How can you help a family member or close friend with alcohol problems?

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Alcohol problems are taboo. So if you want to address somebody’s drinking habits, you need to approach the topic carefully. There are various tips that might help to get a conversation started. But it's also important to think of yourself.

One thing is especially important if you have a family member or close friend with alcohol problems: take care of yourself. Be realistic about what you can do and how much support you can provide. You should also consider your own health and your own wellbeing. If you think that everything is becoming too much for you, take a step back or a break.

Living with somebody with an alcohol problem for a long time can take its toll. Worries about your family member add to the concerns of everyday life. It can take a lot of energy to help them and shoulder or solve the problems caused by alcohol. It can affect all of family life if there are also children involved.

If you feel like the situation is getting out of hand, it's best to seek counseling and support for yourself. As a relative, you can contact the same counseling centers that provide help to people with alcohol problems. These services are free of charge and you can ask to remain anonymous. Do not hesitate to use them. Counseling centers can show you more than options for dealing with a family member or friend. It can also be a great relief to speak openly about the problems with a person who is not directly involved themselves.

Support groups for family members or close friends are another option for talking to people who have experienced or are currently working through the same things. In Germany, you can also find support groups through umbrella associations, such as the Kreuzbund or Good Templars.

How could a conversation develop?

If you're concerned about the drinking habits of somebody close to you, you've probably asked yourself how you can best address the issue with them. You might have already tried to approach them and were dismissed. An annoyed reaction is perfectly normal – nobody likes to be confronted with an unpleasant subject. It also often takes time until somebody is ready to admit to an alcohol problem.

Depending on the situation, it can be a good idea to involve a third person and discuss things in detail with them beforehand. That way, if the three of you talk together you can prevent a situation where the two of you are used against each other. It's also important to seek support if you are worried that a conflict might arise.

Don't lose faith if you are initially faced with rejection. You should be proud of your dedication, but be sure to take care of yourself and not expect too much of yourself. It's also important to keep reminding yourself that you are not responsible for anybody else’s behavior or the decisions they make.

How can you start a conversation?

Before starting a conversation, it's a good idea to prepare for it mentally and to find a good opportunity for the conversation.

A lot of people are embarrassed of their alcohol consumption, so it's important to find a private setting where nobody can eavesdrop. Take your time and try to make sure that you are not disturbed. This is often easiest at home, but it might be a little better to talk outside your own four walls, for example while taking a stroll in the park.

The person you talk with ought to be sober, and you should both be in a calm mood. Even though it might be difficult, it's also important to keep your emotions to yourself to ensure a calm and constructive conversation.

The following tips can help:

  • Express your recent observations and concerns, for instance: “I notice that we hardly do anything anymore.”
  • You can ask them how they feel about their alcohol consumption and whether they have ever worried about it.
  • Use first-person statements with "I" to voice your concerns, such as: “I am worried about how much you have been drinking recently.”
  • Listen closely and don't interrupt.
  • Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see things from their perspective.
  • Avoid using the term “alcoholic” and be careful with terms such as “dependence” and “addiction.”
  • Don't judge the person you're talking to or their drinking habits.
  • Be careful not to be condescending or make accusations. That often leads to defensive reactions.
  • Address their behavior openly and honestly (for example: “I have the impression that you argue with X more often when you've had a drink”), but don't criticize them as a person.
  • Offer support, for example by helping to find a counseling center or going with them.

Always bear in mind that they might not be ready to admit to an alcohol problem. You can't force that, but you can offer support and help. Everyone has to decide on their own whether they want to accept help and make changes.

What specific help can you offer?

You can listen to your relative, friend or colleague, be there for them, and offer practical support. In doing so, it can be helpful to be aware of the various services for people with alcohol problems, like support groups, online programs, anonymous counseling centers and counseling hotlines.

It can be easier to admit and accept that your alcohol consumption is problematic if that assessment comes from a neutral person instead of a partner, close friend or relative. Suggesting a self-test or a drinking diary might help to assess personal drinking behavior.

If the person you are talking to wants to try to take control of the problem on their own, you can offer tips about how they can better keep track of their alcohol consumption. However, keep in mind that this goal is unrealistic if somebody is already alcohol-dependent. Professional help is needed then.

What can you expect – and what can you not expect?

People with an alcohol problem have to make the decision to drink less or seek help themselves. To get to that point, they first have to admit that they have an alcohol problem. That is usually difficult and often takes time. So it's important to be patient. It often takes several attempts to permanently change drinking behavior. That is perfectly normal and no reason to make accusations.

Willpower alone is often not enough to change patterns of behavior. That is because drinking often fulfills a function, such as relieving stress or forgetting problems. You can only change your drinking behavior if you tackle these problems instead of ignoring them. Making such changes is initially much harder than simply leaving everything as it is.

People who habitually drink a lot of alcohol, for instance to relax or as a “reward” after work, might benefit from alternatives to alcohol like a hobby that they enjoy and that helps them to relax. Maybe you could try out something new together.

It is possible that other friends or relatives don't offer any support or cast doubt on the decision to stop drinking or drink less. They might lack understanding if they themselves drink a lot of alcohol or have problematic drinking behavior. As someone close to them, you can help by setting up contact to people who support the decision or who don't drink alcohol themselves, for instance in a support group.

Last but not least, it's important to realize when your own efforts are no longer enough. Large amounts of alcohol can cause a physical dependence. Addiction is a disease, not a question of willpower or moral weakness. If somebody has already developed an addiction, there is no way around professional help. But it's ultimately always up to the person affected to accept and make use of the support, no matter how much you would like to make that decision for them.

What is best avoided?

As a family member or friend, you might find yourself ignoring the problem or unintentionally facilitating the affected person’s drinking behavior, for instance to protect them, to avoid problems in everyday life, or by taking on their responsibilities. In order to prevent that from happening, consider the following:

  • Do not tempt the person to drink.
  • Do not drink with them or in their presence.
  • Do not take on any tasks that they are responsible for (unless they would be putting themselves or others in danger).
  • Do not buy any alcohol for them.
  • Do not help the person to hide their drinking behavior.
  • Do not make excuses for them.
  • Set clear boundaries.

You can support somebody, offer them help and encourage them to get professional help. But they have to take the decisive step on their own. If they aren't ready, you have to accept it. Still, you have every right to make clear which behavior you will accept and which you won't. If you invite a friend over, you don't have to accept them drinking in your home. It's important to set boundaries, to make sure they are stuck to, and to stay firm if those boundaries aren't respected.

Kingston AH, Jorm AF, Kitchener BA, Hides L, Kelly CM, Morgan AJ et al. Helping someone with problem drinking: mental health first aid guidelines - a Delphi expert consensus study. BMC Psychiatry 2009; 9: 79.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Created on November 25, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

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Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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