How to Help a Family Member with Alcohol Addiction
A person who misuses alcohol or has alcohol use disorder (AUD) can experience adverse effects that impact their lives and the lives of those around them. People who struggle with alcohol misuse are sometimes known as alcoholics. However, that term can be stigmatizing and outdated. Thus, this article will often refer to “alcoholics” as people with AUD or alcohol misuse.
Read on to learn more about how to help an alcoholic family member.
Signs Your Loved One Has a Drinking Problem
Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol addiction, is characterized by problematic drinking that causes significant dysfunction in the person’s life.1 It is a progressive condition that often begins with social drinking and can gradually advance into problematic drinking and even addiction.
You cannot diagnose yourself or an alcoholic family member; however, knowing the criteria doctors use to diagnose AUD may help you identify a potential problem and when, and how to help a family member with alcohol abuse. A person who displays at least 2 of these signs over a 12-month period may have an alcohol use disorder.1
- Consuming greater amounts of alcohol and for longer periods of time than intended.
- Frequently failing to quit drinking or cut back on drinking.
- Spending a large amount of time buying and consuming alcohol and recovering from its effects.
- Craving alcohol.
- Neglecting home, work, or school responsibilities to drink alcohol.
- Continuing to drink despite interpersonal or social consequences.
- Drinking alcohol instead of engaging in previously enjoyed hobbies or activities.
- Drinking alcohol in hazardous situations, such as driving a car.
- Continuing to drink even though physical or psychological problems are caused or exacerbated by the substance.
- Needing to drink more alcohol to get the same desired effects or feeling less of an effect when consuming the same amount of alcohol as before.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when drinking is stopped or consuming alcohol to prevent or relieve withdrawal syndrome.
Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Alcoholics and Families
Alcohol addiction affects entire families, not just the person struggling with alcohol misuse.3
Family members may adapt to a person’s alcohol misuse in different ways. They may experience emotional pain and develop coping skills to deal with their concerns, or they may try to cover up the problem by enabling their family member person and making excuses for them.2
Parents, children, and siblings may think they’re helping a family member with alcohol abuse, but instead, they may be allowing them to continue problematic behavior.2
Effects on Family Members
Below are a few ways alcohol abuse can affect family members:
- High levels of stress and dysfunction.3
- Low quality of family relationships.3
- Poor communication.3
- Physical abuse.3
- Emotional abuse.3
- Sexual abuse.3
- Negative consequences on children (behavioral problems, poor academic performance, mental disorders, increased likelihood of becoming alcoholics or marrying alcoholics, increased risk of fetal alcohol syndrome).4
Health Problems from Alcohol Abuse
Family members will often deny or try to cover up how bad their family member’s drinking is.3 Recognizing alcohol addiction early can help you get the help you need so you better know how to support a family member with an alcohol use disorder. Treating addiction appropriately may help avoid serious consequences for the person struggling with alcohol such as health problems, DUIs, broken relationships, accidents, and job loss.
Some long-term effects of alcohol addiction on the alcoholic’s health and other areas of life can include:1, 2
- Weakened immune system.
- Cardiac myopathy.
- High blood pressure.
- Cancer (liver, breast, throat, and mouth).
- Cirrhosis of the liver.
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Fatty liver.
- Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
How to Help an Alcoholic
You can’t force a loved one to stop drinking and you can’t make them go to treatment unless they’re ready. What you can do to help a family member with alcohol abuse is to show your love, support, and encouragement, and help them enter alcohol addiction treatment when the time is right for them.
How to Talk to a Family Member with Their Drinking
Talking to your family member about their drinking can be scary and may bring up anger or discouragement for everyone. The person may become defensive and less likely to consider treatment.4
If you want to know how to help a family member with alcohol abuse, it may help to approach them in a non-threatening and caring manner. It’s likely that they feel a great deal of shame and guilt associated with drinking, so speak to your family member in a nonjudgmental way.4
If the family member is open to discussing the problem, you can present different treatment options and offer to help them find recovery programs. Be an active participant in your family member’s recovery process to help them maintain motivation.
Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) is a program developed for family members that teaches how to properly communicate with your loved one and discuss treatment options. You may want to search for CRAFT resources in your area.3
Things to Avoid when Talking to a Loved One
Below are some things to avoid when talking to someone about their drinking:3, 5
- Don’t talk to your family member when he or she is drunk. It’s likely that your loved one won’t be coherent and won’t remember the conversation.
- Avoid talking down to him or her. People with alcohol problems typically feel a lot of shame. Degrading the person will only add to his or her guilt.
