend or family member with an addiction can be difficult, but there are steps that you can take to support your loved one while caring for yourself. While you cannot force your loved one to change, encouraging them to get help and supporting them during treatment can help them succeed.

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.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Polcin DL, Korcha R. Social support influences on substance abuse outcomes among sober living house residents with low and moderate psychiatric severityJ Alcohol Drug Educ. 2017;61(1):51-70.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Treatment for alcohol problems: finding and getting help. Updated March 2021.

  3. Hellum R, Nielsen AS, Bischof G, et al. Community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT) - Design of a cluster randomized controlled trial comparing individual, group and self-help interventions. BMC Public Health. 2019;19(1):307. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-6632-5

  4. Butelman ER, Kreek MJ. Medications for substance use disorders (SUD): emerging approachesExpert Opin Emerg Drugs. 2017;22(4):301-315. doi:10.1080/14728214.2017.1395855

  5. Ho C, Severn M. E-therapy interventions for the treatments of substance use disorders and other addictions: A review of clinical effectiveness [Internet]. Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health; June 27, 2018.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Finding quality treatment for substance use disorders.

  7. Brekke E, Lien L, Biong S. Experiences of professional helping relations by persons with co-occurring mental health and substance use disordersInt J Ment Health Addict. 2018;16(1):53-65. doi:10.1007/s11469-017-9780-9

  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (third edition). Published January 2018.

  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). Updated December 2012.