If you’re searching for information on how to help your loved one who is currently struggling with addiction, a lot of what you will find will tell you to not participate in enabling or codependent behaviors, to show “tough love,” to give ultimatums. Of course, setting healthy boundaries with your loved one is very important, but there are additional ways you can help your loved one: by showing them love and support. 

The general idea behind the advice regarding the subject is to stop enabling and participation in codependent behaviors in order to not encourage your loved one’s drug use. Codependency is defined as a term to describe a relationship in which, by being caring, highly functional, and helpful, one person is said to support, perpetuate or “enable,” one’s irresponsible or destructive behaviors. Therefore,  most popular codependency advice suggests backing off and informing your loved one that you cannot be involved in their life while they continue to make bad choices. 

What if we told you that you can help your loved one with recovery AND be involved in their life? How? By creatively rewarding your loved one when they stop using substances and providing healthy encouragement.

In this article, we will offer some atypical anti-enabling tips on how to help your struggling loved one. Read below to learn more about a new approach that can be more helpful if nothing else has worked. 

Positive Reinforcement Can Encourage Sobriety 

support a loved one with addiction

Many people who have a loved one who has a drinking/drug problem fall into a pattern where they increasingly focus only on their loved one’s drinking or using. They quickly recognize the negative effects that drinking or using has on the whole family including themselves and become resentful.

Sometimes, this can start a cycle of pursuer-withdrawaler which often leads to consequences given without the desired result (the loved one abstaining from substances). Pursuer- Withdrawaler can be described as one person in the relationship complaining and pushing for a certain change to occur which in turn makes the recipient shut down and pull away. (K., Woolley, S.R.Ph.D. 2020.)

For example, if you are the pursuer you would nag your loved one to stop using and then consequently pour their substance of choice down the drain. Moreover, due to your anger from the previous incident, you would continue to lecture your loved one about their life choices and money used on substances even when they are not intoxicated. Meanwhile, the Withdrawaler, your loved one, would add your statements of disappointment to their huge emotional baggage of shame, blame, regret and guilt that they carry around on a daily basis; decide to give up and feel its emotionally easier to not take part in this relationship cycle and continue to use to numb their despair with their substance of choice. The Withdrawaler might say something like, “ I get yelled at when I use and I get yelled at when I am not using. I feel like I might as well use because it doesn’t matter.” Therefore, at the end of the cycle, we are left without a solution to the problem.  

If this is happening with your loved one, it may be time to change your behavior so your loved one is encouraged to be sober.

An alternative to engaging in the pursuer-withdrawaler cycle is utilizing positive reinforcement which could result in more effective results. Positive Reinforcement originates from behavioral psychology and is when a reward is used to strengthen a person’s future behavior (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014). A research study on Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace found that positive reinforcement in the form of external rewards: salary, bonus, workplace benefits; and internal rewards: praise, encouragement, and empowerment; both worked as motivators for employees. (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014)

Now, let's think of your loved one as having a job in recovery and their main job duty is to stay sober. What if we applied positive reinforcement tools to our loved one’s recovery as a way to support them? 

Ashlea Taylor, MAS-MFT Clinical Director at Pinnacle Peak Recovery stated, “For clients who are new in recovery (2-3 years or less of sobriety time) internal rewards and healthy, positive quality time are the best rewards to offer. When clients are new in recovery, a large monetary reward can often sway the client’s focus away from recovery. However, everyone needs money for essential daily living especially if the person is in rehab. The best way to figure out how to provide positive reinforcement to your loved one is to chat with the client’s clinical team if they are in a treatment facility, seek the advice of a mental health professional or peers in a group such as Al-anon.”

An example of a healthy positive reinforcement reward would be writing your loved one a positive heartfelt letter or cooking them their favorite meal. Give them a positive internal reward by showing them how much you love and support them and there’s a chance they will continue this behavior.

