How to Plan a Family Intervention in 10 Simple Steps
Families desperate to find help for a loved one with a drug or alcohol addiction who refuses treatment may turn to an intervention as a last resort. The truth is that a well-planned and executed intervention can help bring about much-needed change. It is the first step in the recovery process.
What Is an Intervention?
Although there’s often an element of fear and skepticism over what intervention is, the definition is simple. An intervention is a process used to convince the addict to accept and go into treatment. There are several kinds of interventions: informal ones conducted by the family alone, crisis interventions and classical interventions.
The classical intervention is the one most commonly used for the past 30 years and enjoys a high success rate. While there are variations in the methods used during the intervention, depending on the interventionist and the treatment facility, the overarching goal is the same: to get the addict to accept treatment.
Planning the Intervention
Once the decision is made to hold an intervention, the next steps involve careful planning to optimize the chances for success. In fact, more time is devoted to intervention planning than the intervention itself. Interventions typically take between 60 and 90 minutes. Planning an intervention should take a couple of weeks and include the following steps.
1. Hire a professional interventionist.
While family members could conduct an intervention, it’s generally not recommended. Overcoming the drama associated with confronting an addict in denial and refusing treatment is often too much for non-trained individuals. Professional interventionists, on the other hand, are skilled in overcoming barriers, getting through to the addict and helping him or her understand where they stand with addiction, and showing them that there is a path to overcome addition.
As an outsider, the professional interventionist is not vulnerable to the conflict and drama of the addict’s life. Furthermore, because of his or her years of experience, the interventionist knows how to judge the addict’s physical and psychological conditions, deal with resistance, objections and denials, and the constant strong physical cravings and urges. Helping navigate the addict to the end goal—going into treatment—is the primary reason to use a professional interventionist.
Addiction treatment centers can provide a list of interventionists. Look for one who is board registered and certified by the Association of Intervention Specialists.
2. Make treatment arrangements in advance.
Since the goal of the intervention is to get the addict to accept and immediately go into treatment, it’s necessary to make treatment arrangements in advance. That way, there’s no delay between the addict’s acceptance of help and entry into the treatment facility— and the addict has no time to back out. (The interventionist often accompanies the addict to the treatment facility.)
Choose the treatment facility that will best address the needs of the addict. Work with the treatment facility to finalize financial aspects of the treatment, including insurance, payment plans and any available assistance.
3. Decide who will participate.
Interventions for drug and alcohol abuse generally consist of four to six people. These are the ones who know the addict the best, usually loved ones and family members, but also sometimes close friends, a co-worker or boss.
Do not invite individuals the addict dislikes, or anyone with current drug or alcohol addiction. In addition, if the prospective invitee is overly emotional and may cave to the addict’s demands to be left alone, this is probably not someone to add to the intervention list.
4. Provide educational materials.
After finalizing the participant list, gather educational materials and distribute them to each person who will be part of the intervention team. Everyone must take on the responsibility to learn as much as possible about addiction before the intervention takes place. The selected treatment facility is a good source for educational materials, as are the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
5. Arrange a date for the intervention.
Once the decisions about interventionist, treatment arrangements and participant list are complete, arrange a date for the intervention. If some participants need to travel to get to the intervention, factor this into timing of the event.
6. Meet in advance.
The interventionist will coordinate a pre-meeting of the intervention attendees, possibly more than one meeting. This is a crucial part of the intervention planning. During the pre-meeting, the interventionist will:
- Go over details and what each participant needs to do
- Set an agenda
- Encourage agreement on expectations
- Rehearse with participants
7. Prepare written statements.
An important part of a successful intervention is the reading aloud of written statements by each participant. These are personal reflections that voice how the addict’s behavior has hurt the individual and affected their life. The written statements are rehearsed during the intervention pre-meeting.
8. Expect emotional intensity and denial.
Going into an intervention is not something to be considered lightly. This is a time of intense emotions on the part of everyone involved. Participants must expect the addict to yell, argue vehemently, use abusive language and even make threats. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the addict talking, but the addiction. Unable to think rationally because of alcohol or drugs, the addict cannot see the destruction his or her addiction created, especially on family relationships.
Here is where the interventionist breaks through the addict’s denial and systematically chips away at resistance until the addict begins to see accepting treatment as a viable choice or at least is willing to give it a chance.
9. Be clear about the goal: Going into treatment.
All the intervention planning will be pointless unless each participant is clear about the goal: going into treatment. This should be the only acceptable outcome. Granted, not every intervention will result in success, but a carefully planned and executed one conducted by a professional interventionist has a higher likelihood of achieving the goal.
