How to Communicate With Someone Who Has an Addiction

Woman listening to friend while resting on sofa at home

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It's challenging to know the best way to communicate with someone in your life who has an addiction. How can you offer your love and support, avoid miscommunications, and protect your own boundaries all at the same time?

You may feel overwhelmed, but there are ways of communicating that produce better outcomes than we might expect. Remember, each person who has an addiction has a unique set of circumstances. These tips for interacting with them can help you show support along with compassion.

Be Kind

Show you care through your behavior—act with kindness and understanding. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society, that people who have addictions often expect others to criticize, insult, or belittle them, and for friends and family to reject them.

By accepting the person with an addiction—even if you don't accept their behavior—you can start to build bridges to forgiveness and their recovery.

Avoid using words like "addict" or "junkie" when you speak to anyone with an addiction. A person's addiction shouldn't define who they are, as these terms suggest. Being called an "addict" can feel dehumanizing to someone with an addiction. Remember that language matters, and communicate with them as respectfully as possible.

Listen More Than You Talk

When someone with an addiction confides in you, try to listen without interrupting or criticizing them. Even if you do not agree with their behavior, it's important to withhold your judgment.

Learn more about addiction from reliable medical sources, and try to understand their point of view.

You should also avoid trying to solve their problems for them. For instance, telling them that they should "quit cold turkey" or that they just have to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" are unhelpful ways of talking to someone about their addiction.

Be Consistent

Communicate through your actions as well as your words. Remain consistent in your message so that they don't misunderstand what you want or expect of them.

For example, don't tell your partner that you think they have a drinking problem, and then offer to share a bottle of wine with them over dinner.

You also don't want to make excuses for them. Telling them that one drink "doesn't count" for instance, will only enable their behavior. Ultimately, they are responsible for their addiction. But you should do your best as their friend or loved one to show that you support them and their recovery.

While someone with an addiction can have unpredictable behavior, you can encourage them to be more consistent by being a good example.

If you say you'll meet them somewhere, do your best to be there. If you tell them you'll attend a support group with them, definitely show up.

Show Unconditional Love and Concern

Let them know that you still love and care about them, no matter how severe their addiction. Show that you have their best interests at heart, whether or not they get help. Of course, you shouldn't tolerate their behavior if it's unhealthy or unsafe for you to do so.

Set Boundaries

Let your friend or family member with an addiction know what your boundaries are. Set limits with them, and don't be afraid to follow through. For instance, you might say to them that you don't feel comfortable spending time together until they seek treatment for their disorder.

If the person seems unwilling to change, and you feel you cannot keep interacting, gently let them know. Counseling can be a good place to do this if they are open to going with you.

You don't want to punish someone for having an addiction, but you should focus on your needs. When you set boundaries, you are protecting your own health and well-being.

Communicating with someone who has an addiction can also be hard if you have a history of supporting the person's addictive behavior. They might be surprised you are speaking up instead of enabling or ignoring their addiction. Letting them know that they act in ways that bother you may even help to motivate them to get help.

Don't be afraid to leave a situation if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If someone with an addiction needs immediate help, contact emergency services.

Don't Try to Control Them

You want to help your loved one with their addiction in any way you can, but you can't control exactly how they do it. They may have unconventional ways of looking at their addiction, or maybe they're experimenting with alternative therapies or treatments.

As long as they aren't causing more harm to themselves or others in the process, you can show them that you respect their own way of making changes. Offer to help in ways that they would like, without dictating what they must do.

Support the Process of Change

If you have a friend or loved one with an addiction, let them know you are willing to support them, for example, by coming with them to family or couples counseling. You can even help them take the first step—whether it's bringing them to a doctor's appointment or a support group meeting.

They'll likely feel encouraged by the fact that you are making changes in your own life to help them with their addiction.

Help Them Seek Help

People often feel ashamed of their addiction, and the fear of being reported to the police or another authority may be one of their biggest obstacles to seeking help.

Offer to research ways to get help for their situation. Even if the person refuses, you can find help for yourself. Seeing you get help and improving your mood and functioning can be inspiring to them, as they see that change is possible.

There are support groups specifically for friends and family members of people with addictions. Al-Anon, for instance, is for those who have people in their life with alcohol use disorder. Nar-Anon is for those who have people in their lives addicted to or dependent on narcotics such as opioids.

Self-Care

Helping a friend or family member with addiction is challenging. In the process, you need to prioritize your own needs before taking care of anyone else. Self-care is crucial. Make sure you're getting enough alone time—and that you're not always taking care of your loved one.

Without realizing it, you might become your loved one's caretaker. While your intentions are good, you want to be sure you're not overwhelming yourself with their life and their responsibilities.

Be sure you're eating a nutritious diet, doing physical exercise, and getting enough sleep every night.

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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Article Sources
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