How to Talk to an Addict


By Elizabeth Hartney


No-one automatically knows how to talk to an addict. Although people who have lived and worked with addicts may have discovered ways to talk to an addict, it is always difficult because of the confusion addiction creates in the addict, and in those around them. Add the shock of discovering a loved one is an addict, and you have a recipe for poor communication. But there are ways of communicating with an addict that produce better outcomes than we might expect.

Communicating with an addict can be especially hard if you have been supporting the person's addiction by enabling them to continue with their addictive behaviour. Addicts can make this worse by denial and lying to you. Making changes in the way that you interact with the addict will put an end to enabling, while still showing you care about the person.

Always be kind to an addict

Show you care through your behaviour – always act with kindness and compassion. This is the elusive secret ingredient to successful interaction with an addict.

Listen to an addict at least as much as you talk

Whether they are a loved one or just an addict you need to communicate with, a person with an addiction is more likely to confide in you about what is really going on for them if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. Even if you do not agree with their behaviour, addictions happen for a reason.

Always be consistent with an addict

Whenever you are with an addict, communicate through your actions as well as your words. Remain consistent in your message, so that they don't misunderstand what it is you want or expect of them. For example, don't say you think your partner has a drinking problem, and then share a bottle of wine over dinner.

Try to be predictable with an addict

Addicts can be very unpredictable in their words and behaviour, but setting a good example can help to turn this around. Be predictable in your words and actions whenever you are around an addict - surprises are stressful, and stress feeds addiction.

Show unconditional love or concern to an addict

Let an addict know that you still love or care about them, no matter how severe their addiction. If this is not true or possible, at least that you have their best interests at heart, whether or not they get help. This doesn't mean you will put up with anything, however. Let the addict know what you won't put up with, and don't be scared to set limits and follow through to show you aren't simply making empty threats or psychologically punishing the addict.


Support an addict's process of change

Let the addict know that you are willing to support them in changing, for example, by coming with them to family or couples counselling. Although your motivation for change may be higher than the addict's motivation for change, this may start to shift once the addict starts to benefit from counselling and realizes that you are also willing to look at yourself and make changes, too.

Do it the addict's way

Although you should be absolutely clear and firm about what is unacceptable in an addict's behaviour - for example, underage drinking or using drugs in your house, you can be flexible in how the addict makes these important changes. Offer to help in ways that they would like, without dictating what must be done. As long as you get the same outcome, and no harm is caused by the addict's own strategy for change, let them do it their way.

Seek information on where the addict can get help

Addicts often feel ashamed of their addiction and fear of being reported to the police or another authority may be one of the biggest obstacles to addicts seeking help. Offer to find and share information on where to get help. If the addict declines, focus instead on getting help for yourself. As well as helping you to cope with the situation, seeing you get help and improving your mood and functioning can be inspiring to the addict, as they see that change is possible.

Always let an addict know your limits

If an addict seems unwilling to change, and you feel you cannot keep on living with them while they are engaging in their addiction, gently let them know. Counselling can be a good place to do this. As long as an addict does not know how much their behavior bothers you, they have no reason to change.


Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, is a psychologist with extensive experience in research, practice and teaching in the field of addictions and concurrent disorders.


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