How to Talk to Someone About Their Addiction

Serious talk about addiction between couple.

Let’s have a conversation, about a conversation. More specifically, let’s talk about how to talk to someone about their addiction. To the outside observer who has never had to deal with this challenge, this might sound like an overly simplistic topic of discussion. But in actual fact, those of us who have dealt with having a family member or loved one who struggled with an addiction know just how difficult it is to try and help that person get better.

Wise men have said that communication is the universal tool, the ultimate metaphorical “duck tape of the universe.” When utilized properly, communication is the best practice and the right tool that can help us overcome even the most ruthless of problems. No matter how bad an interpersonal relationship gets, the right levels of communication done properly and at the right times can usually resolve it. When somebody has a family member or loved one who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, often all it takes is knowing how to talk to them, at the right time, and in the right way to convince them that they need to get help. Unfortunately, communicating about addiction is never straightforward and hostility can and usually does develop with repeated failed attempts. The key is Proper communication, which is not always easy.

So what is the Proper way to communicate with someone suffering from addiction?

Listed below are some tips and guidelines to use in order to have a proper communication with an addicted loved one, all in the effort of helping that person overcome their drug habit as opposed to just letting them slip further into addiction.

Make it Safe

Make it safe for them to communicate. One of the biggest mistakes that the family members and loved ones of drug addicts and alcoholics make is that they act confrontational with their loved one. And this is not really their fault either. There used to be an intervention model called the “Confrontational Intervention” that focused primarily on sort of shocking the addict into fear and submission to go to treatment.

This approach was not met with that much workability, and it has since then been more or less discontinued. But the seed that it planted was the concept of confrontation and that seed is still prominent. But we actually need to walk away from this approach, because it is not that workable or pleasant for anyone involved. In fact, the opposite approach is more workable. One of the first things to do is to make sure that the addict is comfortable and that you make your communication with them as pleasant and as non-confrontational as possible.

Don’t Accuse Them

Finger pointing

When communicating with someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, it’s very important not to be accusative or demanding or to make them wrong or feel bad. Rather than saying things like “You are (blank)” or, “You did (blank)” or, “You are wrong because (blank),” instead say things like, “I feel” or, “I think” or, “It is my feeling that” or, “I have noticed that,” etc.

Drug addicts and alcoholics already know that what they are doing is wrong. They don’t have to be told this. They are already very aware that they are going to have a very wrong path and that things will likely end very badly for them if they do not make a positive change. However, when they hear these truths out loud they are more likely to just get defensive and want to leave the environment and not hear it. So, when communicating to a drug addict, rather than being accusative or concrete in your statements, be more abstract and focus on the emotions and the sensations that are felt as opposed to the actual hard facts of the person’s substance abuse issue. The key is to get the addict to realize the effect they are having on others. Addicts are aware that they are harming themselves but often assume they have no effect on others. Getting the addict to understand that they are having a negative effect on those around them is the first step to proper communication.

Discuss Future Consequences

With that in mind, there is one area where it is very important to focus on the hard facts. This is when speaking in future concepts. By this is meant that one of the most effective ways to convince an addict that he or she needs to get help is by getting them to think with what the future looks like for them if they continue misusing drugs and alcohol. This is the concept of “Fear of future worsening.” It is a very powerful communication tool when talking to a drug addict or alcoholic to really get them to see where their life is headed if they continue misusing drugs and alcohol.

Most drug addicts and alcoholics don’t really think about this that much. It’s simply not a huge part of their thought process. They really don’t want to be thinking about it. But in your course of communication, always try to indicate what the future will look like. Drug addicts and alcoholics are usually people who are stuck in the past, and they are using drugs and alcohol in the present to try and forget about what happened in the past. All too often the only future they can conceive of is how they are going to get their next fix. But when you ask them to think about a longer term future, no matter how little that “longer term” might be, this can sort of pull them out of that thought process and get them thinking with a need for betterment and a smooth recovery.

Ebb and Flow

Woman looking at the guy - addict

Another tool when communicating with drug addicts and alcoholics is the concept of give-and-take or a sort of ebb and flow of communication. People who abuse drugs and alcohol are usually incredibly stubborn, and it often takes a great deal of time to convince them that they need to get help. The important thing is to never give up and to keep talking to them and insisting that they get help. But don’t overflow them or overload them with communication either. In using an ebb and flow technique, one would communicate to them one day, and then leave them be the next day, and then communicate with them the day after that, and so on.

Don’t expect them to change and to want help overnight. Don’t expect them to have a monumental realization about where their life is headed after just one conversation with them. Don’t expect them to suddenly want help after one brief chat after they have been misusing drugs and alcohol for years. It will take time, and consistent effort on your part will likely pay off in the long run.

Use Multiple People

Use more than one person. Another workable technique is to have you not be the only person who talks to the drug addict or alcoholic. When the addict hears from multiple people what is expected of them that they stop using drugs and alcohol, they are much more likely to agree to get help, to sort of “hang up the mantle” of substance abuse and to enter into a treatment center. We have to keep in mind the fact that different people are going to elicit different emotional responses from the individual.

For example, a 28-year-old son who is addicted to heroin might respond one way to his mother talking to him about getting help and he might respond differently to his father or his spouse talking to him about getting help. This is why it is important to have multiple people discuss the prospect of help with the addict. And don’t forget to ensure that each person knows something about how to have these conversations in such a way that they have a positive response and not a negative one.

Keep the Commitment to Communicate Going Strong

Helping someone overcome a drug habit is a lot of work. This is a task that is not for the faint of heart. To communicate with somebody who does not want to be communicated with and to communicate with them on the very subject that they would never want to discuss just makes the whole thing that much more difficult. However, communication and its proper use is the number one tool for convincing drug addicts to get help. You need to keep this up, and you need to keep trying and keep using different techniques until you convince the person to get the help that they need.

Two people sitting on the beach in a sunshine.


Clinical Review by Claire Pinelli, LADC, CCS, ICAADC, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.