counsel a drug addict
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12 Tips for How to Counsel a Drug Addict

One of the most painful and confusing experiences a person can go through is finding out a loved one is caught up in substance abuse and addiction. Once the addiction is known, the question goes from “What is going on?” to “Where do we go from here?”

In attempting to answer that question, people tend to try a variety of approaches, and not always for the right reasons or with good results. Some simply try to ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. Others grow angry and issue ultimatums. Still, others think they can just fix the problem if they try hard enough.

No matter what your impulse is upon learning that your family member or friend is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s important that you take the time to learn the best ways to help them, rather than simply acting on instinct. Even if it comes from a place of love, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best approach.

If you are in a position of needing to counsel your addicted friend, son, daughter, spouse, or even parent, here are some helpful tips for doing it well.

don't put it off

#1 – Don’t Put It Off

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to avoid dealing with addiction. For some, though, this is the impulse, especially if you are not given to confrontation. Convincing yourself it’s not that bad or hoping it goes away only puts your loved one at greater risk.

If you suspect a loved one is abusing alcohol or drugs, it’s better to act now than to wait. The earlier you are able to intervene, the better their chances of rehab and recovery. Don’t ignore signs and explain them away. Rather, ask the tough questions and find out the truth about what’s going on.

#2 – Educate Yourself

Most people would be surprised to find out how little they really understand about drug and alcohol addiction. Going into an intervention without adequate education is like going into battle completely unarmed, and the end result will be similar: wounded people.

The best way you can learn more about addiction before addressing it is by contacting a local treatment center and asking them for help. They exist for this very reason and are eager to see addiction dealt with in healthy and constructive ways.

You will probably want to meet with a counselor and explain the situation. In this way, you can get some specific tips for your circumstances and go into the experience with some support already in place.

#3 – Contextualize

While there are certain steps and approaches that can apply to almost all addictions, it’s also true that everyone is different. Treating every addiction exactly the same is a mistake that can leave the addict feeling ostracized and frustrated.

This is something you can discuss with a counselor when you are assessing the situation and getting educated about addiction. Think about where this person has been, what has contributed to their substance abuse and addiction, and any personality traits that impact the situation.

Is there a history of addiction in the family? Do they appear to be under a significant amount of stress, either at home or at school? Are they trying to fight off depression or anxiety? A number of mental, emotional, chemical and psychological factors are present in every situation.

#4 – Have a Support System

As you are preparing to confront your loved one about addiction, you want to have a support system in place, for both you and that person. This may include other friends and family or possibly a counselor from a treatment center.

It’s not always helpful to approach an addict as a group, but sometimes group interventions are more effective than one-on-one interventions. Again, this is something a counselor can talk you through, and help you determine which course is best in your situation.

remain calm

#5 – Remain Calm

Perhaps one of the most important things you should do when providing counsel to an addict is remaining extremely calm. Chances are, the person you are confronting will not remain calm, so this is something you should be prepared to do in advance.

Especially in situations where the addict is someone close—like a significant other or a child—there can be a strong impulse toward anger, especially if the person becomes defensive while you are talking. However, the most important message you’re sending is that you are acting out of love, a message that is undermined when you let your temper flare.

If you find yourself growing angry, leave the room for a moment to collect yourself before continuing the conversation. If you suspect that the conversation will go badly, try the group intervention mentioned above, as this will alleviate some of the burden on you.

#6 – Listen

Imagine you are sick and sitting in the doctor’s office. The doctor comes in, but rather than ask you what brought you in, or how you’ve been feeling, she immediately begins diagnosing and prescribing. This would be incredibly frustrating for you, wouldn’t it?

In the same way, those battling addiction must be given the space to speak, to explain what’s going on, and to provide their own ideas about how to move forward, even if those ideas aren’t ultimately best.

When they know they are being heard, they will be far more likely to listen to you as well.

#7 – Present Facts

Drug and alcohol addiction brings out a LOT of emotions in people, both in the addicts and in the people trying to help them. However, in the end, making decisions about how to move forward should come down to facts, not emotions.

When you make statements about the situation or the person, do so with facts, not feelings. Don’t tell an addict “I feel you should…,” but rather, “based on everything we know, the best thing to do is…”

#8 – Don’t Play the Blame Game

When you are counseling a drug addict, you will both be tempted to play the blame game. You’ll want to blame them for everything, rather than address the addiction as an illness. You may even be tempted to blame yourself, asking what you should have done differently.

Moving forward toward recovery is not about assigning blame. Yes, an addict will have to own their responsibility. However, as you are counseling a drug addict toward treatment, it is not the time to try and get them to admit everything they’ve done wrong. It is the time to expose the need for help, and encourage your loved one toward the help they need.

make a plan together

#9 – Make a Plan—Together

While you may already have a plan in place when you sit down to counsel an addict, the ultimate plan needs to be one you agree to together. For most addicts, one of the challenging aspects of entering treatment is the loss of control. Someone else makes your decisions for you and you have to follow a strict program.

Letting addicts be a part of the planning process is important for their ownership of the recovery journey. Ownership will be an important part of their long-term success, as they will have to WANT to change in order to ultimately do so once they are on their own again.

#10 – Use Leverage if Necessary

Threats and ultimatums are never an option. These only serve to alienate and anger the person you are trying to help. However, positive leverage can be an important piece of your counseling as you urge your loved one toward treatment.

Leverage simply refers to something that matters to this person that they can look forward to as a reward when they pursue treatment and begin to move forward.

For parents of teenagers, you may be pointing them toward privileges they will regain or activities they can once again participate in. For a spouse, this may be moving back into the house or gaining access to the children again.

Again, these are not threats but reminders that there are good things waiting on the other side of treatment, things to look forward to and things worth fighting for.

#11 – Point Them to Recovery Options

Once you’ve counseled an addict about where they are and urged them toward treatment, it will be helpful to be prepared to point them toward some options. You can find a variety of recovery options simply by looking for what’s available in your area and by looking into long-term treatment facilities as well.

These may be available nearby or you may need to go some distance. If you intend to advise an addict to enter a long-term treatment facility, be prepared to counsel them on why these treatment programs work and what the benefits of long-term treatment are.

#12 – Get the Help They Need

While counseling and advising are an important part of moving toward recovery with drug addicts, they need to know they’re not alone as they do so. Help them decide on treatment. Take them where they need to go. Attend counseling with them. Be prepared to walk the road together.

Recovery from Addiction Is Possible

One of the first things you’ll learn when you are educated about drug and alcohol addiction is that it’s not about a cure, it’s about managing the addiction. The road ahead for a drug addict is a long one and counseling your loved one toward treatment is just the beginning of your journey.

By learning everything you can about addiction, approaching an addict with love, listening to them, helping them make a plan, and walking through recovery with them, you will not only help them on their journey toward sober living, you will strengthen your relationship with them as well.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, turn to the Drug Treatment Center Finder. Call us at 855-619-8070 and we’ll connect you to the right facility that will fit your needs!