5 tips for Families Coping with Addiction

Addiction within a family is a disease that affects the whole family. From parents to siblings, grandparents and cousins.

Seeing someone you love suffer from an addiction can be painful and heartbreaking. It has significant and life-changing effects on both the person suffering from the addiction and their family.

If you or someone you’re related to is struggling with an addiction, then it’s important to seek help.

If you’re supporting someone in the family who’s suffering from an addiction, then you may often feel:

  • Fear that they will end up in trouble with the law
  • Fear that they will end up seriously ill from their addiction
  • A constant sense of guilt
  • Denial and disbelief that this has happened to you and your family
  • Constantly worry about the future
  • A sense of responsibility to your loved one
  • Anger with yourself or the individual suffering

The Importance of Family in Addiction

Families play a large role in helping an addict through their addiction. Their opinions, beliefs and level of judgement will have a dramatic effect on how the person suffering feels.

As their opinions, beliefs and actions become increasingly crucial, the increase in stress and conflict may tempt family members to respond in frustration and anger.

As this damages the family ‘system’ and dynamics, it’s more important than ever that the family pull together and support both one another and the individual suffering from the addiction.

Each family member must work together to create a helpful, understanding and patient environment for recovery. Without this, the individual suffering from the addiction will only feel increasingly isolated, misunderstood and alone. These negative emotions are likely to drive the person deeper into their addiction.

5 Tips for Families Coping with Addiction

Below we offer up 5 of our best tips to help families better cope with a loved ones’s addiction:

1. Learn as Much as Possible about the Addiction

If you’re a family member trying to help and understand why the person suffering from the addiction is in this situation, then it’s important to understand as much as you can about addiction.

Addiction is not a straightforward disease. It involves many complexities and unfortunately, sometimes has long term effects on the brain.

Because of its long term effects, it’s important that family members understand and come to terms with the lasting and sometimes permanent effects substance addiction has on the brain.

If you’re looking to start research into addiction, here are some initial key search terms, concepts and words to research:

  • Causes of substance addiction
  • The effects substance abuse has on the brain
  • Addiction and The Pleasure Principle
  • Addiction and The Brain’s Reward System
  • Addiction and Compulsive Behaviour

Additionally, here are a few facts that you might not know about addiction [1]:

  • Addiction derives from compulsive behaviour
  • Compulsive drug-seeking is initiated outside of consciousness
  • Most people who present with addiction have other psychiatric issues as well

2. Active Listening

Another way you can help a family member who’s suffering from addiction is through active listening and by asking the right kind of questions.

The best types of questions are open-ended and non-judgemental. They’re helpful because they allow the opportunity for increased communication between you and your loved one without being direct.

A great way to accomplish active listening is through open yet assertive communication. This includes a balance of asking open-ended questions and actively listening to the sufferer without interrupting, asking closed questions or giving your judgemental opinion.

The idea of ‘discuss, don’t lecture’ is key here, and your priority when actively listening should always be to learn more about the issue at hand.

Here are a few examples of open-ended questions:

  • How can I help you today?
  • Why did you decide to start using drugs?
  • What don’t you like about the idea of treatment?
  • What do you like about the idea of treatment?
  • What would make you want to quit using?
  • What can we do to help you get to a place where you’re happy?
  • What are some ways you can develop healthier habits?
  • What activities would help you stay sober?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) [2] has some more tips on how to improve communication with your addicted family member.

Here are some tips:

  • During the conversation always stay focussed and engaged
  • Try to focus on the good and positive things they’re saying
  • Show a sense of acceptance and understanding
  • Reduce all distractions
  • Diminish any negative biases or reactions you or others may have

The NIDA [2] also has tips on how to better communicate with family members who are suffering from addiction. Their advice is to stay CALM:

  • C – Control your thoughts & actions
  • A – Assess & decide if you are too upset to continue
  • L – Leave the situation if you are feeling too angry/upset
  • M – Make a plan to deal with the situation

3. Prepare and Eat Meals Together as a Family

Another top tip on how to cope with a family member suffering from an addiction is to try and prepare and eat meals together as a family at least once every couple of days.

In today’s world, family life is very chaotic and as a result, many families eat separately for weeks on end as they try to maintain their schedule.

During an addiction, family life can often get busier with addiction-related appointments, arguments and conversations.

However, eating together as a family over a meal allows everyone in the family to stay connected, up to date and bond together. During troublesome and stressful times, this can have a massive effect on the relationships within the family and their communication.

Each meal helps to build on the work already done to improve relations (often in group/family therapy) and the ritual of eating together can provide the person suffering from the addiction with a sense of routine and structure that can often do a world of good.

4. Have Realistic Expectations

When suffering from an addiction, it’s really important that the family have realistic expectations about the time and effort the road to recovery takes.

Recovery, for some people, can take months or even years. In order for them to recover successfully, it’s important that their friends and family maintain patience, focus and understanding. It’s important for everyone to realise that recovery is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

It’s also important that the family don’t expect addicts to keep all the promises they make. Whilst still actively suffering from the disease, it’s hard for the addict to keep promises they make such as; promising not to drink anymore, promising not to see a certain, toxic friend or promising not to engage in any other negative habits that facilitate their addiction.

It’s important for family members not to react in anger, frustration or pity. This will only keep you in their ‘bad books’ and will likely mean that they are unable to share their issues or the truth with you in the future.

5. Consider Family Group Therapy

If you’re suffering from addiction in the family then it might be a good idea to engage in family group therapy.

According to the Journal of Psychiatry, a family therapist will act as an;

  • Activator – activating the issues at hand and trying to gain a better understanding of the root causes
  • Challenger – challenging any biases or predictions
  • Supporter – making sure everyone in the family feels supported
  • Interpreter – interpreting what each other are really saying and what they actually mean
  • Re-integrator – trying to reintegrate the family to act as a unit
  • Educator – educating everyone in the family on the complexities of addiction

If you’re looking to engage in family group therapy, then speak to your local GP about the issue and see if they can refer you to a local therapist or support group.


[1] https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/foc.9.1.foc99

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/family-checkup/communication

[3] Varghese, M., Kirpekar, V., & Loganathan, S. (2020). Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques. Indian journal of psychiatry, 62(Suppl 2), S192–S200. https://doi.org/10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_770_19