How You Can Help
If there is an addicted person in your life and you want to help, there are things that you can do that may make a difference. It's important to say up front though that you are not responsible for anyone else's addiction, and nothing you can do will ensure that an addicted person overcomes their addiction. This may seem obvious, but at the same time when someone you care about is in the midst of addiction it can be really hard to get away from the idea that 'if only I could find the right approach they would stop gaming'. This is never the case - an addicted person has to decide for themselves to change their behaviour, and while it is possible to support them in that (and even help them want to change), it is never possible to solve the problem from the outside.
This means that helping someone in addiction is always a difficult and painful balancing act, between trying to do things to help them and motivate them to change, and managing your own frustrations and disappointment and getting on with your own life. The most important thing that you can do is to look after yourself - after all, if you are stressed out and overwhelmed by the situation then you're unlikely to be able to help the addicted person. If you haven't already, read the 'Their Problem Or Yours' section of this site for some ideas of how to look after yourself. If you've already done that, then carry on reading for some ideas about how to help an addicted person in your life.
Also, this section is mainly aimed at people who are wanting to help another addicted adult in their life - maybe a partner, a friend, or an adult child. I encourage parents to read this section anyway as much of what is written here will still be relevant to helping a minor child, but then also read the section Advice for Parents for specific advice on helping children who are exhibiting problematic or addictive gaming.
Principles for Supporting an Addicted Person
Due to a long history of addiction being perceived as a moral failing or as a biological disease, ideas around how to help an addicted person are often quite outdated. This is not helped by a lot of TV shows and media like 'Intervention', that seem to suggest that the best way to help someone out of addiction is to confront them with it, often in a dramatic manner that may or may not involve total strangers. Other common ideas are that you have to let an addicted person 'hit rock bottom' before they will decide to make changes, or even that you need to 'help the bottom rise up and hit them'. In other words, that the key to change is to confront addicted people with their addiction, force them to see the consequences of their addiction, and present them with ultimatums.
As anyone who has tried any of these approaches can likely attest, while it may work sometimes, more often than not addicted people will respond in one of two ways: compliance, or defiance. That is, either they'll go along to treatment, or a handful of support groups, or maybe visit a therapist - but only because their family is insisting on it. There may be some short term improvement, but often this drops off after a month or two since the addicted person was never really motivated for themselves. Alternatively, they may become defiant - deny that their addiction is a problem, or double-down on it and carry on or increase their behaviours. In one way, this shouldn't be much of a surprise - in general, confronting someone with the problems they are experiencing serves to make them feel worse, and most often when an addicted person feels bad they will turn to the one thing that has reliably given them comfort - their addiction.
Most modern research shows that while there is definitely a place for setting boundaries in your relationships with an addicted person, one of the main things that can help motivate people to change is to help provide opportunities for connection and positive experiences outside of addiction. In particular, experiences which enhance connection to other people or to meaningful pursuits seem to create the greatest reinforcement for reducing addictive behaviours. One particular model of addiction treatment (Community Reinforcement Approach, CRA) which has shown very good rates of success over other approaches is built around this idea, and specifically identifies that family can play a very important role in helping addicted people overcome addiction.
In particular, the CRA approach identifies two key principles that I have used to inform the rest of the suggestions on this page. They are:
- Reduce the positive reinforcement that the addicted person experiences from their addiction.
- Increase the positive reinforcement that the addicted person experiences when doing activities other than their addiction.
This sounds simple in theory, but is of course a lot more difficult in practice!
Reducing the Positive Reinforcement of Addiction
The first part of the process of helping an addicted person realise the impacts of their addiction and choose to overcome it is to reduce any positive reinforcement of their addictive behaviours. That is, there may be ways in which they are benefiting from their addiction outside of the addiction itself. For example, maybe you used to share household chores with your partner until they started gaming, at which point they stopped doing their share. In order to keep the peace (and to keep the house tidy!) maybe you began doing their share as well. This is a form of positive reinforcement - now, they not only get to enjoy their addictive behaviour, but they also have to do less work as a result. You could reduce the positive reinforcement of this by refusing to do their share of the housework.
