How to Help a Family Member or Loved One with Addiction: A Resource Guide
Addiction is a powerful disease with the potential to cause suffering not just for the addicted person but for everyone who loves them.1 Family members of those with substance use disorders (SUDs) may struggle with denial, shame, fear, anger, and feelings of helplessness. 1,2
When a loved one is facing an addiction, you can’t make them stop using drugs or alcohol, but there are ways you can encourage them to get they help they need.
Our guides for family members and loved ones provide tips on how to recognize addiction, begin the conversation about getting treatment, avoid enabling, and find a rehab program.
Addiction Resource Resources for Family Members
Depending on the personal relationship, there are different ways to provide support for the individual struggling with substance use. How you approach support will vary, depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, the way you attempt to help your child with addiction may differ somewhat from how you help a spouse with addiction. At River Oaks, we offer a number of guides on helping friends and family, including:
- How to Help a Friend
- How to Help a Spouse
- How to Help a Colleague
- How to Help a Parent
- How to Help Your Adult Child
Signs of Addiction to Look for in a Loved One
It’s helpful to be able to identify signs of addiction, especially since people who struggle with substance use disorders may try to hide or deny that they have a problem. While it’s difficult to acknowledge when someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. When friends and family recognize the signs of addiction it can provide a foundation to start a conversation with their loved one about getting treatment.
The signs and symptoms of addiction can vary from drug to drug, but some of the general physical signs of drug abuse may include: 3
- Changed speech patterns, like slurring or rambling.
- Losing or gaining weight.
- Constricted or dilated pupils.
- Psychomotor incoordination.
Substance abuse can also bring about changes in a person’s mental or emotional state, and they may exhibit behavior such as: 3
- Increased aggressiveness, irritability, or anxiety.
- Abrupt shifts in personality and/or mood.
- Difficulty remembering or holding attention.
- Sleepiness or restlessness.
Some of the general behavioral changes that a person with addiction may exhibit include: 3
- Using drugs or alcohol more frequently, or in larger doses.
- Giving up important activities in order to use.
- Continuing to use despite the person knowing that they have a relationship/work/social/academic problem that is likely caused by substance use.
- Being unable to meet responsibilities at work or home.
- Using in physically dangerous situations, such as driving or operating machinery.
- Strong physical and psychological urges to use (cravings).
What’s the Difference Between Helping and Enabling a Family Member?
Enabling can be described as a series of actions or behaviors that often well-intentioned loved ones engage in that shields the person struggling with addiction from the full consequences of their actions. Enabling is actually counterproductive because it allows the person to continue to remain in a state of denial about the effects of their substance use and perpetuates the addiction.1
Why Addiction Hurts the Whole Family
A family is a unit that attempts to maintain a certain balance, or equilibrium. This tendency for the unit to seek out a balance is referred to as “homeostasis.” When one member of the family develops a substance use disorder, the rest of the family will tend to adjust their behaviors to maintain some sense of normalcy, even if it is to their own detriment.1
For example, the wife of a husband with an alcohol use disorder may try to hide his drinking from their children, clean up after him, and lie to other family members to minimize turmoil or avoid unwanted questions about her spouse’s alcohol use. While this is a normal attempt to keep things in order, it enables her husband’s drinking and perpetuates the problem. It may also lead to feelings of resentment and anger, a lack of boundaries, overwhelming stress, neglect of self-care, and other issues.1
Children who begin doing the caretaking for a parent with an addiction may struggle with an inability to set healthy boundaries and tendency to over-prioritize the needs of others. Additionally, they could have a hard time communicating directly with others, if addiction is kept a family secret and considered a taboo topic.1
Addiction can also create a sense of unpredictability and chaos in the family, which could be especially harmful for young children who lack stability and are constantly unsure of and worried about what will happen next. Children who live with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol experience a higher risk of developing SUDs themselves and other mental health issues, including depression, eating disorders, anxiety, behavior disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.1
However, while families can be significantly negatively impacted by a member’s substance use, they can also be a major force in that person’s recovery.4
Getting Addiction Help for a Loved One
As a close loved one, you are in the unique position to guide your family member or friend toward getting treatment for addiction.4 As someone that your loved one trusts, you may be able to sit them down, express your concerns and have them really heard.
Keep in mind, this type of conversation may need to happen more than once.4 Even when your loved one is showing clear signs of addiction, substance use disorder is a disease whose hallmarks include denial and rationalization.5 Often, expressing your concerns and nonjudgmental support over several conversations is necessary before your loved one can finally hear and accept what you have to say.4
WATCH: The Intervention Specialist
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Self-Care and Support
Self-care and seeking treatment and peer support are crucial for individuals recovering from an addiction, but is equally important for family members and loved ones of the person in recovery as well. You may spend a great deal of time worrying about your loved one, which can contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Taking care of your own needs and paying attention to your psychological and physical well-being can help you be better prepared to support and care for your loved one.
Methods of Caring for Yourself
It is important that you take the time to care for yourself throughout your loved one’s recovery. Ensuring that you meet your own needs will help build a foundation of strength for yourself, but will also help you continue to be there for your loved one. Some general methods of self-care include:
- Eating well and ensuring that you are receiving proper, balanced nutrition.
- Staying physically active through walks, yoga, and other forms of physical fitness.
- Getting enough rest.
- Asking for and accepting help from others.
- Keeping a journal.
- Joining a support group for loved ones of people with addictions (such as Al-anon or Nar-anon>).
- Making time for yourself to do things that you enjoy, such as a hobby or spending time with friends.
- Getting regular physicals and health check-ups.