- Avoid negativity and aggressive confrontation. The person may respond by being defensive or argumentative.
- Avoid blaming your family member for his or her addiction to alcohol. Tackle the problem collaboratively.
- Stop making excuses. You may have lied for them in the past and enabled drinking behaviors, but this isn’t helpful in the long run.
Enabling your family member’s addiction can lead to unhealthy family relationships and may allow their alcohol misuse to continue or even get worse. If your family member isn’t receptive to treatment, you may need to learn how to set boundaries to help maintain a healthier relationship.
Boundaries are guidelines that are individual to each family, which are clear and flexible to allow for better communication in and out of the family unit.3 You can also set personal boundaries to help you better communicate and support yourself and your loved one.
A few ways to do this include:
- Not helping your loved one out of jail if arrested for alcohol-related charges.
- Refusing to loan money to your loved one.
- Not driving them to bars or clubs where they may drink.
- Not covering up for your family member when they are under the influence of alcohol.
If you start to set limits, the family member may be forced to look at the damage his or her addiction has done and will be more likely to seek out treatment.
Getting A Loved One into Treatment
When supporting an alcoholic family member, you may offer to help them find treatment. Take time to learn about treatment options available for alcohol addiction and how they work so that you can help the person make an informed decision.
Below are a few alcohol addiction recovery options you may consider when helping your family member start the recovery process:
- Inpatient/residential treatment centers require that your family member lives at the facility for the duration of the treatment program. These centers provide around-the-clock medical and psychiatric care, medically supervised detoxification, individual therapy, group counseling, and aftercare planning. Someone suffering from a severe addiction should consider inpatient due to the highly structured environment and high level of care.
- Outpatient treatment programs are recommended for those with a mild to moderate drinking problem and who must fulfill obligations at home, school, or work while in recovery. These programs give your family member the opportunity to receive addiction treatment services when it works with his or her schedule.
- Mutual support groups like a 12-Step fellowship can help create encouraging and supportive environments for people recovering from alcohol addiction. Members can share their experiences about addiction as well as have a sponsor who helps them throughout the recovery process. There are also non-12-Step based programs such as SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and LifeRing.
How to Help an Alcoholic Who Doesn’t Want Help
If you are dealing with a family member who has a drinking problem and they don’t want treatment, you can continue to support them by offering love and encouragement. Continue to let them know you are there to help by assisting with the search for treatment or visiting a doctor with them. Some people may need more space to recognize it’s time for a change.
Avoid forcing a family member into treatment as they need to be ready to change and do the work to recover.
Taking Care of Yourself
Don’t forget to take care of your own needs while supporting your loved one. Support groups are available for family members and loved ones such as:
- Co-Dependents Anonymous focuses on correcting maladaptive patterns in family systems and creating positive, healthy relationships.6
- Al-Anon Family Groups are for friends and family members of problem drinkers. Members can share their personal stories about how addiction has impacted their lives.7
- SMART Recovery Family and Friends is a science-based alternative to fellowship programs, which provide resources to help a loved one.8
- Family therapy: In family therapy, a therapist will help to strengthen relationships within the family by improving communication and resolving conflicts.
Whatever you choose, make sure you take time to do something you enjoy or to relax.
Educate Yourself about Addiction
Seeking support and educating yourself can be just as important as your family member getting support for their alcohol addiction.
If you’re not familiar with addiction, it may be helpful to seek support so you can better understand the struggles your family member is going through. Joining a support group or reaching out to friends who have experience with addiction may help you feel more prepared to support your loved one.
Organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has resources available to help families dealing with alcohol addiction.
What to Expect After Treatment
Recovery doesn’t end when a person completes a treatment program. Your family member will likely need ongoing support to maintain abstinence. Usually, staff at the treatment program will help create a detailed aftercare plan for your loved one so they can receive follow-up care and relapse prevention. Some aftercare options include:
Dealing With a Relapse
Despite giving your family member endless love and support, relapse is still a possibility and a normal part of the recovery process.
If your family member does relapse, avoid negativity and blame. Continue to offer support. Encourage your family member to seek treatment again, and perhaps try another recovery program or one with a higher level of care.
For instance, if your loved one completed an outpatient program, maybe they can enter an inpatient program this time. Reassure your family member that relapse doesn’t equal failure.
Find an Alcohol Recovery Program
If you want to know how to support a family member with alcohol use disorder, and they are ready to get help, contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to learn about our treatment programs. Your call will be answered by a caring admissions team who is ready to support you and your family member in getting the help they need. If you or your loved one has insurance, the admissions team can help you check coverage at AAC facilities.
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