How to Help Someone With an Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Trying to help someone battling an addiction can be like watching them caught in a storm, tossed about by waves of denial, self-destruction, and pain. You want to reach out, to bring them back to the shore. But the storm is strong, and your own heart aches with fear and uncertainty. You wonder if your words and actions can even make a difference. And more often than not, you’re left feeling helpless, exhausted, and scared.

Being a support for someone struggling with addiction is a journey that’s both challenging and fraught with emotion. It’s an intricate dance between extending compassion and setting boundaries. It’s about navigating the fine line between support and enablement. And it’s about ensuring that while you’re there for them, you also take care of yourself.

Understanding addiction, developing communication strategies, setting healthy boundaries, and knowing when and where to seek professional help – these are all critical aspects of helping someone with an addiction. In this guide, I’ll delve into these topics, providing you with practical strategies and resources.

As an addiction counsellor, I’ve worked with many persons trying to help someone with an addiction. My aim in this article is to help you offer the best support to your loved one, while also ensuring that you maintain your own mental and emotional wellbeing. Because in this storm, it’s not just about bringing your loved one back to shore, it’s about ensuring you don’t lose yourself to the waves.

Understanding Addiction

The starting point of effectively helping someone with an addiction is understanding what addiction truly is. Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned expert in the field of addiction, defines it as a complex psychophysiological process. According to him, “Addiction is manifested in any behavior that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up.”

What is addiction?

In line with Maté’s definition, addiction can relate to a range of behaviors beyond substance abuse, including gambling, eating, sex, and even internet use. It’s a pattern of behavior that becomes compulsive over time, even in the face of negative health and social consequences. An individual struggling with addiction finds it challenging to stop or control the addictive behavior, leading to a cycle that’s difficult to break without help.

Biological, Psychological, and Social Factors Contributing to Addiction

The roots of addiction are complex and multifaceted, with biological, psychological, and social factors all playing a part.

  1. Biological Factors: Genetic predisposition can make an individual more susceptible to addiction. Moreover, repeated substance use or behavior can alter brain chemistry and function, reinforcing the addictive cycle.
  2. Psychological Factors: Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can increase the risk of addiction. Also, people may turn to addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism for emotional pain or to escape from their current reality.
  3. Social Factors: Environmental influences, including peer pressure, family dynamics, socioeconomic status, and cultural context, can significantly impact the development and progression of addiction.

Common Misconceptions about Addiction

There are many misconceptions about addiction that can lead to stigma and misunderstanding. Some common ones include the beliefs that addiction is a sign of moral weakness, that people with addictions could simply stop if they really wanted to, or that addiction only affects certain “types” of people. In reality, addiction is a disease that can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, or social status. It’s not a character flaw or a lack of willpower, but rather a complex interplay of the aforementioned factors.

Impact of Addiction on the Individual and Their Loved Ones

Addiction has profound impacts on individuals and those around them. For the individual, it can lead to health problems, financial difficulties, and challenges in personal and professional relationships. It can also result in legal issues and, tragically, premature death.

Loved ones also bear the brunt of addiction. They may experience emotional turmoil, strained relationships, financial hardship, and may even develop mental health issues due to the stress and anxiety related to the addiction. Helping a loved one navigate through the maze of addiction is challenging but understanding what addiction entails is the first step toward providing the necessary support.

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Dealing with a loved one’s addiction is often an emotional and challenging process, but one of the most beneficial approaches you can adopt is compassion.

The Role of Empathy and Understanding

Empathy and understanding are pivotal when supporting someone struggling with addiction. Empathy enables you to view the situation from the addicted person’s perspective, helping to alleviate feelings of isolation they may experience. By seeking to understand their feelings, struggles, and fears, you can create an environment of trust and open communication, fostering a connection that can motivate them towards recovery.

Strategies for Maintaining a Non-Judgmental Attitude

Maintaining a non-judgmental attitude is crucial as addiction isn’t a moral failing but a complex health issue. Here are some strategies to help you:

  1. Educate Yourself: Understanding addiction and its complexities can help you separate the individual from their behaviors.
  2. Practice Empathy: Putting yourself in their shoes can help to counteract judgment.
  3. Mindful Language: Choose words that emphasize the person, not their addiction. Instead of referring to someone as an “addict,” say “person with an addiction.”

The Importance of Listening and Being Present

Active listening and being present are vital in showing your loved one that they are seen and heard. These actions provide validation and create a safe space for them to share their feelings and fears. Let them speak, and respond with phrases like, “That sounds really tough,” to show you understand and acknowledge their struggle.

How to Convey Love and Concern Without Enabling Destructive Behaviors

It’s critical to express love and concern without encouraging harmful behaviors. Here’s how:

  1. Express Love and Concern Directly: Clearly communicate your worries about their wellbeing, using “I” statements to avoid blaming or shaming.
  2. Support, Don’t Enable: Support refers to actions that encourage recovery, while enabling involves actions that indirectly support the addiction. Avoid covering up or making excuses for their behavior.
  3. Encourage Professional Help: Show your support for their recovery by helping them find and access professional resources.

By demonstrating a compassionate and understanding approach, you can play a pivotal role in your loved one’s journey towards recovery. Remember that compassion isn’t just for them, but also for yourself. Caregiving can be overwhelming, and self-compassion is just as essential for your own wellbeing.

The Importance of Boundaries and Self-Care

In the journey of helping a loved one navigate their addiction, it’s crucial to remember that your own wellbeing matters too. This is where the concept of boundaries and self-care come in.

Understanding Boundaries and Their Role in Relationships with Addicted Individuals

Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify what are reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave around them. When interacting with an individual dealing with addiction, boundaries can help protect your mental and emotional wellbeing. They can prevent you from being pulled into the chaos of the addiction and enable you to maintain a healthier relationship with your loved one.

Strategies for Setting and Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

Setting and upholding boundaries can be challenging, but here are some strategies to help you:

  1. Clearly Identify Your Boundaries: Identify what you can tolerate and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. These feelings help identify your limits.
  2. Communicate Your Boundaries Directly: Once you’ve identified your boundaries, clearly convey them to your loved one. Be assertive, but gentle.
  3. Consistency is Key: Consistently uphold your boundaries. If you give in, it signals to the person with addiction that your boundaries can be ignored.

Understanding the Dangers of Codependency

Codependency is a relationship dynamic where one person sacrifices their needs to try to meet the needs of another. In the context of addiction, you may find yourself prioritizing the needs of the addicted person above your own, leading to neglect of your own wellbeing. This can lead to burnout, resentment, and can actually enable the person’s addiction, making it essential to establish and maintain boundaries.

Prioritizing Self-Care for Caregivers

While supporting a loved one through addiction, self-care must be a priority. This includes maintaining your physical health (adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise), nurturing your mental and emotional health (meditation, therapy, leisure activities), and maintaining a social network for your own support.

Seeking Support and Care for Oneself

It’s important to have your own support system when helping someone with an addiction. This can include therapy or counseling, support groups for families dealing with addiction, or confiding in trusted friends or family. Online forums and hotlines can also provide immediate assistance.

In sum, while you’re a pillar of support for your loved one, don’t neglect your own needs. Set boundaries to protect your wellbeing and engage in self-care to maintain your strength throughout this challenging journey. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Communication Strategies

Communicating effectively with a loved one struggling with addiction can be a delicate process, requiring patience, empathy, and tact. Below are some strategies to guide your interactions.

Best Practices for Open and Honest Communication

Open and honest communication is critical in expressing your feelings, setting boundaries, and conveying your support. Here are some best practices:

  1. Be Clear and Direct: State your points clearly, avoid beating around the bush.
  2. Use “I” Statements: Frame your feelings and concerns from your perspective to avoid sounding accusatory. For instance, “I feel worried when…” instead of “You always…”
  3. Speak from a Place of Love and Concern: Ensure your loved one knows your communication comes from a place of care, not criticism.

Techniques for Constructive, Non-Confrontational Conversations

Avoiding confrontations is key to keeping the lines of communication open. Here are some techniques:

  1. Choose the Right Time and Place: Conversations about addiction should occur when the person is sober and in a setting where they feel safe and comfortable.
  2. Stay Calm and Composed: Try to maintain your cool, even if the conversation gets difficult. High emotions can lead to arguments.
  3. Avoid Blame Language: Use “I” statements and avoid using words that might make the person feel defensive or blamed.

The Role of Active Listening in Effective Communication

Active listening is an essential communication tool. It involves fully focusing on, understanding, and responding to your loved one. This can validate their feelings and experiences, and make them feel understood and supported. It involves nonverbal cues like nodding and maintaining eye contact, and verbal cues like summarizing their points to ensure you understand correctly.

Expressing Concern Without Blaming or Shaming

Expressing concern without blaming or shaming is vital to maintain trust and respect. Make sure to differentiate the person from their actions. Instead of saying “you’re hurting us,” you could say, “your addiction is causing pain in the family.” This way, you’re not attacking their character, but addressing the behavior.

Dealing with Denial or Defensiveness

Denial and defensiveness are common reactions when discussing addiction. Here’s how you can navigate these reactions:

  1. Stay Patient: Recognize that denial is part of the process, and change takes time.
  2. Stay Non-Confrontational: If they become defensive, avoid arguing. Keep your tone calm and express that you’re coming from a place of concern.
  3. Reiterate Your Support: Remind them that you’re there for them, regardless of their current struggles.

By utilizing these communication strategies, you can provide an environment of understanding and support for your loved one, helping guide them towards the path of recovery.

Overview of Addiction Treatment

Addiction treatment is a multifaceted process and often involves various treatment modalities depending on the nature and severity of the addiction. Understanding these options can help guide your loved one towards appropriate professional help.

