Tough Love When Dealing with Addiction

Parents shows tough love.

As the addiction problem in the United States has grown and has overwhelmed tens of millions of American families, our biggest question has become one of, “How do I address the addict in my family or close circle of friends?”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and Administration, there are now twenty-four million Americans who are addicted to drugs and alcohol in the United States. That number represents about fourteen to fifteen percent of the entire population of this country that is over the age of twelve. And it gets worse than that too. With twenty-four million addicted, each one of those addicts has family members or loved ones right? In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that each addict probably has about four to six family members or loved ones to whom they are very close.

With that in mind, we can extrapolate that there are at least one-hundred-million Americans who are very seriously affected and impacted by the addiction trends of a family member or loved one. The family members and loved ones of addicts have to know how to address their loved ones when those persons are stricken with a substance abuse habit. This becomes a pure and simple necessity for them.

What is Tough Love?

Traditionally, there have been two ways to address a drug addict or an alcoholic. One could either apply the tough love approach to them, or one could enable them. Let’s define these:

  • Tough Love. Tough love is a strict and very firm approach to a drug addict or an alcoholic. It is taking a very firm stance with them. It is basically telling them, “Look bud, I love you and I want you to do well and get better, but I’m not going to help you or aide you in any way until you get clean.” Tough love put sobriety first and foremost, insisting in fact that the individual gets clean and that they get clean rapidly too.
  • Enabling. Enabling is the polar opposite. People who enable addicts basically insist on helping them in any way possible. Enablers give the addict money, the car, a phone, a place to stay, food, water, clothes, support, assistance in a legal matter or criminal matter, etc.

Traditionally, enabling has been seen to be very, very wrong, and tough love has been seen to be very, very right. And for years, decades even, this was the truth of the matter. Now, however, things are not that simple. Now, we need to find a middle ground where, while there will still be absolutely no enabling involved, the tough love becomes one of kinder love.

Kind and Firm Love Beats All

Addict changing her mind, smiling girl sitting in the park.

The thing that tough love got right was that the family members and loved ones of addicts cannot help or aide the survival of their addicted loved one in any way.

The reason why tough love works is that it allows the addict to hit their own rock bottom. By this is meant that, any time a person assists an addict with anything in life before the addict decides to get help for their addiction, the end result will be that the addict’s life is made somewhat easier by that help, and it will be that much easier for them to continue to abuse drugs and alcohol as a result.

However, where tough love got it wrong was in how it pushes addicts away and alienates them from their family members and loved ones. When the love is too tough, it could actually force the addict away completely and an overdose could be the ultimate end result. This is why kind love needs to be the major approach here. The family members and loved ones of addicts need to be firm with their addicted family member, but they should not alienate them or cut them out of their lives. Every effort the family members or loved ones of addicts make should be in the direction of getting the addict into treatment, nothing else.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.