Furthermore, a common problem for many in recovery is that they don’t know how to have fun without drinking or using drugs. It’s important to participate in activities that they enjoy and remind them how to have fun again without being drunk or high. This can be a reward for your loved one and can encourage them to be sober, it’s a win-win! Some examples of this are watching your loved one play softball, watching a movie together, or playing a card game with them. So when your loved one is not intoxicated, do something that is positive with them. 

Additional Tips on Rewarding Positive Behavior:

supporting loved ones with addiction problems
  1. Reward often but within reason (consult a mental health professional). Behavior is learned most quickly if a behavior is rewarded every time it occurs. But, you don’t want them to get bored by rewarding them every single time they are sober or do something positive. So, after a few weeks of rewarding them every time (for consistency), you can then reward them every other time they are sober. This way they won’t get bored and will work harder for their reward.
  2. Change the reward. It is easy for a person to become bored with the same reward. To avoid boredom and to continue to encourage changed behavior, you can change the reward that you give. So maybe one day you take them out to a movie and the next day you go to a basketball game with them.
  3. Make the connection for them. Make sure they know that the reward is because they are sober just to provide that added emphasis. If this connection is not obvious to your loved one, then their behavior may not change.
  4. There is such a thing as negative attention being rewarding. If a behavior is
    rewarded or it is a pleasant experience, it is likely to happen again. However, the confusing part is that sometimes any type of attention may be rewarding, even negative attention. For many people, negative attention seems better than no attention at all. This explains why nagging someone to stop doing something (negative attention) rarely works. They may actually like that they are getting some attention even though you could never tell by the way they acted. Therefore, if you pay attention to an activity that your loved one is doing, even in a negative way, you may be reinforcing that behavior.

This won’t be easy for you or your loved one while they’re on their journey towards recovery. There will most likely be setbacks and hardships throughout the way, but recovery is possible, especially if you and your loved one keep working toward this goal. 

Love Builds Bridges

In addition to rewarding positive behaviors, sometimes doing something as simple as letting your loved one know you love them, no matter what, is the best action you can take. Many struggling with addiction feel huge amounts of shame, self-recrimination, and worthlessness. They have trouble loving themselves and don’t see how others can love them, a prophecy that becomes self-fulfilling as their use burns more and more bridges.

Where family members can get trapped is when they extend that love into enabling use. Even as you tell someone you love them no matter what, that doesn’t mean you’re going to let them do whatever they want. Whether that’s using in the home or engaging in abusive behaviors, drinking and drug use can’t be allowed to become an excuse for negative actions.

You can support your loved one in positive behaviors - writing a resume, driving to a job interview, maybe giving some money to attend school. In fact, employment and involvement in education are factors linked to someone finding sustained recovery. But, even more than that, it’s a sense of belonging, community, and love that provides the greatest insulation against a return to addiction.

As a family member of someone struggling with addiction, you CAN help, and you CAN provide support. The more support you provide in a positive life direction, the more successful your loved one will be following treatment. Remember, treatment is not the end of addiction, it is the beginning of the road to recovery, and your loved one will need lots of support as they continue down that road. You can help them get back on track as long as you keep healthy boundaries in place and work not to support negative behaviors.  

Ashlea Taylor, MAS-LMFT, Clinical Director at Pinnacle Peak Recovery, adds, “Lastly, don’t forget about you! Having a family member in current addiction is stressful, emotional and for lack of a better word, HARD!!!! Get yourself into a local support group such as Al-anon, Co-anon, Coda and/or get yourself a therapist! This experience has been exhausting and traumatic for you. Take care of yourself so you have the perseverance to positively support your loved one!”

Where Your Loved One Can Seek Addiction Treatment

If your loved one has been struggling with addiction, Pinnacle Peak can help. Here at Pinnacle Peak Recovery, we provide a small, family-like environment for those seeking recovery from addiction. During their time in our program, clients will learn how to stay sober and rebuild a life that’s worth living.

Some of the various addiction treatment programs we offer here include the following:

Call Pinnacle Peak Recovery today at 480-787-2409 to help your loved one received the treatment they deserve.

Pinnacle Peak Recovery