How To Talk To An Alcoholic: A Guide
It’s natural to be worried about a loved one who lives with alcohol addiction, and knowing how to talk to to them is the first step toward helping them.
If a child, spouse or loved one has an alcohol addiction, it can begin to take a toll on their lives. Alcohol abuse can lead to serious consequences, but that person will likely continue to drink because they have lost control of their alcohol consumption. When you have a loved one who lives with an alcohol addiction, you may eventually have to talk to them about your concerns. Learn some tips for having an effective conversation.
Some people may use the term “alcoholism” or “alcoholic” to describe someone who is addicted to alcohol, but what they are really referencing is an alcohol use disorder, which is the proper term for an alcohol addiction. A person who has an alcohol use disorder is living with a legitimate medical condition that makes it difficult for them to stop drinking. This is because alcohol abuse changes the brain and leads a person to compulsively seek out alcohol, meaning they will have a hard time giving up drinking, even when they face serious consequences from alcohol abuse.
Like any other health problem, certain people are at higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder than others. For example, individuals who begin drinking before they turn 15 are significantly more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder when compared to those who wait until the legal drinking age of 21. Genetics and family history can also lead people to develop an alcohol addiction. Certain genes can make people more vulnerable to addiction, but growing up around parents and other family members who abuse alcohol can also increase the risk of alcohol addiction.
Finally, mental health conditions like depression, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder can increase a person’s risk of developing problems with alcohol. Alcohol may temporarily improve feelings of sadness or numb the emotions surrounding a traumatic experience — but as a person becomes addicted, they often find their mental health deteriorates.
Signs of Alcoholism in a Loved One
Before confronting a loved one about their alcohol consumption, it is helpful to understand the symptoms of alcohol use disorder so you are prepared to discuss specific concerns.
- They cannot reduce the amount they drink, even if they’d like to.
- They have given up hobbies and leisure time activities in favor of drinking.
- They continue to drink, even though it is causing problems in their relationships.
- They cannot keep up with work or family responsibilities because of their alcohol abuse.
- They drink even when it places them in danger or contributes to a health problem, like high blood pressure.
- They show withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking.
- They frequently drink a larger quantity of alcohol than intended, and/or they need to drink more to achieve the same effect.
- They talk about craving alcohol and spend a considerable amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking.
Alcoholism and Denial
Even if a loved one shows clear signs of an alcohol use disorder, they may deny that they have a problem. Ultimately, denial serves as a defense mechanism against facing the reality of having an addiction that is seriously damaging their life. One recent study found that the majority of people who demonstrated clear signs of an alcohol use disorder were in denial and described themselves as merely being “social drinkers.”
Some signs of denial might include blaming other people for their problems. For instance, someone who has an alcohol use disorder might blame a law enforcement officer for being “out to get them” if they are arrested for driving under the influence. They might also try to rationalize their drinking by saying they were just trying to cope with stress at work, or they might deflect by comparing themselves to someone else and saying something like, “I’m not drunk every day like my brother!”
Preparing to Confront an Alcoholic
Knowing how to talk to a person with alcohol use disorder requires some preparation. Going into the conversation unprepared sets you up for failure because you might be unsure of what to expect or how to respond. These tips can help you prepare for the most effective conversation possible.
What To Expect
Before approaching your loved one about your concerns, it’s helpful to understand that they might be upset by the conversation. Keep in mind that denial is common among people who have an alcohol use disorder, so instead of being receptive to your concerns, they may lash out in anger, try to blame others for the problem or refuse to have a conversation altogether.
Consider an Intervention Specialist
Since it can be difficult to learn how to talk to someone with alcoholism on your own, you might benefit from hiring an intervention specialist to assist you with having a conversation. Intervention specialists have extensive training in addiction, and because of their understanding of alcohol use disorders, they are able to help families to have more effective conversations.
Intervention specialists are employed by addiction treatment centers, and they bring families together to confront a loved one about their addiction. These professionals can help you prepare to meet with a person with an alcohol use disorder to express your concerns and encourage them to seek treatment.
Choose the Right Time
Whether you use the services of an intervention specialist or not, it’s important to talk to your loved one at an appropriate time. Waiting until they are intoxicated is not likely to lead to an effective conversation. They will not be in the right state of mind to hear your concerns or participate in a meaningful discussion.
Choose the Right Setting
Beyond choosing the right time, it’s important to select a calm, appropriate setting to talk to someone with an alcohol addiction about your concerns. Choose a comfortable, private setting, like their home or apartment, instead of a noisy, public place like a bar or restaurant.
Plan What You Want To Say
A person who has an alcohol use disorder will likely be in denial, and they may become angry or defensive when you address your concerns with them. Given this fact, it’s important to plan what you will say should the conversation veer off track. You might even consider writing down a few talking points, as this will help you stay calm and stick to the point, even if your loved one reacts poorly.
Research Treatment Options
Coming into the conversation with solutions in mind shows the person with the alcohol use disorder that you have put thought into the matter and are prepared to offer help and support. Before the conversation, look into local treatment options so you can discuss with your loved one that help is available and offer them an immediate solution to your concerns.
