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Helping a loved one with a drinking problem

If you think a loved one has a drinking problem, you may want to help but don't know how. You may not be sure it really is a drinking problem. Or, you might be afraid that your loved one will get angry or upset if you say something.

If you are concerned, do not wait to bring it up. The problem is likely to get worse, not better, if you wait.

When is Drinking a Problem?

Drinking problems are not measured by the amount someone drinks or how often they drink. What matters the most is how drinking affects the person's life. Your loved one may have a drinking problem if they:

  • Regularly drink more than they intended
  • Cannot cut back on drinking
  • Spend a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking alcohol, or recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • Have trouble at work, home, or school because of alcohol use
  • Have trouble with relationships because of drinking
  • Miss important work, school, or social activities because of alcohol use

Learn About Alcohol Use

Start by learning all you can about alcohol use. You can read books, look online, or ask your health care provider for information. The more you know, the more information you'll have ready to help your loved one.

Get Support for Yourself

Alcohol use takes a toll on everyone. You can't help your loved one if you don't take care of yourself and get support.

  • Make your family's health and safety your top priority.
  • Ask other family members or friends for support. Be honest about your feelings and tell them what they can do to help.
  • Consider joining a group that supports family and friends of people with alcohol problems, such as Al-Anon. In these groups, you can talk openly about your struggles and learn from people who have been in your situation.
  • Consider seeking help from a counselor or therapist who deals with alcohol problems. Even though your loved one may be the drinker, drinking affects the entire family.

What Not to Do

It is not easy to be involved with a person who has a drinking problem. It takes a lot of patience and love. You also need to set certain boundaries for your own actions so you don't encourage the person's behavior or let it affect you.

  • Don't lie or make excuses for your loved one's drinking.
  • Don't take on responsibilities for your loved one. This will only help the person avoid consequences for not doing the things they should.
  • Don't drink with your loved one.
  • Don't argue when your loved one has been drinking.
  • Don't feel guilty. You did not cause your loved one to drink, and you cannot control it.

How to Talk About Alcohol Use

It's not easy, but it's important to talk with your loved one about the drinking. Find a time to talk when the person is not drinking.

These tips may help make the conversation go more smoothly:

  • Express your feelings about your loved one's drinking. Try to use "I" statements. This helps keep the focus on how the drinking affects you.
  • Try to stick with the facts about your loved one's alcohol use, such as specific behaviors that have made you worried.
  • Explain that you're concerned for your loved one's health.
  • Try not to use labels like "alcoholic" when talking about the problem.
  • Don't preach or lecture.
  • Don't try to use guilt or bribe the person to stop drinking.
  • Don't threaten or plead.
  • Don't expect your loved one to get better without help.
  • Offer to go with the person to see a doctor or addiction counselor.

Remember, you can't force your loved one to get help, but you can offer your support.

Getting Help

It may take a few tries and several conversations before your loved one agrees to get help. There are many places to get help for an alcohol problem. You can start with your family provider. The provider may recommend an addiction treatment program or specialist. You can also check with your local hospital, insurance plan, or employee assistance program (EAP).

It may become necessary to have an "intervention" with your loved one and other important people in their life. This is often led by a counselor who is involved with a treatment program.

You can play an important role by continuing to show your support. Offer to go with your loved one to doctor appointments or meetings. Ask what else you can do, such as not drinking when you are together and keeping alcohol out of the house.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you feel that your relationship with this person is becoming dangerous or is threatening your health, get help for yourself right away. Talk with your provider or a counselor.

Alternative Names

Alcohol abuse - helping a loved one; Alcohol use - helping a loved one

References

Carvalho AF, Heilig M, Perez A, Probst C, Rehm J. Alcohol use disorders. Lancet. 2019;394(10200):781-792. PMID: 31478502 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31478502/.

O'Connor PG. Alcohol use disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 30.

US Preventive Services Task Force; Curry SJ, Krist AH, et al. Screening and behavioral counseling interventions to reduce unhealthy alcohol use in adolescents and adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2018;320(18):1899-1909. PMID: 30422199 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30422199/.

Review Date 9/7/2020

Updated by: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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