Addiction affects everyone — not just the person struggling with substance misuse. Here are 10 tips that can help family members cope with a loved one’s addiction.

In 2018, about 5.8% percent of American adults were dependent on alcohol or had difficulties relating to alcohol use, and more than 11.7% of Americans aged 12 or older reported using an illicit drug in the prior month.

These statistics represent millions of people struggling with substance misuse and addiction and nearly all of these people have family members and friends rooting for their eventual recovery. Families play a large role in the recovery process, so it is important for spouses, siblings, parents, children, friends and others to understand how to help.

If you’re the loved one of someone struggling with addiction, you may have many questions and concerns, such as:

Article at a Glance:

  • Millions of people struggle with substance misuse and addiction.
  • You can help a family member cope with addiction by understanding the condition and going to family therapy.
  • Connect with peers through trusted programs to support a loved one with an addiction.
  • Preparing family meals and encouraging a regular sleep schedule can help an addict in your life.
  • Help is available for family members of addicts with The Recovery Village.

Addiction can happen to anyone — even in communities filled with loving people. When an addiction develops, family members and friends are also often directly impacted by the addiction. That’s why, in addition to taking steps to help get your loved one into a treatment program, it’s important for family members and friends to have a good understanding of addiction and how to continue to take care of their own health as well. This helps you provide the love and support the addicted person needs in order to heal. Here are 10 tips that can help.

1. Learn as much as possible about addiction.

Education can help families escape the blame game. Rather than believing that the person’s addiction stems from weakness, willfulness or stubbornness, it might be helpful to understand how it actually stems from changes within the brain. Understanding that addiction is not a choice might help you let go of anger and resentment you may be feeling about your loved one’s addiction.

There are many online resources that can help families learn about addiction. Most bookstores also offer a wide selection of books about the chemistry of addiction and the science behind addiction treatment.

Additionally, every day, research teams are conducting in-depth studies about drugs. They’re learning more about how substances interact with the cells inside the brain, and they’re using that knowledge to develop new treatments that might one day either treat or prevent addictions.

That’s the sort of knowledge that can help boost a family’s sense of hope. With each advancement, you can feel more confident that the addiction can be treated and conquered.

2. Connect with understanding peers.

It’s not always easy to live with or support someone who has an addiction. As research points out, addiction in a close relative can serve as a stressful life situation that persists for years, and that long-term dysfunction can make it hard for families to communicate clearly. There can be a block of mistrust between every member of a family touched by the addiction.

Connecting with peers can help, particularly if families use a well-established, trusted program like Al-Anon or Alateen. The goal of these programs is to provide help for families of addicts. They also provide a safe, nonjudgmental space where family members can learn, discuss and cope with an addiction unfolding in their midst.

People go to meetings like this for all sorts of reasons, but one survey found that many participants were drawn to meetings because they were hoping for help with:

  • Finding a better quality of life
  • Having fewer problems with the addicted person
  • Lowering levels of stress
  • Improving psychological health

These are lofty goals, but meetings really can help. By going to a meeting and listening to other family members, feelings of isolation and doubt may begin to fade. Families may also get the skills they need to better handle the interpersonal problems they’re facing. These meetings can help families learn how to deal with a loved one’s addiction.

3. Go to family therapy sessions.

Spouses, siblings and parents of addicts often absorb many of the consequences of their loved one’s substance use. Many people have a hard time talking openly about the behavior that’s harming them, so they say nothing. Family members can also become distant if they’re tired of fighting with their loved one. They may blame themselves when the addiction persists or blame the addicted person for their unhappiness.

These silences and blame games can hold a family back from getting help. Family members may not have the tools on their own to assist someone in active recovery and they may not have the energy to help themselves.

Family therapy programs are designed to break down distrust and guilt by giving everyone a chance to feel heard. It can help family members understand themselves and each other, and work through conflict in a healthy way.Families that were once defined by anger and addiction can grow into tight-knit units that are able to support one another through honest communication and healthy boundaries.

Family therapy sessions can take time, and it can be tempting to skip a session — particularly for families with a number of conflicting appointments and agendas. However, this work is vital to the mental health of everyone involved, so meetings should be attended whenever possible.

4. Prepare meals and eat them as a family.

In today’s modern, chaotic world, it’s all too easy to eat separately. One partner grabs a burger on the way home, the other snacks on salad at work and the kids heat up ready-made foods they can find in the freezer.

A family meal allows everyone to reconnect at the end of a day that may have been stressful, lonely or upsetting. Each meal helps build upon the work done in family therapy, and the ritual of eating together can promote a sense of common ground and togetherness.

The activity doesn’t have to stop at the table, either. Spending time making the meal together or cleaning up afterwards can increase the benefits. Even one meal together per week can have a significant impact.

5. Manage expectations.

When an addicted person enters treatment and the family embarks on the recovery journey, the sense of hope everyone feels can be exciting. Finally, the addiction issue is being addressed. Finally, things will get better.

Unfortunately, it can take a long time for the behaviors and patterns associated with addiction to really change. The person may hold on to old habits or become frustrated with the recovery process. Sometimes, that slow shift leads to disappointment.

A relapse can be especially disheartening. In these moments, it can be helpful to remember that relapse does not mean failure for your loved one or for you. Addiction is a chronic disease, making relapse a normal part of recovery. While steps can be taken to help prevent a relapse, recovery is a lifelong journey of ups and downs, not a single event.

