There are thousands of people addicted to drugs and alcohol in the United States. For each one, there are parents, siblings, relatives, and friends who care greatly about them. Perhaps you are one of these compassionate people. Maybe you are wondering if the person you care for is addicted to alcohol or drugs. How will you know for sure?

How to Tell When A Family Member is Using Drugs or Alcohol

According to the book Treating Substance Abuse: Theory and Technique, there are several potential patterns of interaction that occur in families where a member is using drugs or alcohol.

Negative communication

If the majority of the communication that occurs among your family members is negative, such as frequent criticism, complaints, and other expressions of dissatisfaction or displeasure, this negativity may be used by your parent to reinforce their substance abuse.


The rules of the family interactions may be inconsistent, boundaries may not be set, or children may not be able to predict parental responses and react accordingly. This often creates confusion.


Very often, despite how obvious it may be to others, the person affected with a substance abuse disorder does not see the problem. Instead, they may consider their substance use to be “normal” for them.

Repression of anger

Children of parents who have substance abuse issues are often afraid to express their resentment of the situation.

Unrealistic expectations

Parents with substance use disorders have unrealistic appraisals of how their substance misuse negatively affects the rest of the family. Family members often have expectations that their parents will simply stop using drugs or alcohol on their own or that everything will be okay in the end without the need for professional intervention.


The parent’s use of drugs or alcohol may be a way to deal with stress, negativity, and insecurities.

If you have a parent with an addiction, expect some manifestation of nearly every one of these patterns of interaction in your family.

The First Thought: Maybe I Am Overreacting

Have you asked that question of yourself yet? The answer is you probably have more than once. If you notice a loved one’s life, health, finances, job, etc., is being affected by substances, then they may have an addiction problem.

Observe their behavior for a while to see if you notice anything that becomes suspicious. If you have already done that and believe there is a problem, share what you observed with other family members and ask if they noticed the same thing. They probably have noticed it, too.

If everyone believes your loved one might have a substance abuse problem, decide which one of you will talk to them about getting help. This person should be someone who can be non-judgmental and non-accusatory, yet loving and warm.

How To Communicate With An Addicted Loved One

The most effective ways in which to communicate with an addicted person include:

  •  Be kind and non-judgmental.
  •  Listen to the addicted person as much as you talk.
  •  Be consistent in how you behave with them and in what you say.
  •  Be predictable. Avoid surprises.
  •  Show unconditional love and concern while setting rules for what will be accepted or not.
  •  Support change and its process.
  •  Let them dictate how they plan to seek treatment and encourage them
  •  Gently let them know your limits.

Also, it might be wise to consider these suggestions before having a conversation about addiction with your loved one.

  • Wait until your loved one is sober.
  • Communicate in an open, honest, and non-confrontational manner.
  • Ask when you can set aside time to talk about what you’ve been observing. Remind them that you care and are concerned about their well-being.
  • State the problems caused by their addiction, but don’t cast blame. For instance, heavy drinking can cause someone to trip and fall and injure themselves more easily.
  • Change never happens overnight, and it probably won’t now. It may take several conversations with the addicted loved one before any meaningful action takes place. Be patient, understanding, and kind.
  • Take care of yourself and anyone for whom you are responsible, such as children. Seek advice from addiction professionals, clergy, or someone who can be objective. Other good sources for information and/or support include Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.
  • Take any steps to be safe.

What To Expect From The Conversation

Expect the conversation to be a difficult one. People with addictions react in different ways depending on many factors such as their job, legal situation, the substance of abuse, financial situation, level of acceptance or denial, etc. However, there are things you can do if someone resists the idea of going into a treatment program.

  • Keeping working on building trust. Keep the line of objective communication open.
  •  Be there for a loved one. There may be a moment when their defenses are down and want to talk. Listen with an open mind and heart.
  • Remind them of the consequences if they don’t seek help. Be supportive and not accusatory, but do set the line not to cross and stay firm on it.
  •  Always communicate with love and concern. Nobody likes to feel threatened. Your point is to let your loved one know that you and others have noticed a problem with using or abusing drugs or alcohol, and you want them to get help.
  • Offer suggestions for treatment. Many well-established programs are evidence-based in convenient areas.