Of course, this becomes difficult because you might not want to put up with a messy house, but it's important to be aware of the fact that your behaviour may also be reinforcing the addiction, even if it wasn't your intent. If you can recognise this, then you can also think creatively about whether there are any alternative ways to address the situation that don't create so much positive reinforcement for the addicted person. Maybe you can clean the house apart from the areas that they use more often. Maybe you can spend more time out of the house so you don't have to be bothered by it. Maybe you can hire someone to do their share of the cleaning and let the addicted person know that you're not able to save as much money because of it.
In almost every relationship with an addicted person, there is some way in which we can end up quite unconsciously reinforcing their behaviour. Often we end up doing it quite unwillingly, and can end up very frustrated or resentful because of it - or sometimes we do it just because we don't really think about the effect it might be having, or to 'keep the peace'. The more we're able to identify these reinforcing behaviours and change them, the less the addicted person benefits from remaining in their addition.
A natural consequence of my addiction (since most of what I play is single-player games) is isolation. If people step back and let me game my life away, I am forced (eventually) to deal with the fact that I'm alone and (therefore) miserable. If they do the "loving" thing (and it's only unloving because it enables me) by seeking me out and asking me to be part of real-world activities with them, I get to feel like I'm wanted, and am therefore not isolated. This allows me to avoid the pain of feeling alone and isolated, so I keep gaming because my gaming isn't making me miserable.
These are the some of the really common ways that we might end up reinforcing an addicted person's behaviour:
- Providing 'services' - Bringing them their food or drink at their computer so they don't have to get up, getting things for them from the store, making appointments for them. These things can send the message 'If I stay addicted, other people will do things for me'
- Maintaining the household - Being the one to do household chores, being the one to handle the household finances (paying the bills etc). These things can send the message 'If I stay addicted, I don't need to worry about my other responsibilities'
- 'Parenting' them - Checking if there's anything they need, checking if they're feeling okay, checking with them before we go out etc. These things can send the message 'If I stay addicted, other people will look after my needs and wants'
- Meeting on their terms - Talking with them while they're at the computer, talking to them while they're distracted in-game, talking to them while they're using their phone. These things can send the message 'If I stay addicted, other people will come to me'
- Providing for them - Paying their bills, supporting them financially. These things can send the message 'If I stay addicted, I don't need to be responsible and provide for myself'
If anything in this list looks familiar, then it's important to have a think about whether there are ways that you can reduce or eliminate this reinforcement for the addicted person. You may find it helpful to have a chat with a friend or another family member, a professional, or others in similar situations through support groups like Olganon. Often it can be hard to see possible solutions when we're in the middle of a crisis situation, and so getting an outside perspective can be very helpful.
Increasing the Positive Reinforcement of Non-Addictive Behaviours
The second part of the picture is finding ways to reinforce the addicted person's behaviours when they are not engaged in the addictive activity. This means trying to create a positive experience when they are not gaming, and supporting any efforts they make to reduce their gaming. Again, this is easier said than done. If the addiction has already caused a lot of tension in your relationship, it can be hard to feel positively about the time that they do spend away from their gaming - you may find yourself having thoughts like 'It's only a matter of time before they go back to their game', or 'It's about bloody time!' Perhaps you find yourself thinking that they are only doing it to please you, and that they don't really want to be spending time away from their games. All of these thoughts make a lot of sense, and it's okay to have them. The problem is that if they come across in your responses to the addicted person, then this may make them more rather than less likely to go back to their games.
Imagine the following situation: Your wife has a gaming addiction, and has spent all Saturday playing games. At 6 o'clock she decides to come and spend time with the family, which is what you've wanted her to do all day. At the same time, you're also feeling really angry about her not being around, and so when she does join you it feels really easy to say something like "Well at least you've decided to join us now! You could've stopped gaming earlier you know?" In this case, the first thing she experiences when she stops gaming is your frustration towards her. Then it's easy for her to think 'why bother stopping, he's just going to be angry with me anyway' and go back to the gaming.
There are two important points to take away from this:
- Your frustrations and anger are reasonable, legitimate responses to the situation, and
- If you want to help the addicted person, it's important to be selective about when you express your frustration and anger
In short, try and save your frustration for times when the addicted person is gaming rather than when they are stopped. You may also find it helpful to read the 'Their Problem or Yours' section of this site for some ideas about how to manage your frustration about the situation in healthy ways.