It’s also important to manage expectations for yourself and other family members. It takes time and effort for relationships to heal. Families in early recovery may make mistakes and they may not be their ideal selves, but they can still enjoy their time together and actively support one another. Even if things aren’t “perfect,” they can still be more meaningful as you work together towards a drug-free life.

6. Stay in touch with personal joy.

Managing expectations is a little easier when individuals are responsible for their own bliss. That means every member of a recovering family needs to take time to do something that’s relaxing and fulfilling. This could include:

  • Playing an instrument
  • Taking nature photographs
  • Volunteering with animals
  • Playing with children
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Crafting

These activities and others like them can make the participant feel happy, preserve a sense of efficacy and worth and help boost mental health.

For example, an author for Psychology Today reports that knitters get a boost of calming chemicals in their brain cells when they sit down with needles and yarn. The hobby is repetitive, but these actions can be soothing. It’s a form of meditation that allows people to slow down their active brain cells. At the end of a knitting session, people have a product to show for the time they’ve spent. When life is full of activities that seem hard to complete and progress is difficult to see, a hobby that produces something tangible can be a great comfort.

7. Get regular exercise.

Starting off the day with a brisk run or ending the workday with a few laps in the pool may not be every family’s idea of a great time, but these exercise sessions could deliver considerable benefits. Exercise has the proven ability to reduce stress and depression. In fact, a 2014 Stress in America survey found that around 43% of adults use exercise to cope with stress.

Stretching muscles and pushing tendons prompts the brain to release so-called pleasure chemicals, including dopamine and oxytocin. High-energy exercise sessions can help families vent their worry and stress in healthy ways that don’t harm others and don’t cause lasting scars. Instead of yelling, they can run. Instead of pacing, they can do yoga. It’s a wonderful way to stay on track with healing and it’s relatively easy to get started.

8. Adhere to a formal sleep/wake schedule.

Some of the more dangerous addictive behaviors often occur in the middle of the night. People with addictions can meet dealers, overdose, stumble home from parties or get into other situations that family members have to deal with. It’s no surprise, then, that some families in the recovery process struggle with sleep. Parts of their brains are ready and waiting for the next night crisis to arise.

Regular sleep loss can make the recovery process more difficult. For example, people who slept only 4.5 hours per night for one week reported feeling higher levels of anger, stress, sadness and mental exhaustion. People need sleep to feel their best, and families can better assist with recovery when they are physically and mentally refreshed. Creating a regular sleep schedule with fixed bedtimes and wake times can help prime the brain for deep sleep.

9. Schedule private therapy sessions.

While lifestyle alterations can be a big help for families in crisis, addictions can cause deep wounds that often benefit from seeking professional help. Research has found that families of addicted people experience increased levels of depression and anxiety. Caregivers can feel worn out from everything they’re asked to do for their addicted family member, and they may not have access to healthy coping skills that could help themselves. Siblings or children can feel forgotten or feel like they have to do better to make up for the addicted person, leading to self-esteem issues.

There’s no judgment or blame here — a private therapy session is a safe place for stressed family members to talk openly and work through issues.

Private sessions typically follow a skills-based format, in which caregivers learn more about how to deal with destructive thoughts and habits developed during years of addictive behavior. They might learn to meditate to handle stress or they might work on assertiveness skills. They might do group work involving anger management, or they might learn how to let go of codependent behaviors so they won’t feel responsible for the poor choices of others.

It takes time to go to personal therapy sessions, and there’s often homework to complete between sessions. However, this  time comes with a number of very real benefits. Family members who spend their time in these sessions may get the help they need in order to help others, and they may find the strength and resolve that’s been missing until now.

10. Educate and advocate.

There is an incredible amount of misinformation about addiction. To some people, addiction is a form of weakness, and they have no problem sharing their views, even in casual conversation. To others, addiction is something family members should either fix or ignore. Even when a family attempts to help their loved one, they are sometimes judged or labeled as “enabling.”

Unfortunately, sometimes even the medical community can use language that promotes addiction stigma. Language matters: one study by the Recovery Research Institute found participants were more likely to see individuals as punishable, socially threatening and blameable when they were labeled “substance abusers” instead of “having a substance use disorder.”

Family members often feel harsh words or careless statements most acutely when they come from friends, co-workers and even distant relatives they see on a regular basis. It’s hard to stay positive in an environment like this, but families can be part of the change. Every time they hear a phrase like this, they can share the truth about addiction. They can share some of the knowledge they’ve learned from private research, support groups and therapy sessions and give their friends destigmatizing words to use instead.

Advocating on behalf of people struggling with addiction is brave. It’s also a vital, empowering and health-affirming thing to do. Rather than staying silent and fuming, families that speak up are doing something to make things better. Those conversations could not have a wonderful impact on a family’s spirits, but also positively impact their communities.

Help Is Available

Families living with addiction don’t have to walk the path to recovery alone. There are a number of excellent treatment facilities that provide support for both the addicted person and their family, including The Recovery Village. Our treatment teams have built a set of programs geared towards families of patients, including family weekends which offer educational courses on addiction for family members.  while others can also offer group and individual counseling.

Support from family members and friends can be an integral part of a successful recovery. Friends and family members who stay informed and take care of their mental and physical health are better equipped to deal with addiction, support their loved ones and put their family on the path to lifelong recovery. Contact us today if you have questions about family resources, the recovery process or personalized treatment options for addiction that could work well for your loved one.

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.