How to Deal With a Family Member with SUD

October 10, 2022

Table of Contents

Addiction impacts the entire family, not just the person misusing drugs. 

You are not alone. Nearly 8.5 million people ages 12 and older in the United States met criteria for SUD in 2019.[1] 

Addiction is a complex disease with far-reaching consequences, including physical, mental, social, financial, environmental, and behavioral issues. It is chronic and a difficult cycle to break without help. 

Families play a big part in addiction recovery, and your support could literally be lifesaving. 

Educate Yourself

One of the best ways to help someone battling a substance use disorder (SUD) is to understand how addiction works and what it actually is. 

Addiction is not a moral failing or a weakness of character. Your loved one is not necessarily choosing to keep doing drugs. There are likely many things at play. 

Addiction can have many contributing factors, from genetics to biological factors to environmental ones. Read up on the science behind drug addiction through medical and scientific sources to gain a better understanding of what it is, how it works, and treatment options.

Addiction & the Brain

Addiction is a brain disorder. Drugs actually make changes to the brain, altering the way brain cells communicate.[2] When you are happy, the brain sends out chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters. Drugs can mimic these neurotransmitters and interfere with the natural production of these signals. 

With repeated drug interference in the brain, the chemical makeup and even the wiring of this reward processing system is altered. Drugs create a kind of shortcut to pleasure, creating new pathways in the brain circuitry. 

The brain can then struggle to activate neurons and send neurotransmitters normally without drugs. A person will then have difficulties feeling pleasure without drugs. 

Regular drug use can also create a physical dependence on drugs, which can lead to intense withdrawal symptoms when they process out of the body. Individuals then begin using more of the drug to keep these withdrawal symptoms at bay. At this point, compulsive drug use will not feel like a choice, but rather a necessity for a person with a substance use disorder just to “feel normal:”. 

Help Without Enabling

It is important to offer emotional support when a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, but it is equally important to not enable drug-seeking and using behaviors. Enabling someone with drug addiction allows them to keep misusing drugs and can hinder possible recovery. 

Enabling behaviors can include the following:

  • Loaning them money or providing financial support
  • Covering for them when they miss work or school due to drug use
  • Making excuses for their poor behavior when they are high
  • Ignoring or tolerating negative and problematic behaviors
  • Allowing them to use drugs in your home
  • Picking up the slack for them and taking on their neglected responsibilities 
  • Denying that a problem exists

While it can seem harsh to stop supporting someone financially or forcing them to take responsibility for their actions, enabling behaviors only allow the family member to continue to use drugs and not get the help they need for recovery.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries are important to protect you and hopefully encourage your family member to seek professional help. Set clear and concise boundaries that you will be able to stick to. 

If you tell a family member that they are unable to see other family members until they get help, for example, you need to stick to this. 

When you say you are going to stop financially supporting their drug habit by loaning them money, paying their bills, or allowing them to live with you rent-free, this is a financial boundary. 

You will also need to ensure that you are protecting yourself as well. Do not tolerate unacceptable behaviors. Set boundaries that let your loved one know what you will and will not do for them.

What Not to Do

Just as it is important to know what to do when your family member has SUD, it is also beneficial to know what not to do. 

Refrain from blame as much as possible. This includes blaming your loved one or yourself for the problem. 

Be calm and rational when talking to your loved one about their SUD. Avoid name calling or negative statements in an attempt to shame. It is likely that they are already feeling bad about their behavior. Simply “shaming” leads to a cycle that leads to more drug use.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Do not allow your loved one to take advantage of you financially or otherwise. 
  • Keep yourself out of harm’s way, especially when they are using drugs. 
  • Do not tolerate abusive behaviors. 
  • Seek professional help if you are feeling vulnerable. 
  • Avoid trying to intimidate or guilt them into stopping using. 
  • Do not lecture. 
  • Try to have supportive, yet firm, conversations about their drug use and behaviors when they are sober. 
  • Be patient and understand that addiction did not develop overnight. It will take time and effort for recovery

Find Ways to Take Care of Yourself 

In order to help a family member with addiction, you first need to take care of yourself. 