Prepare To Set Boundaries
If the conversation does not go as well as you had hoped, you might need to set boundaries. For instance, the person with the alcohol addiction may become angry and begin engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as yelling, name-calling or blaming you. It’s important that you are ready to set boundaries, such as telling them that you will not accept this inappropriate behavior but that you’re willing to have the conversation later when they’re able to be respectful.
Tips for Confronting an Alcoholic
Once you’ve prepared for a conversation, there are some things to keep in mind when you confront a person with alcohol addiction. Consider these guidelines.
Using effective conversation starters can lead the conversation in the right direction. Some of the following conversation starters can be helpful:
- Mention that you love the person and would like to have a discussion about their health and safety.
- Give an example of a recent incident that concerned you, such as when they came home and appeared intoxicated after driving.
- Tell them that you know it’s hard for them to stop drinking and that you’d like to know how you can be supportive.
- Remind them that they are not alone in their struggle and that many people seek help to stop drinking.
- Suggest that you work together to come up with goals for reducing their drinking.
When confronting a person with an alcohol addiction, it’s important to be direct. Tiptoeing around your concerns or dropping hints isn’t likely to work, as it may lead the person to believe you aren’t serious. Be clear that you’re concerned and would like them to seek treatment.
Giving examples of specific concerns you have will reduce the opportunity for argument. Making a vague statement like “I’m concerned about your drinking” leaves the person the opportunity to argue that their drinking isn’t really a problem. Stating something specific like “It concerns me that you drink a 12-pack every night and then cannot get to work on time in the morning” doesn’t leave much room for argument.
Share How Their Drinking Affects You
When someone is grappling with an alcohol addiction, they may not realize how their behavior affects others. Giving examples of how their drinking affects you can help them see the bigger picture, which may make them more likely to accept help. For example, you might share that you feel extremely worried when they stay out late drinking and do not keep in touch with you.
Your ideas about what your loved one needs to do about their alcohol addiction may differ from their ideas. For example, you might be convinced that they need to go away to inpatient treatment, whereas they may be more open to going to an outpatient program that allows them to continue to live at home and work. Be open to the possibility that the person may not completely agree with your viewpoints.
Listen More Than You Talk
Keep in mind that someone living with an alcohol use disorder is likely fighting their own battles. It’s important to listen to what they have to say instead of dominating the conversation. When they feel you are hearing and understanding them, they will be more open to taking advice and considering treatment.
Avoid Blame and Accusations
Blaming the person for their problems will likely cause them to shut down and refuse to listen to what you have to say. Avoid making accusations like, “You’re so irresponsible” or “All you care about is drinking!” You may be frustrated, but accusations aren’t likely to make the person change their behavior.
Avoid Terms Such as “Alcoholic” or “Addict”
It’s important to be careful about your language when confronting someone about their alcohol abuse. Chances are that they are already feeling bad about themselves, and calling them names like “alcoholic” or “addict” will only make them feel worse.
Maintain Reasonable Expectations
You cannot expect someone who struggles with alcohol abuse will make significant changes after a single conversation. They might be willing to consider going to treatment or begin to think about making changes, but they aren’t going to go from having a full-blown alcohol use disorder to being recovered overnight, so you need to make sure your expectations for them are reasonable.
Reminding someone that they have your support can go a long way. Be sure to make it clear during the conversation that you understand it can be challenging to stop drinking, but you’re there to support them during their recovery. You can offer to be a person they can call when they’re tempted to drink.
Offer Options – Not Demands
No one likes being told what to do, and demanding that a person go to treatment or stop drinking immediately probably isn’t going to work. Instead, offer options. You might discuss with the person that there are several options available to help them stop drinking: talking with their doctor, attending support group meetings or going to counseling.
Know When to Step Away
Even if you have the best intentions, talking to someone with an alcohol addiction may not always go as intended. At a certain point, you may need to step away from the conversation. If they become angry and are unable to calm themselves or if they resort to name-calling, blaming or avoiding the conversation, you may need to step away, as they probably are not ready to have the discussion.
Finding Alcoholism Treatment For Your Loved One in New Jersey
If you have a loved one who lives with an alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper provides comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment, including inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, in the South Jersey and Philadelphia area.
Our treatment facilities are staffed by credentialed addiction professionals who recognize addiction as a medical condition and believe that anyone can recover with quality, evidence-based treatment. They are prepared to provide you with an individualized treatment plan that meets your unique needs and addresses co-occurring mental health conditions like depression.
Contact us today to begin the admissions process. Our representatives are here to answer your questions and support you in your recovery journey.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed May 27, 2022.
- Schuckit, Marc; Clarke, Dennis; Smith, Tom; & Mendoza, Lee Anne. “Characteristics associated with denial of problem drinking among two generations of individuals with alcohol use disorders.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, December 2020. Accessed May 27, 2022.
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Alcohol Use: Conversation Starters.” December 2, 2021. Accessed May 27, 2022.
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.