How Substance Abusers Might Avoid Treatment Talk

The games some people with addiction might play to avoid talking about getting help, to avoid family meetings that are directed toward their substance abuse, or any get-together—singly or in a group—that could be uncomfortable for them might seem familiar.

Bluffing is a common tactic used. Loved ones who try to bluff by saying or showing you that you are the one who is not trusted for whatever reason. You are the one with the problem. Not them.

Hiding the implements of their addiction is also common. If it’s drugs, the drug and its paraphernalia will be hidden, and the same ploy works for alcohol addiction and other types.

It’s OK to respect the privacy of someone with a SUD. At the same time, if you find the implements of drug or alcohol abuse, it’s time to approach the subject.

A circle of people consoling a man with his head down

Sometimes, the one with a substance abuse disorder will throw the word taboo at you. It is taboo to tell anyone that there is an addiction problem in the family.

Exposing it will bring shame to you and the family.

The way to deal with that is to ask others if they have noticed that the loved one has a problem with substances before approaching the loved one.

Theft sometimes occurs in and out of the home when there is a SUD in the family. Whether it’s cash from a purse or wallet or valuable items missing, stealing happens. This is how someone who is addicted pays for their substance of choice. Acknowledge the theft to the loved one with the addiction. If you don’t feel safe doing this, seek advice from an objective party.


The other issue you should expect to see somewhere in the family structure is co-dependency. Co-dependency describes a situation where the other parent or one or more of the children is overly concerned with the problems of the substance-abusing parent and does not attend to their own needs.

Co-dependency is not a clinical term but more of a description of a family relationship issue that often occurs in families that struggle with addiction.

Here are some traits of co-dependent people:

  • They can be controlling
  • They believe that others in the family structure are not capable of taking care of themselves.
  • They can be compliant
  • They often sacrifice their values, needs, and desires to avoid anger or rejection.
  • They can be in denial
  • They are often in denial about their feelings.
  • They can be overly sensitive
  • They will often react in an oversensitive manner. They may be very sensitive to disappointment, disruption, or other difficulties.
  • They display low self-esteem
  • They tend to identify or define themselves in terms of their relationship with the affected person.
  • They are overly loyal
  • They are usually very loyal to people who do very little to deserve such loyalty.

Treatment Options And Help

There are several different options for addiction treatment.

The one that will be the best fit will be the one that offers medical detoxification and ongoing treatments to work with any concurrent mental or physical health problems. Delphi Behavioral Health Group’s family of substance abuse centers located in convenient areas in the United States offer evidence-based therapies to treat addiction – medically, psychologically, and spiritually.

Take time to explore and research the courses of treatment and therapy options for whichever substance of abuse your loved one indulges. Addiction is a treatable chronic disease, and there is hope for your beloved.

Our educated, experienced professionals are available 24 hours a day, and seven days per week. If you prefer to communicate online, please click here. Help is right here. Reach out and ask for it.

Your Support

Getting a parent, or anyone else, to admit they have a problem with drugs is rarely easy. You will likely need to have many conversations with them before they are fully willing to accept they need help and begin to seek it.

Depending on the type of drug they are abusing and the amount of time they have been using, it could be very difficult for them to imagine beating their addiction. Each conversation or intervention is a stepping stone on their ultimate path to recovery.

Reminding your parent or loved one that you love them, and you will be there to support them as they focus to get sober can help the process.

The support you provide during the recovery process can be incredibly valuable.

Again, remember your own health. Talk to a therapist about how to best manage your own self-care during this vulnerable time.

There are support groups available for the loved ones of those who are struggling with addiction.

Adult Children of Alcoholics / Dysfunctional Families offers support and a roadmap to recovery for those who grew up with addicted parents.

Al-Anon groups offer support and resources for family members of those struggling with addiction.

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