Having a friend or a family member who lives with an alcohol addiction is challenging. You may watch as their physical and mental health deteriorates and wish that you could step in to help. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a person with an alcohol addiction may be unwilling or unable to stop drinking.
Keep in mind that alcohol addiction is a diagnosable mental health condition, labeled clinically as an alcohol use disorder. When someone struggles with an alcohol addiction, they will continue to drink despite serious consequences involving their health, finances and relationships. Another concern that occurs with alcohol addiction is withdrawal. A person will experience uncomfortable or even dangerous withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop drinking, making quitting even more difficult.
All of this means that even when you want to help a person stop drinking, it’s rarely as simple as telling them to just stop. A person with an alcohol addiction typically needs treatment to recover, as well as support from friends and family.
If you want to help an alcoholic stop drinking, it’s important to understand the best way to talk to them so you can be as effective and supportive as possible.
What To Say to an Alcoholic
When you decide to talk to someone about their drinking, it’s important to be honest while coming from a place of concern. Avoid blaming them or being judgmental; instead, be prepared to say something such as, “I am worried about your drinking.” The person may become defensive or deny they have a problem. In this case, it is important to stay calm and offer specific examples of why their drinking has become concerning.
For instance, if the person denies there is a problem, you might say, “I have noticed you are spending most evenings drinking and not spending any time with the family.” You might also say, “You have started missing work after being out drinking the night before, and this worries me.”
Beyond expressing your concern, it is helpful for you to express your support and willingness to help. This can include offering supportive statements like:
- “I am here to talk if you need someone to listen.”
- “I will support you in going to treatment.”
- “I understand this can be difficult to talk about, but I am not here to judge.”
- “If you need any help exploring treatment options, you can call me anytime.”
What NOT To Say to an Alcoholic
Just as there are helpful approaches to use when talking to someone who struggles with alcohol, there are things you should avoid saying. A person may be in denial that they have a problem, or they may feel ashamed and seek reassurance. This means you may be tempted to comfort them by saying things like, “You’re not an alcoholic,” but this is actually damaging. Trying to make them feel better by telling them they don’t have a problem can make the situation worse, as it gives them permission to continue drinking.
While it is important to avoid feeding into the person’s denial, you must be careful to avoid telling them what to do or trying to force them into changing. Acting as if you know all the answers can have the opposite of your intended effect. For example, statements like, “You must go to treatment immediately!” will likely shut down the conversation or result in more defensiveness and denial.
Motivational interviewing is a treatment approach that uses empathy to help people increase their motivation to make positive changes, such as quitting alcohol. Concepts from motivational interviewing suggest that you should avoid blaming or arguing when talking with someone who has an alcohol addiction.
Setting and Respecting Boundaries
Boundary-setting is a key concept in addiction treatment. If you have a loved one who struggles with alcohol addiction, you may have to set strong boundaries with them if they refuse to go to treatment. As difficult as it may seem, you might have to tell them that you will no longer be a part of their life if they aren’t willing to accept treatment.
If the person is someone who lives in the home, such as a spouse or adult child, you may have to make the difficult decision of asking them to leave. However, let them know that you will be willing to support them if they decide to seek treatment later on.
At the same time, it is important to respect the person’s boundaries. While they are undergoing treatment, there may be times when they simply don’t want to talk about their alcohol addiction. Perhaps they just had a rough group therapy session and need some time to themselves. A person with addiction has the same right to have their boundaries respected.
Codependency and Enabling Behaviors
Codependency and enabling can become especially problematic when a loved one has an alcohol addiction. According to researchers, the term codependency came about in the 1940s and referred to behaviors commonly seen in the wives of alcoholics. Codependency is often associated with enabling, and it involves traits like lacking a sense of self, being passive in relationships and making a strong effort to be liked.
In the context of alcohol addiction, a person who is codependent enables addictive behavior by doing some or all of the following:
- Making excuses for the addicted person’s behavior
- Rescuing the addicted person, such as by bailing them out of jail or calling their workplace to explain the person is seriously ill and will miss work
- Giving the person money to buy alcohol
- Allowing the person to live with them rent-free, and cleaning up after their messes
- Buying alcohol for the person
Essentially, a person who is codependent on someone with alcohol addiction is actually allowing the drinking behavior to continue. This is because the codependent person is making it possible and even comfortable for the addicted person to avoid getting treatment and giving up drinking.
Intervention for Alcoholics
An alcohol intervention is a strategy that helps someone stop drinking and allows an entire family to overcome codependent behaviors. If your efforts to talk to a loved one about drinking have been ineffective, it may be time to seek the help of a professional interventionist.
During an intervention, family members and friends come together — often with the help of an addiction treatment professional — to express their concerns and encourage their addicted loved one to seek treatment. A professional interventionist serves as a mediator while loved ones explain how the addiction has affected the person as well as the entire family. At the end of the intervention, family members and friends tell their loved one they’d like to see them enter treatment.
Interventions typically also involve ultimatums. This may include telling the person you will no longer be part of their life or will stop supporting them if they do not agree to go to treatment.
Related: What is a Functioning Alcoholic?
The CRAFT Method
One specific alcohol intervention that may be beneficial if you want to help someone stop drinking is the CRAFT Method, which stands for Community Reinforcement and Family Training. This approach recognizes that significant others, such as spouses, family members and close friends, can play a pivotal role in getting people into treatment.
A review of four studies found that the CRAFT method was more successful than two other common intervention methods. Existing research shows that about two-thirds of people who are initially resistant to treatment end up entering treatment after a CRAFT intervention. This intervention method also improves the health and functioning of family members, who are often negatively affected by a loved one’s alcohol use.
Alcohol Detox, Treatment and Rehab
The ultimate goal of helping someone stop drinking is to convince them to seek some sort of treatment. For those struggling with an alcohol addiction, there are several levels of treatment. Treatment often begins with an alcohol detox program, which helps the body to rid itself of alcohol so a person is physically prepared to begin treatment. A medically supervised detox program is recommended, as alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe. Some people experience withdrawal seizures, whereas others may progress to a potentially fatal condition called delirium tremens. Delirium tremens can cause:
- Dangerously high blood pressure
It is important to continue with treatment after detox. Alcohol addiction treatment usually involves behavioral interventions like therapy and counseling, as well as support group meetings. Treatment can occur on an outpatient or inpatient basis. Outpatient programs allow someone to attend treatment at a clinic but return home, while inpatient programs involve staying at a treatment center for a period of time.
The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper serves the state of New Jersey and surrounding areas like Philadelphia and New York City. We offer medical detox as well as inpatient and outpatient treatment, and we can treat both alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your loved one’s needs.
Bacon, Ingrid. “The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 13, 2021.
Case Western Reserve University. “Motivational Interviewing.” Accessed November 13, 2021.
Mirijello, Antonio; et al. “Identification and Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” Drugs, February 10, 2015. Accessed November 13, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed November 13, 2012.
Roozen, Hendrick G.; et al. “Community reinforcement and family training: an effective option to engage treatment-resistant substance-abusing individuals in treatment.” Addiction, October 2010. Accessed November 13, 2021.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.