Help for Families

How to help a loved one in addiction

Often, when someone is in the depths of addiction to drugs or alcohol, it is their family and friends who feel the brunt of the problem.

Family members or friends can experience a range of emotions: sadness, anger, guilt, shock, shame and even grief and loss.

Managing addiction and relationships can be very complex. Unfortunately, there are no textbook solutions.

A common dilemma is how to tread the fine line between being supportive and establishing boundaries for someone with drug and/or alcohol problems.

This can be a dance between connection, support, holding, and individuation; the development of a separate self and boundaries.

Family members are in a difficult place as the destruction of the addiction pathway takes hold they are left dealing with issues of risk, safety and survival. Often, the way the family responds is a sane response to the insane and highly stressed pattern of addiction.

Families step in. They might pay the affected loved one’s rent, food, and fines.

Families say they don’t want to be caught up in this cycle. But they also say they fear what will happen if they step back. Homelessness and dying are very real issues that play out in parents or friends’ minds.

Practical steps to help your loved one

How to talk about their addiction: Timing is everything

When engaging in conversation do what you can to minimise conflict. DO NOT confront the affected family member. Engage in a supportive, caring way.

Be open and honest and LISTEN to the affected person.

It is hard to move beyond communication that is stressful, frustrating and non-productive, however this is what is needed in this situation.

Find the right moment to open-up dialogue. One common mistake is to confront a loved one while or directly after they are intoxicated or high.

It is never a good idea to deal with things when:

  • the person is “hanging out’ for drugs
  • the person is intoxicated
  • the person is ‘coming down’ from drugs

One of the big turning points for family members is when they learn to separate the person from their behaviour.

By emphasising the need for your loved one to change their behaviour, rather than their core self, it is more likely you will be able to maintain your relationship while holding boundaries.

Change your language

It is not useful to use loaded terms like “junkie”, “drunk” ‘alco” or “druggie”. Instead, use terms like “drug user” or “injecting drug user”.

Use language that is accessible. Don’t speak above a person’s level of understanding or assume that a person is not capable of understanding. Avoid slang and medical jargon which can be misinterpreted or cause confusion when used incorrectly.

Don’t say:”You must not do this”. Rather, say things like: “When you do this I am concerned for you”.

How do I get my loved on into treatment?

The short, and often frustrating answer is, they have to be ready to change.

The best thing you can do is to be there for them when they are ready. This can be a difficult journey and it is recommended that you also get some help from a qualified family counsellor with experience with drug and alcohol treatment.

People say ‘They need to hit rock bottom’

It is common for people with a substance use issue to receive advice such as: “Just kick them out” not realizing that a person’s “rock bottom” can be death or homelessness.

This is NOT useful for the affected family member. In fact, what happens is that they shut down and don’t share what is happening to them as they often feel judged. It also feeds into the guilt and responsibility and a general sense of self-judgement that the non-using family member carries for their loved one’s drug or alcohol misuse.

In the experience of drug and alcohol counsellors at The Buttery, dealing with alcohol misuse and/or drug misuse, a person has a much better chance at recovery if they feel understood and supported. They are also more likely to undergo ‘early intervention’ treatment and not have to hit ‘rock bottom’ if the lines of communication stay open.

The Buttery Private residential treatment program and loved ones

Many of the people who undertake a program at he Buttery Private have the full support of family members who support them emotionally and contribute to the cost of their participation. For more information about the role of families and loved ones in the recovery of people who may have mental health and/or substance use issues please contact:
02 6687 1111 or email:

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