Key takeaways:

  • Many people are misinformed about addiction, which can make it much harder to understand or empathize with someone who has this problem
  • Make sure that you don’t try to have the conversation when they are high or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and make sure that you have the talk in a private location
  • It’s common for a person to become angry, defensive, or to double down in denial when confronted about their addiction. Being prepared for any response can help you stay calm and collected, no matter how they respond

If someone you know and care about, be they a friend, coworker, or family member is suffering with an alcohol or drug abuse problem it can be hard to know what to do or how you can help. Not only can their behavior have a negative impact on your life as well as theirs, but it may also be difficult to confront them about their problem. Ultimately, whether someone decides to get help with an alcohol or drug abuse problem is up to them but being able to support and talk to someone about their problem may give them the incentive they need to seek help. Still, confronting them the wrong way can make them defensive and less likely to listen or be receptive to what you have to say. This article will provide some tips on what to do and say (and what to avoid doing or saying) to someone who is struggling with an addiction.

Tips on how to help a loved one with addiction

Below are some tips and strategies on what to do to help someone you care about who is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction.

1. Educate yourself about addiction

Many people are misinformed about addiction, which can make it much harder to understand or empathize with someone who has this problem. We have provided a wide range of resources to help learn about different types of substance abuse, the warning signs of abuse, the effects they have on the mind and body, and what treatment is available. Knowing what you’re talking about when trying to help someone with an addiction can be incredibly beneficial, and can help you know what to say to them.

2. Find the right time to talk

It may feel easier to ignore a loved one's substance abuse issue, especially if they are prone to being defensive or are unwilling to recognize they have a problem, but staying silent can actually enable them and allow their addiction to progress. Speaking up early to address your concerns is important, but it’s also important to find the right time to talk with them. 

Make sure that you don’t try to have the conversation when they are high or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and make sure that you have the talk in a private location. Avoid staging an “intervention” with many people confronting them, as this is more likely to make them defensive. If you do decide that an intervention will be beneficial or necessary, then make sure you understand the intervention process fully. [1][2][3]

3. Express your love and concern

Being overly aggressive or pragmatic may force some people with addiction to become defensive or isolate themselves from scrutiny. Be careful with your words and always emphasize that they come from a place of love and concern. This will be more effective than being angry, attacking them, or trying to guilt or coerce them to stop. This can be especially true when dealing with teens or young people. Instead, continue to let them know you are only talking to them because you love and care about them and are concerned for their safety.

4. Manage your expectations

Go into the conversation with a clear idea of what you want to say, but without any expectation of how they will respond. It’s common for a person to become angry, defensive, or to double down in denial when confronted about their addiction. Being prepared for any response can help you stay calm and collected, no matter how they respond. 

Keep in mind that even if they are defensive in the moment, they may think about what you said later on, and your words can have an impact on them. Other times, your words may fall on deaf ears, and they will continue to use drugs and alcohol, which is ultimately their choice. Still, you can feel better about knowing you tried to talk with them and intervene, even if you weren’t successful in getting them to change.

5. Support ongoing recovery

Your role as support for the person suffering from addiction doesn’t end once they start receiving treatment. Ongoing support from friends and loved ones is a key part of the recovery process and by showing up and being there to make sure they are attending support group meetings and maintaining their treatment plan can make all the difference to successful long-term recovery.

Some ways you can be an ongoing support to someone in recovery include:

  • Being willing to listen or talk when they need it

  • Offering to attend a therapy session, AA meeting, or other recovery group with them

  • Offering rides to and from treatment

  • Visiting them in rehab or calling to check in on them

  • Sharing concerns about relapse when you notice warning signs

  • Providing support and encouragement for their recovery efforts

  • Not drinking or using drugs around them

Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

What Not to Do & Say to Someone with an Addiction

In addition to approaching someone you care about and talking openly about your concerns about their drug and alcohol use, there are also some things to avoid doing or saying, including:

  • Don't Preach:  Don’t lecture, threaten, bribe, preach or moralize

  • Don’t Give Ultimatums: Don’t threaten the relationship or make your love conditional upon their recovery

  • Don’t Give Money: Avoid lending them money that you suspect will be used for substances

  • Don't Be a Martyr:  Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to drink or use other drugs

  • Don't Cover For Them: Avoid telling lies or making excuses for them and their behavior, as these can enable them to continue using

  • Don't Assume Their Responsibilities:  Taking over their responsibilities protects them from the consequences of their behavior, making recovery less likely

  • Don't Argue When Using:  Arguing with the person when they are using alcohol or drugs is not helpful; at that point they can’t have a rational conversation

  • Don’t Feel Guilty: Avoid feeling guilty or taking responsibility for their actions or behaviors

  • Don't Join Them:  Don’t try to keep up with them by drinking or using yourself

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult, painful, and hard to love someone who is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. You may feel conflicted about whether or not to confront them, worrying they will become angry or defensive, or that your words will fall on deaf ears. Choosing the right time, staying in a place of care and concern, managing your expectations, and being supportive of their recovery efforts can all be helpful.