10. Be firm on consequences.
There cannot be any waffling over the consequences of the addict refusing to accept treatment. Family members, for example, must be firm about what will happen if the addict says “no.” Often, this means completely cutting off the addict from the family: no contact, no financial support, no free ride living in the home. Knowing what consequences the family is ready and willing to impose and stick to is an integral part of planning an intervention.
Even if the addict doesn’t commit to treatment this time, don’t give up. Your show of support and involvement is still a big leg-up in your loved one’s eventual recovery, regardless of this speed bump on the road to get there. Learn more about what to do when an intervention “fails”.
Methods and Models of Addiction Intervention
If a first attempt at intervention does not succeed at convincing your loved one they need treatment, don’t despair. Families need to know that where one method has failed, another model for addiction intervention may have more success. Thankfully, there are currently many approaches that families can choose from— and these are worth exploring with a prospective interventionist. These methods can be classified as “direct,” “indirect” or “forcible”:
- Direct interventions are closer in style to the reality television stereotype, in which family members and friends confront their loved one with the help of a professional interventionist, urging immediate treatment. This approach tends to be the most effective at getting a loved one into treatment.
- Indirect interventions are clinically supported interactions between an addict and their family (facilitated by a marriage and family therapist) that seek to address the family dynamics of addiction and foster an environment that is more conducive to the healing process.
- Forced interventions have the goal of committing the addict to treatment against their will when there is legal justification for coerced rehab (such as the Marchman Act in Florida).
The following intervention models fall into the categories of “direct,” “indirect,” or “forced,” and are viable options for families considering an intervention:
- Crisis interventions in response to drug or alcohol-related legal, financial, home or health troubles can be direct or forced (in the latter case, in situations where the addict may be at imminent risk of self-harm or harming others, often because of a co-occurring mental illness).
- “Tough love” interventions can be direct or indirect and should be undertaken only with the help of a professional interventionist. The terminology of “tough love” refers to the enacting of firm boundaries on the part of family members who hitherto may have enabled addictive behaviors.
- “Confrontational” interventions, once a more traditional approach, consist of family and friends ambushing the addict, with the goal of pressuring the addict into treatment through blame and negative criticism.
- “Non-confrontational” interventions aim to motivate the addict to get treatment without using blaming methods that could trigger anger or defensiveness.
- “Love first” interventions emphasize a tone of love, empathy and compassion that seeks to override the addict’s excuses for refusing treatment with positive and proactive solutions.
- Systemic family interventions do not require the addict to be present and instead focus on changing the enabling behaviors of family members, with the goal of creating a healthier family system that supports the addict’s recovery.
- ARISE interventions combine the direct and indirect models of intervention, by addressing unhealthy dynamics within the family system through family therapy, while simultaneously encouraging the addict to enter treatment.
“Codependency” and Family Systems That “Enable” Addiction
In preparing for an intervention, it helps to have at least some awareness of the unhealthy family dynamics that can stand in the way of a loved one’s recovery. “Codependency” and “enabling” are two learned behaviors that often describe families affected by addiction. (Learn more about what they are and how to get help.)
The main point to remember is that enabling and codependency will only aggravate an existing addiction, serving as disincentive for a loved one to seek treatment. The antidote to enabling and codependency— (and the surer path to recovery)—is to exercise loving but firm boundaries, so that the addict is obliged to experience the negative consequences of their drug-seeking behaviors. This same principle can inform the planning of any intervention.
More Helpful Guidelines for Staging an Intervention
In addition to the 10 simple steps for staging an intervention referenced above, keep these other guidelines in mind as you prepare:
- Never attempt an intervention on your own. Confronting an addict alone can backfire, whereas there is strength, wisdom and support in numbers.
- Keep your expectations low. Do your best to let go of attachments to any one particular outcome. These can be mini resentments that actually hamstring the process of planning and executing an effective intervention.
- Practice expressing your feelings. Expressing how a loved one’s addiction has hurt you without indulging in accusatory statements can be really difficult to do. Some advance practice can help immensely.
How to Know When to Intervene
It may not always be easy to know if/when to intervene when you suspect a loved one has a drug or alcohol addiction, especially if they are in denial. Early intervention can improve recovery outcomes, however, so be proactive and intervene quickly when you notice these signs of a potential addiction:
- Sudden and/or dramatic changes in mood or behavior
- Problems at home, work or school
- Drug or alcohol-related legal troubles
- A high tolerance for drugs or alcohol
- Using drugs/drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms
- An inability to cut back on drug or alcohol use
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Unexplained injuries or health problems
- A noticeable increase in self-isolating behaviors
- Declining interest in hobbies or other activities that they once enjoyed
- Changes in weight and/or appetite
For more information about staging an intervention, check out these related articles in our Learning Center: