Supporting a loved one experiencing problems with alcohol

It can be heart-breaking to see someone close to you struggle with alcohol problems. Whilst your focus is on helping the drinker, there is also a cost to their nearest and dearest.

This cost can present itself in many different ways, for instance, in the form of:

  • emotional strain (worry, fear, shame, guilt, anger)
  • money worries
  • relationship issues
  • household and parenting difficulties
  • feeling isolated, anxious, depressed

The tell-tale signs that your loved one might be drinking too much

Many of us drink alcohol and don’t experience any significant problems. However, some of us find ourselves, over time, drinking more than we used to and becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol to manage our feelings or cope with challenges in life. This can cause problems to both our physical and mental wellbeing, and negatively impact our home life and work.

If you have spotted at least some of the following signs below, there is a strong possibility that your loved one may need help with their drinking:

  • They have been neglecting their responsibilities at home or work because they are drinking or recovering from a drinking episode
  • They have become secretive or increasingly defensive about their drinking, or are drinking more alone
  • They have been experiencing blackouts and/or can’t remember their actions when they had been drinking
  • They have been drinking larger amounts and/or drinking for longer than originally planned
  • They appear to have less interest in regular activities, preferring to drink instead

How to have a conversation with someone about their drinking

If you have noticed someone you care about has been drinking too much alcohol, it is likely you have felt the impact – you may have been having more arguments with them, perhaps you feel you have been able to rely on them less lately, or they have become more emotionally distant.

It is also likely that you feel sad, angry, frustrated, and worried that their drinking has seemingly become more important than other things in their lives, like their family, friends and work. This is an entirely natural reaction. But before you talk to them about their drinking, it is important to remember that it often takes time for someone to be ready to make a change.

If you have noticed someone you care about has been drinking too much alcohol, it is likely you have felt the impact

It is therefore likely that, when you do have a conversation with them about their alcohol use, there will be a lot of resistance and denial from them, especially at first.

Comments like “I don’t have a problem”, “Stop nagging me” and “It’s none of your business” are typical responses. However, as hard as it can be, it is vital not to criticise or blame them, but to consider instead how you might calmly talk to them with empathy about their drinking and the effect that this behaviour is having on you.

You might find that they also express relief to talk about how they have been feeling, especially if they have already become concerned about their drinking.

How to begin

It is a good idea to create a plan and write down beforehand some of things you would like to say. This will help you to keep calm and retain some clarity in what may be a difficult, emotional conversation.

It is also a good idea to:

  • Pick a time when they are sober and therefore more receptive to your worries
  • Choose a comfortable space for the conversation – neutral territory like a café or park might be a good idea, provided that you can guarantee privacy
  • Avoid an argument - if it’s not the right time, try again later.

It is a good idea to create a plan and write down beforehand some of things you would like to say.

What should I say/not say?

Try to choose positive, supportive language. Here are some useful questions you might ask:

  • “I’ve noticed you have not been feeling yourself lately. Do you want to talk to me about what’s going on for you?”
  • “I am worried that things are getting on top of you. Would you like to have a chat to someone about what is worrying you?”
  • “How do you feel about your drinking, because I’m concerned you have not been your usual self?”

Try to avoid accusing your loved one of “having a drink problem” or “being an alcoholic”, as this is rarely the right approach. Avoiding labels and instead focusing on the person and behaviour is likely to cause less upset. Also, expressing empathy with the difficulties they are experiencing will likely be more effective, acknowledging how things may have been tough for them recently at home or in work.

Try not to be too direct with your language too: questions like “do you think you could do with a little support to cut down your drinking?” and “have you considered chatting with your GP?” will likely be more helpful than statements like “you need help”.

Offering practical support

Supporting someone close to you to cut back or stop drinking can be a challenging and can take some time but it could provide them with the motivation they need to get their drinking under control.

Support you could offer includes:

  • Encouraging them to get a check-up from their GP and offering to accompany them
  • Sitting with them when they call an alcohol helpline for advice
  • Regularly praising any small changes they are able to make
  • Organising events and trips that don’t involve alcohol
  • Avoiding drinking alcohol around them
  • Avoiding withholding alcohol from them if they are drinking at high levels, as they could be physically dependent on alcohol. This means their body will react negatively if they stop drinking suddenly. These reactions are alcohol withdrawal symptoms and can be very dangerous, and even fatal. So, encouraging your loved one to seek advice from their GP to reduce their drinking safely is vital.

Support for you

Helping someone to overcome their drinking problems can be a long road, and you will not always feel your help is welcome or making any difference. Ultimately, it is down to the drinker to make any changes, and it is vital that you look after your wellbeing first and foremost. Remember you’re not alone and that you deserve support too.

There are organisations that work specifically with families, friends and carers affected by someone else’s drinking.

Read our list of family support services

Download this factsheet

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Supporting a loved one experiencing problems with alcohol

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