Top tips on navigating a family gathering alcohol free

April 2024 | 8 minutes

If you’re trying to cut back on or cut out alcohol but come from a family with a heavy drinking culture, navigating family events alcohol-free can be really challenging.

This kind of situation might leave you feeling like you won't be understood or accepted by your nearest and dearest, or have you concerns minimised, which can cause a lot of anxiety and worry. If you’re currently taking on a longer alcohol-free challenge or trying to cut back, but you find yourself dreading the next get-together, why not take a look at our top tips for navigating a family gathering alcohol-free?

Be clear about the support you need

Try to be upfront with your loved ones about your decision not to drink at the moment, as well as the support you feel you need from them right now. This can look different for each one of us, so have a think about what help you’d like specifically from them. This could include having a word with the host and asking them not to offer you alcoholic drinks if possible. Perhaps, you could also suggest they consider making alcohol-free options available and give them some handy hints on your favourites, or simply forewarn them that you’ll be bringing some of your own alcohol-free options along with you if it’s helpful. Giving loved ones clarity about your needs will give them the best chance to support you.

Old habits die hard

Ever find yourself feeling like a child again the moment you get a stern word from a parent? Or maybe crossing swords with a sibling takes you right back to your adolescent days? For many of us, it can be all too easy to revert back to those old family dynamics when visiting loved ones. At your next family occasion, try to approach conversations about your drinking as ‘adult to adult’. If you notice yourself slipping into old patterns of behaviour such as anxiety, avoidance or even rebellious teen mode, just remember your decision to drink less or be alcohol-free is yours and yours alone. You’re in charge.

Breaking away from the crowd

When you feel like everyone in your family likes to drink, and you’ve chosen to define your relationship with alcohol differently, attempting to do something different can feel like a monumental task. Try to think of it in terms of herd mentality the next time you feel the pull to drink at a family occasion. Common examples of herd mentality include: following a crowd, watching that drama everyone’s talking about, or even getting swept up in Black Friday deals shopping. It’s the psychological phenomenon of feeling like we need to conform to what our peers are doing, even if at times when we don’t necessarily agree with the action, or even know deep down that it’s not in our best interests. Your conscious decision to break away from the crowd in this way could mean that family events are different for you in future, or that you don't attend as many for a little while.

Managing anxiety

Still not feeling like you’ll get the level of support you’d like from your family? We get it. Family dynamics are complicated and, depending on your family’s particular quirks, it could take a little time for them to accept your decision when it comes to drinking. In the meantime, it could be a good idea to get ahead of your worries with some simple anxiety management techniques to help with coping with stress before, during, and after the family event. We have a great guest blog from Catherine Gray on 10 alcohol free ways to soothe your anxiety here that could be helpful, but you can also find lots of quick and easy suggestions such as breathing exercises on the NHS website too if you’re interested in exploring this option.

Practising mindful drinking

If you’re planning on drinking at your next family occasion but would like to aim to drink less, you could use it as an opportunity to practise drinking mindfully. Just like mindfulness more generally, mindful drinking involves observing current thoughts and feelings in a calmer way, without judgement, before deciding to take a drink. For example, you may want to try and make your drink last longer than usual and really savour it. Or you might alternate alcohol-free drinks and alcoholic ones to pace yourself throughout the event. You may even ask yourself: ‘Do I really need to have this drink?’ Or ‘What will I get from this drink if I have it?’. Drinking in this way will allow you to become more aware of your emotions as you drink, and even, in turn, your cravings in response to triggers you may be experiencing. For lots more on mindful drinking techniques, check out our blog: What is mindful drinking and is it right for me?

Every family and friendship group is different, and we all change over time. Remember too that by taking steps to improve your relationship with alcohol, you may well spark a thought or first step in a family member about their own drinking as well. It might not always be an easy path, but we hope that these tools and tips help set you up for success, and may just have a positive impact on others around you too.

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