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Motivating a friend to seek help for a substance abuse problem
July 5, 2016

Motivating Someone to Seek Help for a Drug or Alcohol Problem

Motivating a friend to seek help for a substance abuse problem

Motivating someone to seek help for a drug or alcohol problem is no small feat, as friends and families of those in need of substance abuse treatment will attest. This article offers some helpful tips for motivating your loved one to get into rehab, based on insights from a school of therapy known as “Motivational Interviewing” (MI). MI is an evidence-based treatment for addiction, meaning that its goal-oriented, client-centered counseling techniques have boosted recovery outcomes in empirically run clinical trials.

There is one important caveat here: only a licensed clinician can provide your loved one with the treatment they need for long-term recovery. This article should in no way substitute for getting help from trained professionals. Some of the communication techniques MI employs to help clients make core life changes are nonetheless instructive about what will more likely motivate someone to take that first step in seeking treatment help.

What You Can Do to Motivate a Loved One to Seek Help

If you are wondering what you can do to motivate a loved one to seek help for a substance abuse problem, the following strategies may be useful:

Avoid lecturing

When someone’s drug or alcohol use has become a serious and potentially life-threatening health issue, an understandable temptation for many loved ones—be they parents, spouses, siblings or friends—is to tell that person what to do. For parents especially, the first inclination can be to lecture a child, or to pressure them to get help, by offering extrinsic rewards or threatening punishments.

Such approaches aren’t a great motivator, however—at least not in the long term when inner self-motivation is key to finding lasting freedom from drugs or alcohol. On the contrary, core life change first requires intrinsic motivation on the part of the person using drugs or alcohol. In other words, your loved one will need to discover for themselves why they want to get help for an addiction. No amount of telling them what to do, or lecturing or pressuring, will help them connect with their own inner incentive to find healing. In some cases, heavy-handed tactics like these may only succeed in pushing your loved one further away from getting help.

Ask for permission to talk about your loved one’s substance abuse and/or to give advice

Asking clearly for this permission conveys that you care and respect your loved one. And, for someone whose addiction may be fueling low self-esteem or self-loathing, the assurance of your care and respect can itself be a motivator to get help.

Asking permission to talk about a sensitive subject and/or to give your advice on the matter also lets your loved one know, at least indirectly, that they ultimately are responsible for their life and have the power to make healthy choices, including taking that next step to get help.

Invite your loved one to share openly about where they are in relation to their problem and getting help for it—and with an eye on the future.

To the degree that they come from a place of non-judgmental reflection and genuine compassion, open-ended questions can encourage your loved one to share their feelings and concerns without feeling compelled to answer in a certain way or feeling like they’re merely the object of a “yes” or “no” interrogation.

Your loved one may or may not be ready to respond to these open-ended questions in a positive constructive manner. If they are ready to respond, they will be more empowered to speak for themselves and as the subject and storyteller of their own story. If they are not ready to respond, open-ended questions may at least prompt further processing at another time.

Below are some examples of open-ended questions that can encourage your loved one to process their problem and its implications for the future:

  • What will happen if you keep drinking this heavily?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to you if your heroin use continues?
  • If you were to decide to get help, what would be standing in your way?

Listen attentively and with empathy when your loved one is sharing with you

Listening well can be very hard to do, especially when the stakes around a particular outcome are high. Here are some tips that can help:

  • “Normalize” your loved one’s feelings. “Normalizing” is a clinical term, but what it really means is that instead of reacting in shock or disapproval to a particular statement or admission, you reassure your loved one that what they are feeling or experiencing is actually quite common or normal. And you don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to help your loved one feel like they’re not an alien when it comes to feeling afraid or unsure about whether to get help. Maybe they are afraid of getting help only to relapse. You can assure them that fear of failure is totally common and understandable. Look for ways to let your loved one know that what they are experiencing is not uncommon, weird or outlandish.
  • Offer positive affirmations whenever possible. When you can do so in a way that is not disingenuous or self-ingratiating, try to offer positive affirmations in response to concrete statements your loved one makes. Positive affirmation will boost their confidence that they can make positive life changes. If, for example, a loved one shares that they have been noticing the negative consequences of their drinking lately, you can let them know that it takes courage to notice such things and even more courage to be willing to admit them—and that you admire that courage on their part.
  • Reflect back what you are hearing. This may also involve asking for feedback about whether you are hearing something correctly. To help you stay focused on what your loved one is saying, and as a way of letting them know that what they’re saying really matters to you, you might occasionally reflect back to them what you hear them saying. For example, “What I hear you saying is that …” Or, “I’m getting the sense that … did I hear you correctly there?” Reflecting back what you’re hearing can also help your loved one pay better attention to what they are processing and the related feelings and motivations.