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How to Help a Drug Addict or Alcoholic Family Member

Many family members feel helpless in the face of addiction. Watching someone you love harm themselves with drugs or alcohol can be incredibly painful, as can watching a loved one’s addiction negatively impact your children, parents, or partner.

Drug and alcohol addiction touches millions of American families every day. In 2015, about 20.8 million people over the age of 12 had a substance use disorder (SUD), 15.7 million of them struggled with alcohol abuse, and 7.7 million people were addicted to drugs.1 Yet, of all these people, less than 11% of them received treatment, which is the most direct path to long-term sobriety.1

Getting your loved one into treatment is probably your goal, but how can you help an addict or alcoholic family member choose to enter rehab? Keep reading to learn how you can support your family member in their recovery.

Understanding Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is an excellent educational resource that provides information about the science of addiction, including why it is so difficult for some people to stop using on their own. You can learn how drug and alcohol abuse causes changes in the brain, as well as what cutting-edge treatment models are used.

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are two other resources that can be helpful to those who have alcoholic or drug-addicted family members. These organizations run groups that offer emotional support from people who are in situations like your own. You can also learn from long-time members who have been where you are now about how to cope with what your family is going through. These groups are free to attend and open to everyone.

Learning as much as you can about possible treatment options can help you feel more confident about talking with your loved one. You can get ahead of the game by researching how treatment programs differ, what they specialize in, how much they cost, and what your family member’s insurance plan will cover. All substance abuse programs involve some type of behavioral therapy or counseling, but some specialize in co-occurring disorders as well, which is the presence of both a drug or alcohol addiction and a mental health disorder (like depression or anxiety).

Co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders are more common than you might think, with approximately 2.3 million people reporting having them in 2015.1 So it may be possible that your family member also struggles with a mental health disorder since those with substance abuse problems are more than twice as likely to have one.1

One reason this might be true is that people with depression, anxiety, or PTSD sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. Drinking and drug use may temporarily relieve symptoms of their mental health problem, but over time, they can actually make the condition worse.

It’s especially important to find competent dual diagnosis treatment since simply treating one condition without treating the other is often ineffective in the long term. Locating an experienced treatment professional to perform a comprehensive assessment is a good first step in helping your loved one get the help they need.

How to Avoid Contributing to the Problem

It can be hard to admit to yourself that someone you love has a serious problem. If you are the parent of a teenage or adult child whom you suspect might be drinking or using drugs, you might enable such continued behavior simply in being hesitant to confront them about it.
group of people putting hands together
But denial or avoidance are not effective ways to handle addiction—both are a form of enabling. This means that you do things, consciously or subconsciously, that allow them to continue using. It is particularly common among parents and partners of substance abusers. You might enable your family member for several reasons, including denial, hopelessness, and frustration. Ultimately though, you enable someone because you love them and you want to ease their pain. Unfortunately, the end result is generally more pain since they haven’t moved out of their addiction.2

Enabling takes different forms depending on the age of the substance abuser, their role in the family system, and the makeup of the family. When a family member is struggling with an addiction, the whole family unwittingly adapts to make room for it.2

If the substance abuser is your co-parent, you may have subconsciously taken on all of the parental responsibilities—including housework, transportation, and income generation. If you are the parent of a teenager or a young adult with addiction, then you may have changed your behavior toward your child, for example, tiptoeing around the house to avoid conflict or no longer expecting good grades.

Sometimes, for an addict to get sober, the whole family needs to make changes. This could include adjusting responsibilities, attitudes, expectations, finances, and communication.2 Additionally, the impact of addiction usually stretches beyond the immediate family unit and often includes extended family, neighbors, coworkers, and friends. Friends and family are frequently asked for financial assistance or housing, and coworkers carry a disproportionate amount of the workload.

Confronting the Issue with Care

Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem in real life is not the same as it is on TV. There is no evidence that the confrontational interventions shown on reality television programs are effective at getting people into treatment. In fact, NIDA recommends avoiding this type of intervention as much as possible and instead focusing on getting your loved one to see a doctor. Often, people are more inclined to listen to a professional than an emotionally charged family member.
family in group therapyHere are a few tips for talking with a family member who is abusing drugs or alcohol:3

  • Make notes before your talk and use them.
  • Talk to the person when they are sober.
  • Avoid labels like “drunk” or “junkie”.
  • Talk someplace private and quiet.
  • Remain calm and speak in a nonjudgmental way.
  • List specific instances when you were concerned (e.g., when they drove drunk last week).
  • Start sentences with “I” (“I felt scared when…” “I felt hurt when…”) instead of “you” (“You get so angry…” “You didn’t show up…”) to explain how the person’s behavior is impacting you without putting them on the defensive.
  • Prepare yourself for denial, anger, and resentment.
  • Show that you are optimistic and hopeful for change.
  • Understand that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, and stay positive.
  • Manage your expectations; this may be only the first of many conversations.

For example, you could say, “I think you’re an alcoholic and you need help,” but this statement will probably be reciprocated with denial and anger: “I’m not an alcoholic! You’re the one with the problem.”

Alternatively, you could say, “Did you know that more than 28 people die every day in the U.S. from drunk driving crashes? I’m worried that you will hurt yourself or someone else.”4 This is a less confrontational way to say the same thing and, as such, may have a higher chance of effecting change.

Take Care of Yourself

If you have a family member with an addiction, then you know how all-consuming it can be. It is not uncommon to feel frustrated, hopeless, and exhausted from dealing with their problems. Repeated trips to rehab can try your patience and deplete your finances. You may feel like giving up—like taking the path of least resistance and continuing to enable—and that is why it is so important to take care of yourself. When you take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, and physically, then you have more internal resources to help your loved one.

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