How To Talk to Someone About Addiction and Rehab Treatment

4 min read · 6 sections

Talking to someone you love about their addiction can be difficult. Knowing how to approach the topic or find the words to say may be challenging. You may even wonder if you should say anything at all. It’s natural to have questions and concerns about your loved one’s addiction and the best way to approach them about it. However, with careful planning, you may be able to help them take the first steps on a path to lasting recovery.1

Before you move forward in talking to your loved one, it’s best to have a plan. Steps you can take prior to talking to them about addiction include:2

  • Getting more information about the signs of addiction.
  • Finding out what substance they use and understanding how it affects them, especially the highs and lows they may experience.
  • Learning about the withdrawal symptoms and signs.
  • Sharing your concerns with family and close friends to determine how they see the situation.
  • Observing your loved one in various scenarios to see if certain situations trigger usage.
  • Talking to a substance misuse professional about rehab programs.
  • Making a plan for safety if you feel there is any risk to you or your family.

How To Talk to a Loved One About Addiction

Millions of people struggle with some form of substance misuse. In 2020, approximately 40.3 million people aged 12 years and older had a substance use disorder (SUD), the medical condition characterized by an uncontrollable use of a substance despite the negative consequences.3 However, only 2.6 million people received treatment. 3

The reasons people don’t seek treatment for a SUD vary. In one study that asked individuals why they didn’t seek treatment, answers included:4

  • Substances help block out family and financial problems.
  • Using substances reduces anxieties and other worries.
  • Treatment centers aren’t readily available.
  • Treatment is too costly and not conveniently located.
  • Beliefs that drugs and alcohol are not harmful to one’s health.
  • Drugs and alcohol are easy to obtain.
  • Fears of withdrawal symptoms that may take place during treatment.
  • Feelings that treatment wouldn’t work.
  • Worries that they will become addicted to medications prescribed during treatment.
  • Ideas that relapse rates remain high even after treatment.
  • Worries about the stigma that surrounds going to rehab.

Stigmatization of addiction is a big reason many people don’t seek treatment. You can help reduce the stigma by using appropriate, non-stigmatizing language when talking to your loved one. To ensure you don’t say anything that makes your loved one feel ashamed, unsupported, or weak, choose your words carefully.5

Avoid Saying Say This Instead
Addict or junkie An individual with substance use disorder
Drunk or alcoholic An individual with an alcohol use disorder
Abuse Use or misuse, depending on the substance
Habit Substance use disorder
Addicted baby Baby exposed to substances or a newborn with withdrawal due to prenatal drug use
Clean (in reference to drug testing) Tested negative
Dirty (in reference to drug testing) Tested positive

Take Our Substance Use Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance use self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance use. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

What to Do When Talking to a Loved One About Their Addiction

Set boundaries, educate yourself about addiction and the options for treatment, and reach out for help to make talking to your loved one about their addiction easier.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries can help keep your relationship with your loved one intact. Boundaries guide and define permissible ways in which another can treat you.6 Unfortunately, addiction can quickly cause boundary issues.6 Instead of letting unacceptable behaviors—like borrowing money and not paying it back—slide, you need to let your loved one know how these behaviors impact and/or damage the relationship.6 It is your responsibility to communicate your boundaries calmly, clearly, and consistently.6

Prepare and Educate Yourself

Take time to become educated about addiction, substance misuse, and treatment options. The more you know about your loved one’s addiction, its characteristics and traits, and potential triggers, the more confident you can be in talking to them about it. Do stick to the facts about addiction and not the opinions of well-intentioned friends and family. Do be honest about how the substance use is harming your loved one and your family.

Additionally, research available treatment options. It might be helpful to explore programs with a substance misuse professional to understand the differences, which may include:7

  • Detoxification. Depending on the substance used, medical detox might be necessary to help your loved one get the drug or alcohol out of their system in a supervised setting, where healthcare professionals can help keep them safe and as comfortable as possible. Detox on its own is generally not enough to maintain lasting recovery. It is often the first step in a more comprehensive treatment plan.
  • Inpatient treatment. Residential or inpatient rehabilitation facilities provide housing and care for the duration of treatment. Inpatient programs involve intensive individual and group counseling, psychiatric care, education, and therapy treatments to help your loved one understand and resolve the issues that led to the substance use or misuse and develop alternative coping strategies. Additionally, some rehab facilities allow for visitations, which allows your loved one to feel your love and support while they undergo treatment.
  • Outpatient programs. Outpatient treatment provides services, therapies, and treatment that look similar to inpatient care but allows your loved one to participate in their normal routine. Treatment, therapies, and counseling occurs during scheduled, clinic-based appointments and is provided in group and individual sessions. Some facilities may also offer family counseling as part of the program.
  • Aftercare. After an individual successfully completes a formal treatment program, aftercare support—which may include counseling, mutual-help groups, alumni support, and more—can help reduce the risk of relapse once your loved one leaves their treatment program.

