How Families Can Help a Loved One Dealing with Substance Use Disorder

Aisian Family Laying on Ground in Circle

Helpless. Frightened. Overwhelmed. If you have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder, these emotions are likely remarkably familiar to you. There are so many things that feel out of your control. However, one thing that you can control is how you support your loved one.

Educate Yourself

Key to supporting your loved one can be gaining at least a foundational knowledge of what they are going through. Addiction is a biological, sociological, and psychological disease, and the more you learn about it, the more you will understand and be willing to accept that.

Through acceptance of the disease model of a substance use disorder, you will be better able to separate your loved one from their behaviors. This does not mean they are not held accountable for their actions.

However, it does mean placing blame goes out the window and is replaced with a focus on the negative consequence the addiction is causing and how these can be treated.

Practice Non-Judgment

Non-judgment is a huge part of supporting an individual struggling with addiction. No one wants to open up to another about their most vulnerable and terrifying thoughts, feelings, and experiences if they feel that person will judge them or think worse of them.

For those that struggle with substance use disorders, addiction is not their whole story. 75% of those with a history of trauma develop an alcohol use disorder, 27% of veterans experience a substance use disorder, and those that experience Adverse Childhood Experiences are 5 times more likely to have an alcohol use disorder and 46 times more likely to use drugs [1].

Remember that you may not know all that even your closest loved ones have been through that lead them to this current place. Approach them with compassion and kindness, be willing to hear their story, and be open to helping them heal from that story in a way that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol.

Set Firm Boundaries

Enabling behaviors in a substance use disorder involves loved ones of an addicted individual providing means, opportunity, power, or ability to engage in negative or self-destructive behaviors. These behaviors often serve to “hinder treatment acceptance and recovery efforts,” even if they are made with good intentions [2].

One study found that the most common enabling behaviors in couples where one struggles with addiction were when the partner taking over chores for the addicted individual, drinking or using drugs with the individual, and lying or making excuses to cover for the addicted individual [2].

Often, enabling occurs with good intentions of helping your loved one. Just as engaging in these can interfere with the acknowledgment that the disease has become unmanageable, not engaging in them can do the opposite.

Family standing together helping a loved one with a substance use disorderThese boundaries may involve to actively not engage in the previous behaviors mentioned. They might include affirming to the person that continued use of substances will result in a change in the relationship such as less financial or emotional support, loss of living situation, transportation assistance, etc.

Setting firm boundaries with your loved one may not feel like helping them, and they will likely tell you this. However, reducing enabling behaviors is proven to effectively support the recovery of a substance use disorder in the long-run.

Take Care of Yourself

A final consideration is the age-old reminder that you cannot take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself. Valid emotions such as feeling burnt-out, hopeless, helpless, bitter, frustrated, etc. can hinder your loved one’s recovery process unintentionally.

As you support them in their journey toward recovery, remember to also take care of your own mental and emotional health for the benefit of both of you. It is not easy supporting a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder.

At times, you will feel those emotions of fear, helplessness, and overwhelm mentioned previously. Even so, leading with love, arming yourself with knowledge, setting appropriate boundaries, and taking care of yourself are important things that you can control.


[1] Jaffe, A. (2018). Compassion for addiction when contempt causes harm. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

[2] Rotunda, R. J., West, L., O’Farrell, T.J. (2004). Enabling behavior in a clinical sample of alcohol-dependent clients and their partners. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 26:4.

About the Author:

Margot Rittenhouse photoMargot Rittenhouse, MS, NCC, PLPC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on July 13, 2020
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 13, 2020
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