How to Communicate With Someone Who Has an Addiction

Ways to talk to someone with addiction

Verywell / Laura Porter

Navigating conversations with someone in your life who is living with an addiction can be challenging. How can you offer your love and support, avoid miscommunications, and protect your own boundaries all at the same time?

Though not all people living with addiction are the same, there are some communication strategies that can help you show support and compassion.

Be Kind

Show that you care by speaking with kindness and understanding. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society that people who have addictions often expect others to criticize, insult, belittle, and 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 Saying This
  • You should be ashamed of yourself for abusing drugs.

Try This Instead
  • Everyone needs help sometimes. You don't have to be ashamed of your addiction.

Thoughtfully Choose Your Words

Remember that language matters, and communicate as respectfully as possible. Avoid using language that promotes harmful stereotypes about addiction. Some words can negatively influence how people with addictions feel about themselves and about their ability to recover.

For instance, people often use the word "clean" to describe someone who is drug-free. However, the use of the word clean implies that the person who is addicted is "dirty" when they are using drugs.

Avoid calling them names like "addict" or "junkie." A person's addiction shouldn't define who they are. Being called an "addict" can feel dehumanizing. Try using person-first language, such as "person with an addiction."

Avoid Saying This
  • I can't believe you're a junkie. When are you getting clean?

Try This Instead
  • I'm sorry you're struggling with your addiction. I am here to help support you.

Educate Yourself on Addiction

Our society often blames people for their own addictions as if it is a moral failure on the person's part. Make sure that before speaking to your loved one, you understand that addiction as a disorder. The more knowledge you have about addiction, the better you'll be able to communicate.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes addiction as "an inability to stop using a drug; failure to meet work, social, or family obligations; and, sometimes (depending on the drug), tolerance and withdrawal." Currently, people in the medical community more often use "substance use disorder" to refer to addiction.

There is still a lot of stigma surrounding addiction. Harmful beliefs including that people with addictions are selfish, lazy, and destructive are still common. Watch your tone of voice and make sure you are not speaking to your loved one in a blaming or accusatory tone.

Learn more about addiction from reliable medical sources, and try to understand your loved one's point of view.

At the same time, don't assume you know everything about their addiction simply because you do research. Each person with an addiction is a unique individual with their own experience.

Avoid Saying This
  • Why don't you just stop using drugs? You're being selfish.

Try This Instead
  • You are still my friend, and I care for you no matter what. Is there any way I can help?

Listen More Than You Talk

An important part of communicating is listening to what the other person has to say. When someone with an addiction confides in you, try to listen without interrupting or criticizing. Even if you don't agree with what they are saying, it's important to withhold your judgment.

You also don't have to make their addiction the main focus of every conversation you have with them.

You don't want to make them feel like you're checking up on them or assuming the worst about their condition.

Continue to ask them about their weekend plans or invite them to see a movie with you. Speak to them the same way you would if they didn't have an addiction. Remember that they are still a person with likes, dislikes, opinions, and desires.

Avoid Saying This
  • What are you doing? You're not using again, are you? Why aren't you calling me back?

Try This Instead
  • Hey, do you have any plans this weekend? I would love to grab dinner if you're free.

Set Boundaries

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

For example, if you tell your partner that their drinking negatively affects you, don't offer to split a bottle of wine with them over dinner. You want to communicate your boundaries effectively with someone who has an addiction.

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 hurt you may even help motivate them to get help.

In general, try using "I feel" statements to communicate with them. Shift from putting the blame all on them to taking responsibility for your part in the relationship.

Avoid Saying This
  • You're so annoying when you drink. I can't even talk to you when you get like this.

Try This Instead
  • I feel disrespected when we have a conversation after you've been drinking. I think it's best we're both sober when we interact from now on.

Believe Them

If your friend or loved one chooses to speak to you about their addiction, don't disagree with what they're saying. For instance, if they tell you they think they have alcohol use disorder, don't respond by saying "Come on, you don't have a drinking problem."

Your perspective on another person's addiction is not the reality of their experience. Trust that they know themselves. If they say they are addicted, believe them. Someone opening up to you about their addiction is likely a sign that they trust you. Respect how difficult it might be for them to talk about their addiction.

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.

Avoid Saying This
  • Come on, you can have one drink. It's fine.

Try This Instead
  • I respect that you're not drinking, and I'm proud of you for taking care of yourself.

Don't Tell Them What to Do

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 way of making positive changes. Rather than dictating what they must do, ask them how you can help.

For instance, saying "Why haven't you gotten help already?," or telling them what they "should" and "shouldn't" do comes across as condescending. You want to avoid putting added pressure on them and instead, be a trusted friend that they feel safe with.

Avoid Saying This
  • You should just quit cold turkey. It worked for someone else I know.

Try This Instead
  • I want you to feel your best. I can help you research treatment centers or therapists if you'd like.

A Word From Verywell

To communicate with a loved one who is living with addiction, start by educating yourself, being aware of the language you use, and setting healthy boundaries. You can support them while also supporting your own well-being. At the end of the day, you want to let them know you care about them and will support them in any way you can.

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.

5 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. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happens in the Best Families.

  2. Broyles LM, Binswanger IA, Jenkins JA, et al. Confronting inadvertent stigma and pejorative language in addiction scholarship: A recognition and responseSubst Abus. 2014;35(3):217-221. doi:10.1080/08897077.2014.930372

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?.

  4. What Is Substance Abuse Treatment?. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  5. Rogers SL, Howieson J, Neame C. I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: The benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflictPeerJ. 2018;6:e4831. doi:10.7717/peerj.4831

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.