Studies indicate that individuals, who get into and remain in a substance misuse treatment program for the total duration and participate in ongoing programs beyond treatment, have a greater likelihood of stopping the use of substances and improving their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.7

Understand the cost of treatment before talking to your loved one as well. While factors such as the range and intensity of services provided, duration of treatment, facility location, specific individual characteristics (i.e., pregnancy, significant medical issues, or mental health problems), and amenities offered, most insurance companies cover at least part of the cost of addiction treatment. Furthermore, for individuals without insurance, most facilities offer payment plans. Cost should not be a deterrent to treatment.

Reach Out for Help

It’s never easy trying to talk to someone about an addiction. If your loved one is open to talking to their primary care provider (PCP), that is a good place to start. Do offer to go with them. If you feel like you need additional support in helping your loved one understand the need for treatment, reach out to a medical or mental healthcare professional to get more information or help with this process. A healthcare professional can offer objective advice and provide resources and referrals for treatment.

Ways to Get in Contact With Us

If you believe you or someone you love may be struggling with addiction, let us hear your story and help you determine a path to treatment.

There are a variety of confidential, free, and no obligation ways to get in contact with us to learn more about treatment.

What You Don’t Want to Do When Talking About Addiction with a Loved One

Just as there are things you should do when discussing addiction with a loved one, there are things to avoid as well. First, don’t approach your loved one when they are high, intoxicated, or experiencing the aftereffects of the substance. You want to ensure that the conversation takes place when they’re sober and have time to talk.

Don’t Enable

You may think you are helping your loved one when what you’re really doing is enabling their behavior.8 When your loved one can manage something on their own, but you do it for them, you enable. If they are truly incapable of doing something and you assist, you help.8

For example, if you rationalize their behavior, make excuses for them, loan them money, pay their bills, bail them out of jail, pay their legal fees, or lie for them, you’re enabling their behavior, experts say.8

Don’t Threaten Them

Don’t make empty threats. That too, enables their behavior.8 You can, however, set boundaries and follow through with those actions. If you choose to give a loved one an ultimatum, the ultimatum must be for you—not something they have to change. You should deliver the terms of your ultimatum in a calm manner (not during an argument) and explain why this is the best decision for your family.

Common Responses and How to Handle Them

When you talk to your loved one about giving up the substance use and getting treatment, you may hear different responses, including:

  • “I can stop anytime.”
  • “It’s my life.”
  • “I’m doing fine.”
  • “I don’t have a problem.”
  • “I feel better when I’m using.”

Individuals who suffer from addiction are prone to denial. Although it can feel overwhelming to convince a loved one that they need treatment, addiction impacts their life—and yours—negatively. Addiction can damage them professionally and financially. It can ruin relationships with you, other relatives, friends, and co-workers. It can lead to legal problems. And it can cause dangerous medical problems.

Yet, while addiction may cause your loved one to act in negative ways, it’s important that you not blame, criticize, attack, or punish them. Respond with facts, specific examples, and ways in which the addiction harms them and others (their family, friends, co-workers). Use “I” language instead of “you” language. Tell them what you’ve noticed and what worries you. Let them know you want to help them get into treatment and support them through recovery.

Encouraging Words To Say to Someone in Recovery and After Treatment

Encouraging your loved one during recovery and after treatment is just as important as supporting their entry into treatment. Use positive phrases as your loved one continues care in ongoing programs that may include counseling, mutual-help groups, and alumni events. Some of these helpful phrases include:

  • “I’m proud of you.”
  • “You are doing a great job.”
  • “I’m here for you and support you.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
  • “I know this is hard, but you will feel better in time.”

Let your loved one know that they aren’t alone, even after treatment.


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