Next, it can help the addicted person feel motivated to change if the time they spend away from their gaming is as positive as possible. There are quite a few ways you can help with this:
- Let the addicted person know how much you appreciate and enjoy spending time with them when you do have time together. This helps send the message 'Other people appreciate me when I engage with them'.
- Plan activities that you know you have both enjoyed in the past to do on your own, and invite them to join you. Be prepared that they may not join you, in which case go ahead with it and enjoy doing it yourself. If they do join you, let them know how much you've enjoyed it. This helps send the message 'There are things I can get pleasure from other than gaming'.
- Try and be friendly and available to them when they are not gaming, but carry on doing your own thing when they are gaming. This helps send the message 'I can only develop connections with other people when I am not gaming'
- Offer to listen and be supportive if they want to talk about the way they see gaming impacting their life. This helps send the message 'Other people can support me to quit gaming if I choose to do that'
- Encourage any efforts they make to try and change their gaming, and try to avoid criticising or punishing them if they slip back. This helps send the message 'Other people appreciate the efforts I make'.
In doing this, there may be times where it can easily feel as if you're doing all the work, while the addicted person seems to be doing very little. At times, this may well be true - and in a sense, this reflects the reality that very often other people in an addicted person's life have more motivation for them to change than the addicted person does. Unfortunately, because there is no way to directly change their behaviour or level of motivation, this is the only effective way to try and help them and it can be a lot of work. What this means is that it will be even more important that you find ways to look after and get support for yourself. This is why I've dedicated a whole section of the website to this, as helping and supporting an addicted person can be every bit as difficult and exhausting as trying to overcome an addiction yourself.
Make A Plan
Once you've taken some time to think about the ways in which you could reinforce non-gaming behaviours and stop reinforcing gaming, the next step is to make a plan. There are many ways to go about this, but the following is what I suggest as a good starting point.
- Make a list of the ways in which your actions have been positively reinforcing the addicted person's gaming. For example, you might identify things like: 'I have been making excuses for the addicted person when school calls up asking where they are' and 'I have been bringing their meals to them at the computer'. Spend some time thinking about this, and try and come up with as many answers as you can.
- Choose two of these behaviours that you want to change, and start with the ones that feel like they would be easiest to change.
- Decide how you are going to change these behaviours in a way that does not reinforce the addicted person's gaming. For example, you might decide 'When the school calls, I will tell them the truth about what is happening', or maybe 'When the school calls, I will give the phone to my child so that they can explain it themselves'.
- Let the addicted person know that you are going to change the way you respond in these situations. Don't argue or debate it with them - it is not a discussion, it is just a chance for you to let them know what will happen.
- Follow through with it. Whatever you say you will do, make sure you do it. If you're not sure that you can do what you say you will, then go back to step 2 and choose something that feels more manageable. If you're not sure if you'll be able to stick to it, the other option is to set a time frame and commit to it for that time so that you can start to see what effect it has. I would suggest a minimum of two weeks to a month.
- Next, make a list of all the ways in which you might be able to reinforce the time that the addicted person spends away from gaming. Think of things you could invite them to do, think about how you can best be supportive and available when they are not gaming and add these things to the list. For example, you might identify things like 'I will start doing dancing classes again like I used to do with my husband, and invite him to join me', or 'I will make an effort not to express my anger or frustration about his gaming if my husband joins us for dinner'.
- Again, choose two of these things that feel manageable to do.
- Work out how you're going to put these things into action, and whether you need any support from other people to make it happen.
- Let the addiction person know what you are planning to do.
- Follow through with it!
You may find it helpful as you go to discuss your plan with other people - friends, family members or a professional - they may be able to give you another perspective, and give you encouragement to go through with it.
Trying to help an addicted person overcome their addiction is frustrating and challenging. In the end, only they can choose to change their behaviour, and so ultimately nothing you do will guarantee that things change. At the same time, things you do can influence and help them see the cost of their gaming and the benefits of quitting. This is done by reducing the things you are doing that reinforce their gaming, and increasing the things you do that reinforce the time away from the games. For more ideas and support, I'd strongly recommend checking out the support forums for family and friends over at Olganon where a lot of people have written about their experiences and what has and hasn't worked for them.