Different Types of Treatments

The road to recovery may involve one or more of the following treatments:

  1. Detoxification: Often the first step, detoxification involves the safe elimination of addictive substances from the body, often under medical supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms.
  2. Medication: In some cases, medications can be used to manage withdrawal, reduce cravings, or treat co-occurring mental health issues.
  3. Therapy: Different therapeutic approaches can help address the root causes of the addiction and develop coping mechanisms. This includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and motivational interviewing.
  4. Support Groups: Peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a supportive community of individuals who are also in recovery.

Explanation of the Recovery Process

Recovery is a long-term process and varies from person to person. It often involves stages such as acknowledging the problem, considering change, preparing for change, active change, and maintaining change. Relapses can occur, but they are a normal part of the recovery process and not a sign of failure.

Individualized Treatment Plans

Treatment plans should be individualized to meet the unique needs of the person with addiction. This considers factors like the type of addiction, the severity of the addiction, any co-occurring mental health conditions, and the individual’s social support network.

Importance of Professional Guidance in Treatment

Professional guidance is crucial in managing addiction. Professionals can provide a correct diagnosis, recommend appropriate treatment, and monitor progress. They can also provide the individual with the necessary tools and strategies to manage their addiction in the long term.

Helping a loved one with an addiction can be an overwhelming journey. Yet, with an understanding of the nature of addiction, compassion, clear communication, set boundaries, and knowledge about treatment options, you can provide them with the crucial support they need while also taking care of yourself.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid

When supporting a loved one through addiction, your intentions are undoubtedly good. However, there are common pitfalls that can derail your efforts and may even exacerbate the situation. Being aware of these can help you provide the most effective support while safeguarding your own wellbeing.

Ignoring Your Own Needs

In your efforts to help, you may neglect your own needs, leading to burnout and emotional distress. Remember, self-care is not selfish. It is vital for your own health and equips you better to provide support.

Enabling the Addiction

Enabling behaviors, though often born out of a desire to help or protect, can inadvertently discourage individuals with addiction from seeking help. When we consistently step in to fix the problems caused by a loved one’s addiction—paying their bills, covering for them at work, making excuses for their behavior—we shield them from the consequences of their actions.

This lack of accountability can create an illusion that their addiction isn’t causing significant harm or disruption. Thus, they may not recognize the severity of their problem or feel a compelling need to change. The cycle of enabling can trap the individual in their addiction, stunting their motivation to seek help and recover. It’s a challenging dynamic, one that underlines the importance of establishing healthy boundaries while providing support.

Trying to Control the Situation

You might feel an urge to control the situation – orchestrating their life, overseeing their actions, or trying to “fix” everything for them. However, this approach can lead to power struggles and resistance on their part.

Expecting Immediate Change

Addiction recovery is a long, non-linear process. If you expect quick results, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Patience is key.

Blaming Yourself for Their Addiction

You might start thinking that you’re somehow to blame for their addiction. However, addiction is a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. It’s important to understand that you’re not to blame.

Blaming oneself is also common among children of persons with an addiction. If your parent is struggling with an addiction, it is not your fault. This is true whether you’re currently helping a parent with an addiction, or if you grew up with an unreasonable sense of responsibility for your parent.

Trying to Force Change

Perhaps the most crucial pitfall to avoid is believing that you can force someone to change. You can provide support, love, and resources, but ultimately, the decision and effort to change must come from them. The best you can do is help create conditions that might inspire them to take steps towards recovery.

By avoiding these common pitfalls, you can help create a healthier environment for both your loved one and yourself, one that fosters recovery rather than impedes it.

Additional Resources

Understanding and tackling addiction is a complex process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Numerous resources are available that provide support, information, and immediate help. Here are a few:

National and Local Support Groups and Organizations

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon: These groups provide support for family and friends of individuals struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, respectively.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Provides information on prevention and treatment options, and a locator for treatment centers. You can access your own support from them here.

These resources can provide additional help and support as you and your loved one navigate the road to recovery. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.


Supporting someone struggling with addiction is no easy task. It requires a balance of understanding and compassion, combined with the establishment and maintenance of healthy boundaries. Effective communication is key, allowing you to express your concerns without blame or judgment, and encouraging your loved one towards recovery.

Remember, addiction is not a choice, but a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. Acknowledging this reality can foster empathy and patience, both of which are vital in this journey. While you can provide support and resources, ultimately, the decision to change lies with the individual struggling with addiction.

It’s also crucial to acknowledge your own needs and limitations. Seek help when needed, be it from support groups, therapists, or trusted friends. There is no shame in needing assistance. In fact, taking care of your own wellbeing makes you a better support for your loved one.

Finally, hold on to hope. Recovery is not a straightforward path, and there may be setbacks along the way, but with consistent support, professional help, and resilience, change is possible. Innumerable individuals have walked this path and have emerged stronger on the other side. Addiction is a formidable adversary, but it is one that can be overcome with the right tools, persistence, and compassionate support.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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