Tips for Effectively Talking to Someone About Their Addiction

Mother talks to her son

When it comes to talking to someone with an addiction problem, there are certain things that a person should avoid saying if they want to be at all effective in their conversation. Like any other type of issue that a person may be facing, addiction can be a sensitive subject and something that isn’t easy to discuss. For someone who doesn’t understand the complexities of addiction, it can be easy to judge others and make assumptions about their character. Communication breakdowns often occur when people feel disrespected.

If you were dealing with a severe problem and someone came along and started speaking to you about it in a derogatory manner, how would that make you feel? Would you be inclined to open up to that person and listen to what it was they had to say? I doubt it. Now think about if that person could compassionately speak to you and listen to what you had to say without judgment and condemnation. How much easier would it be for you to open up?

It is important to remember that when you are speaking with someone struggling with a substance use problem, they are a person with emotions, past hurts, and difficulties. You aren't talking to someone who intentionally hurts their family and everyone they love; this is just one sad part of addiction that happens the further along someone gets entangled in its snare.

Five things you should avoid saying while speaking to someone about their addiction:

1. Why don’t you stop already?

Many times people will say this out of frustration. To someone looking in from the outside, it seems like a legitimate question. Why would someone continue to keep doing something that is destroying their life? It doesn’t make any sense. Someone who is not addicted to something can assume they would stop once they realized the negative consequences were destroying their life. But seeing this from the addict’s point of view, when you say this to an addict, it will not help them; it will only make them defensive.

2. (Insert name here) was able to quit all on their own why can’t you?

It is unproductive to compare yourself to other people, and it is equally useless to do this with other people. Pointing out how so and so was able to quit on their own isn’t going to help your loved one quit on their own. Some people can stop without help, but most people who have an addiction will need some form of assistance to get better.

3. You don’t even care about how your actions are affecting others.

While it may seem like your loved one doesn’t care how their actions affect others, this usually isn’t true. The thing about addiction is that it hurts everyone involved, whether using drugs themselves or not. As a result, the addict will often say and do things they usually wouldn’t if they were not addicted. Now, this is not to say that you should put up with abusive or toxic behavior, only that it is essential to realize it is the addiction that is usually causing it.

Accusation of an addict

4. Why did you choose to become an addict?

Asking someone this question is unproductive and destructive. Saying this to someone is like a slap in the face. While it may have been that person’s choice to start using in the first place, it is usually never a person’s choice to become a full-blown addict. Some people can experiment with drugs without drugs taking over their lives, while others may try a drug once and quickly become addicted. There is nothing productive about asking this question, and there is no reason to do so. The point shouldn’t be how you let this happen but rather what we can do to fix this.

5. You are a terrible person.

Telling someone they are a terrible person because of their addiction will not cause them to change; it will only cause them to become defensive and unwilling to hear anything else you say. While you may feel that your loved one has turned into someone you no longer recognize, there are different ways to let them know how you think. Again, it is essential to focus on the behavior and not the person.

Five things to consider saying instead:

Parents talks with their daughter

1. What would be some things we can do to help you get better? 

Often, people with addiction know that they need help; they are just unsure how to ask for it. By presenting a question like this, you acknowledge that there is a problem and show you are willing to help figure out a solution. When people feel that you are on their side and want to help them get better, they will be much more open to receiving help.

2. Do you think it would be beneficial to seek out professional help?

Many people do need some form of professional help to get ahold of their addiction. There is a reason there are so many different treatment options available, and that is because addiction is a difficult thing to overcome on one’s own. There are certainly people who can do it without help. However, it is usually a good idea to seek out some form of support to make the process more effective and increase long-term success.

3. I feel (insert emotion here) when you (insert action here).

The statement above is an effective way to communicate how another’s actions impact you. While the person may still try to deflect, they will be more inclined to see how their actions impact the people they love. When they can do this, they will be in a better space to make a change.

4. I’m not sure how this happened, but I want to help.

When a person is at the point that they need help for their addiction, there isn’t much point in asking them how they got this far; this is something they can work through during their treatment program. So at this point, the best thing you can do as a support person is let them know you are willing to help them figure out how they can get help and then support them however you can during that process.

5. Your addiction is causing you to act in ways that you usually wouldn’t.

By focusing on the addiction, which is the problem, the person will be more willing to see how their actions negatively impact their lives. In addition, it is easier for a person to accept responsibility for the harmful actions when they don’t feel attacked. So keep the focus on the problem and remember that deep down, this is someone you care about that you want to help get better.

When we can speak to others with kindness, compassion, and a level of understanding, we are in a much better position to help that person get better. No one wants to listen to someone criticize them for an hour and talk about all of the bad things they are doing. When we can shift the focus off of the person and onto the problem, it becomes much easier to address the real issue at hand.

Reviewed by Matt Hawk, BS, CADC-II, ICADC



After overcoming her own addiction in 2012 Julie went on to become certified as an addiction counselor in order to help others achieve a life of recovery. She worked in the addiction field for 8 years and now uses both her personal and professional experiences with addiction as an influence for her writing.