If someone you love is struggling with addiction, you need to make sure you’re taking care of your wellbeing and protecting yourself.
Tips on Dealing with an Addicted Loved One
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Living and coping with someone who has an addiction isn’t easy, but it’s important to remember that they are struggling and deserve kindness, patience, and understanding. Here are some tips on dealing with an addicted loved one.
In this article:
- Use the Right Words
- Acknowledge the Addiction
- Avoid Engaging During Escalating Situations
- Take Care of Yourself
- Maintain an Emotional Distance
- Reiterate the Impact of Their Addiction on You and Your Family
- Join a Support Group
- Stage an Intervention
Use the Right Words
Communication is a major challenge when dealing with a loved one who is experiencing addiction.1 “Junkie,” “drunk,” “habit,” and “addict” are some of the many stigmatizing words that refer to people struggling with addiction and substance use disorders. Words like these often paint addiction as a moral failing rather than a chronic condition that can be successfully treated.2
Evidence suggests that stigma decreases motivation to seek treatment in people who struggle with addiction. Therefore, you should avoid using stigmatizing language when speaking to your loved one about their addiction.2
Instead of using the words “drunk” or “alcoholic” when referring to your loved one, use the phrase “alcohol use disorder.” Instead of using “habit” to describe your loved one’s drug use, use the terms “drug addiction” or “substance use disorder.” Though language changes such as these may seem insignificant, they may help your loved one feel less stigmatized and eventually result in them seeking treatment for their addiction.2
Acknowledge the Addiction
Addiction can affect anyone from any background, no matter their age, career status, or lifestyle. Acknowledging that your loved one has an addiction may help you feel more patient and understanding and bring you one step closer to connecting them with help and treatment.3
If you’re not completely sure whether your loved one has a drug or alcohol addiction, ask yourself the following questions:3
- Do they want to stop using drugs/ alcohol but can’t?
- Have they been missing work or school to use drugs/alcohol or to recover from their effects?
- Do they experience strong cravings and urges to use drugs/alcohol?
- Do they experience withdrawal symptoms for the substance when they abruptly stop using it or when they cut back?
- Is drug/alcohol use causing your loved one to experience physical or mental health issues?
Avoid Engaging During Escalating Situations
Some substances can lead to aggression and violent situations since they alter brain chemicals, including dopamine, norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin—all of which play a role in regulating mood. Drugs specifically associated with aggression include:4
Avoid engaging with your loved ones when they become angry, aggressive, or violent. This will help you avoid dangerous consequences. If your loved one screams, yells, or becomes belligerent with you, do not scream or yell back. Either separate yourself from your loved one or calmly change the subject to help them relax and de-escalate. Put in place one or more backup plans if your loved one becomes aggressive. In extreme situations, you may need to leave your home until you can get help for your loved one.5
Take Care of Yourself
When you love someone with an addiction, you may neglect yourself as you care for your loved one. For example, you may take care of them when they’re hungover, clean up their messes, or cover for them when their employer asks why they missed work. Failing to care for yourself can cause you to experience burnout that can interfere with your own important work, school, or family responsibilities.5
Practicing self-care involves taking care of yourself:
- Physically, such as eating healthy foods and getting quality sleep
- Psychologically, such as talking about your feelings with others
- Socially, such as spending time with your best friend
- Spiritually, such as attending church services
Engage in activities that make you feel happy and that provide a sense of purpose. Loving and caring for yourself in these ways doesn’t mean you love the addicted person any less. It will help you improve your mental health and make better decisions when coping with your loved one’s addiction.5
Maintain an Emotional Distance
Avoid taking on your loved one’s problems as your own, and try to distance yourself emotionally from their dysfunctional behaviors. When you love a person experiencing addiction, it’s easy to get pulled into their dysfunctional problems, which then become your problems as well. For example, if you loan them large sums of money to buy drugs and alcohol, you may experience financial hardship that threatens your livelihood, especially when you cannot pay important bills like rent and utilities.5
Maintaining an emotional distance from your loved one who suffers from addiction is also known as “loving-detachment.” This term refers to when you do things that may make you feel as if you are abandoning the person, but you are actually helping them realize how harmful their behaviors are. Loving detachment and letting go of responsibility for your loved one’s addiction can often motivate them to seek treatment.5
Reiterate the Impact of Their Addiction on You and Your Family
Make a point of talking to your loved ones when they are sober about the impact their addiction has had on you and your family. Though you may feel like a broken record at times, talking to your loved one consistently about their substance use disorder may help them realize that their behavior and addiction are harmful and that it’s time to change.6
Choose a time you think your loved one may be most receptive and open to discussing their addiction. For example, if your loved one is addicted to alcohol, consider talking to them early in the afternoon when they are no longer hungover and before they start drinking for the evening. Explain how their addiction affects you and your family. Your loved one may be more compelled to get help if they gain a better understanding of how their addiction directly affects you and other loved ones.6
Join a Support Group
Consider joining an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon support group. These support groups are restricted to family members and friends of people who struggle with drug and alcohol addictions. These support groups expose you to other people dealing with similar problems and who also have loved ones in their households suffering from addiction. The people you meet at Al-Anon and Nar-Anon support group meetings can give you tips on how to deal with having a loved one experiencing addiction and how to reduce any feelings of guilt and isolation you may have.7
In a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers examined outcomes and gains among people who attended regular Al-Anon support group meetings. For at least six months, people who attended these meetings were more likely to develop strong coping skills, improve their well-being and functioning, feel more hopeful, and report improved self-esteem and less anger and depression than those who dropped out of meetings before six months. Those who attended Al-Anon meetings for at least six months were also able to develop better relationships with their loved ones who struggled with problematic drinking and alcohol addiction.8
Stage an Intervention
Consider staging an intervention for your loved one if all the other steps to motivate them toward treatment have not worked. Interventions for addiction today are much more contemporary than traditional interventions of the past.9
Historically, the person who needed help was instructed to stay quiet and listen during an intervention without any say in the matter and was given strong ultimatums if they refused to seek treatment. Today, the person with addiction can openly voice their concerns during the intervention without fear of reproach. This contemporary approach may be more productive if you or a hired interventionist can explain how treatment works and how it can benefit them.9
For example, if your loved one is addicted to heroin and concerned about feeling sick during opioid withdrawal, you or the interventionist can explain how medications may be used in opioid detox to reduce drug cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.9
Consider hiring an interventionist if you need help planning, organizing, and staging an intervention. These professionals can help you properly prepare for the intervention and oversee the event so you can increase the chances your loved one will agree to seek treatment.9
Call 800-407-7195(Who Answers?) to speak to a treatment specialist about nearby drug rehab centers and get help choosing the best facility for your loved one suffering from addiction. Our specialists can answer any questions you may have about addiction and discuss all your available treatment options.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2004). Chapter 1 Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy. Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 8). Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, October). How to Recognize a Substance Use Disorder.
- Anderson, P.D., & Bokor, G. (2012, February). Forensic aspects of drug-induced violence. Journal of Pharmacy Practice, 25(1):41-9.
- Connolly, M. (2017, February 10). How to care for yourself while loving someone with addiction. Ohio State University.
- University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.). Helping a Friend with an Addiction.
- Al-Anon Family Groups. (n.d.) Frequently Asked Questions.
- Timko, C., Laudet, A., & Moos, R.H. (2016, July). Al-Anon Newcomers: Benefits of Continuing Attendance for Six Months. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 42(4): 441–449.
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2012, July 10). When a loved one has an addiction.