Take some time to do things that you enjoy and allow yourself to get some space from the situation. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and exercising regularly to stay healthy. 

It can be helpful to seek out personal therapy and family support groups. Many of the 12-step programs offer groups for family members, such as Al-Anon.[3] A peer support group can be a positive outlet where you can connect with others who understand what you are going through and can offer encouragement, support, and advice.

Seek Professional Help

Some family members find it highly beneficial to get help themselves from trained professionals. Counselors, therapists, and medical doctors can all offer support. Since addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease, it commonly requires a specialized treatment program to foster recovery.

Explore your local treatment options and learn about what could be a good fit for your loved one and your family. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a national helpline and online treatment locator that can offer resources and referrals to local treatment services.[4]

Staging an Intervention for Your Drug-Addicted Family Member

An intervention can be a good method to help a loved one see how their behaviors are impacting those around them. The goal is for them to agree to get professional help. 

An intervention is a structured meeting that is often planned with other family members and important people in your loved one’s life. It can be beneficial to use a professional interventionist to help you plan and carry out a successful intervention.[5]

Tips for a Successful Intervention

Here are tips to increase the likelihood that your family member will seek help after an intervention:

  • Plan the intervention thoroughly ahead of time
  • Involve family members, friends, and other important people in your loved one’s life
  • Stage the intervention when your loved one will be the most receptive, ideally when they are sober.
  • Use “I” statements, stay calm, and be respectful and supportive while explaining how their drug use and addiction are negatively impacting your life.
  • Research treatment options ahead of time to share with your family member
  • Set clear boundaries and outline consequences of what will happen if they choose not to enter into treatment after the intervention.
  • Consider using the services of a professional who can guide the meeting. 

Remember that an intervention is a conversation with your loved one with the intent to encourage them to get professional help for SUD. This may be successful after one attempt, but it may also take several conversations over a period of time. Be patient and supportive, but stick to the boundaries you set. 

Getting Your Family Member Treatment

Addiction is best managed through a professional treatment program. There are several different options when it comes to treatment services. These can include outpatient treatment models that offer flexibility with existing schedules and obligations, or more intensive inpatient treatment models where your loved one can receive around-the-clock care for a period of time. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends that a person remain in addiction treatment for at least three months to establish healthy habits and positive lifestyle changes to support recovery.[6]

The type of treatment and services will vary based on what your family member needs. They may include the following:

  • Group and individual counseling sessions
  • Behavioral therapies
  • Medications to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • Support group meetings
  • Dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders (such as mental health disorders along with addiction)
  • Life skills training
  • Family therapy

Learn which options make the most sense for your family member. Continue having conversations with them about seeking this type of professional help until they are ready to do so. Encouraging them to seek help is the first big step toward recovery.

Involving Yourself in Treatment & Recovery

Families are a big part of a successful recovery. To best support your loved one, it is beneficial to involve yourself in the treatment and recovery process as well. 

Treatment programs commonly involve family members in family therapy and counseling sessions to ensure that everyone is on the same page and able to support each other through recovery. Educational programs can give you insight on what to expect during treatment and recovery. They can also provide you with tools for encouraging and supporting your loved one.

Relapse can be caused by a variety of environmental triggers. To support recovery, it can be helpful to minimize possible risk factors in the home. 

Because addiction impacts the entire family, you will need to take steps toward healing together. Family issues can be addressed and communication can be greatly improved during family therapy sessions. With your support and encouragement, your family member can pursue a substance free life.

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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Citations

  1. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2019-nsduh-annual-national-report. September 2020. Accessed June 2022.
  2. Drugs and the Brain. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain. July 2020. Accessed June 2022.
  3. Al-Anon. Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters. https://al-anon.org/. Accessed June 2022.
  4. SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. Accessed June 2022.
  5. Association of Intervention Specialists. Association of Intervention Specialists. https://www.associationofinterventionspecialists.org/. 2019. Accessed June 2022.
  6. Principles of Effective Treatment. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment. January 2018. Accessed June 2022.

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