How to Help an Alcoholic Family Member
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Natalie Lindemann, Psy.D on 01/04/2023
Dr. Natalie Lindemann, Psy.D, holds a doctorate in Forensic Psychology and is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
By: Zinnia Healing Editorial Staff | Edited By: Rebecca Hill
How to Help Someone With an Alcohol Problem: Intervention, Support & Recovery
Alcohol use disorder can be difficult to come to terms with, and the side effects can result in challenges for both the individual facing the disorder and the loved ones surrounding them. If you know someone who is experiencing an alcohol use disorder, or has in the past, knowing how to help them is very important to provide the supportive, positive environment they need.
This article will explore what an alcohol use disorder is, the side effects and symptoms of such a disorder, and advice on setting up an intervention for someone facing an alcohol use disorder. We’ll also discuss common treatment options available to individuals to help them overcome their alcohol use disorder.
How Can You Tell If Someone Has an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Only trained professionals can officially diagnose a person with alcohol use disorder. However, knowing the signs of alcohol use disorder can help you identify if a person is potentially struggling with it.
Ultimately, the symptoms of alcohol use and addiction can vary from person to person. The type, amount, and frequency at which a person uses alcohol will impact how they respond to it. Additionally, genetic differences can affect how a person displays psychological and physical symptoms of alcohol use. However, signs are always present, and it’s simply a matter of knowing what to look for.
In the early stages of alcohol abuse, a person may not show any outward signs of their disorder. However, as time goes on, side effects will become more noticeable. If you suspect that someone you know is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, it’s essential that you help them seek treatment.
Some of the signs and symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:
- Weight loss, often due to malnutrition.
- Poor performance in their personal or professional life; this could mean reduced work or school performance, missed assignments, being late more often, or not showing up for activities at all. If this isn’t characteristic of the person’s normal behavior, this could be a sign of an alcohol use disorder.
- Those with an alcohol use disorder are more likely to engage in risky behavior, like driving while under the influence of alcohol. They may also find themselves fighting, stealing, or otherwise putting themselves in troubling situations.
- Someone with alcohol use disorder will spend an increasing amount of time drinking, and it will begin taking time or interest away from other activities. They may start drinking earlier in the day, drinking alone, or drinking for hours or days straight.
- Over time, the person will increase how much they drink and how often they drink. This is a sign of increased physical tolerance, which is a natural response to the repeated consumption. Tolerance can lead to the misconception that excessive drinking is safe because they have to drink a certain amount to experience the intoxicating effects.
- The behavior will change as a result of alcohol use disorder. For instance, the person will likely create excuses for their alcohol consumption. They’re also likely to buy alcohol in private as they may feel shameful about their habit. They might stockpile alcohol, so they always have it around.
- If a person has an existing health condition, abusing alcohol can make it worse. Alcohol use can also cause new conditions to develop. A person will continue to drink despite knowing that it can worsen their condition.
- If a person tries to stop drinking for a certain period (in severe cases, for a few hours), they may begin to show uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, like shakiness, irritability, and sweating.
Visit NCADD for a free screening tool to help you identify these signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder in yourself or a loved one. However, remember that alcohol use disorder should always be diagnosed by a medical professional. Medical intervention is also the healthiest way forward.
What Not to Do When Dealing With Alcohol Use Disorder
If you’re concerned for a loved one whom you believe is experiencing an alcohol use disorder, there are many things you can do to help them get on the path to recovery. One of the most common things a loved one can do is stage an intervention, but there are also several things a person should not do without the input of a medical professional.
Much research has been conducted into the most effective methods to help someone with an alcohol use disorder, and many ineffective techniques have also been identified. These are things you generally should not do if you find someone needs help with an alcohol use disorder.
- Don’t threaten, bribe, punish, or preach to a person with alcohol use disorder. These things are rarely effective and typically only cause the person to shut you out or hide their behavior from you. There’s also no benefit of talking to the individual about quitting or recovery while they are under the influence of alcohol.
- A person with an alcohol use disorder will often make excuses to try and hide or play down their behavior. If anyone around them helps make excuses for them, this is generally considered unhealthy. Making excuses for a person with an alcohol use disorder may make them feel like everything is fine and under control, when it isn’t. Likewise, throwing out bottles or otherwise helping hide the problem will only lead to a continuation of the problem.
- You may have good intentions trying to make an emotional appeal to someone with alcohol use disorder, but the outcome is rarely positive. The person making the appeal will feel vulnerable, while the person with the disorder will only experience amplified guilt and shame. The disorder will not fix itself, leading down a path where the person will likely continue to use alcohol. The person who made the emotional appeal may then take it personally, like as a sign they do not care about their feelings.
- It’s instinctive for a loved one to jump in and start taking over a person’s responsibilities to minimize stress or consequences for the affected individual. However, taking over responsibilities may simply contribute to the person’s feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy. Taking away obligations and consequences can also free up additional time and lead to more drinking.
What Should You Do?
If you shouldn’t do any of the above things, what should you do? Knowing what’s off-limits is equally vital as knowing what’s recommended to help someone with alcohol use disorder. Interventions can be helpful by surrounding someone with their family, but a private conversation may be the better way to start. Often, simply entering into a conversation with the person in a place where they feel safe and sober is the right way forward.
Arranging an Intervention With Family
Interventions are often thought of as a big gathering of family and friends staged to surprise someone with alcohol use disorder. However, interventions come in many forms, and on the smallest scale, an intervention can be as simple as a one-to-one, informal conversation with the affected individual. At the other end of the spectrum, an intervention can be a formal gathering, often led by a professional.
It’s difficult for someone to talk about their alcohol use disorder, especially since it tends to come with guilt and shame. So, while an intervention can be informal, it’s essential that you take time to prepare for the conversation to ensure that you don’t spark feelings of shame or anger.
For the intervention to go well, you should always:
- Make sure the person is sober before you begin talking to them. Anyone else involved should also be sober.
- Choose an environment that’s private, quiet, safe, and less likely to result in interruptions to the conversation.
- Start at a time when the schedule is clear for everyone involved. Silence phones and notifications so the conversation can happen at its own pace.
- Lead the conversation with empathy. Make sure to tell the person that you are motivated by care, concern, and love for them.
- Keep the conversation going in an open, judgment-free manner.
- Ask if you can revisit the topic if the person feels attacked, denies the problem, or doesn’t want to participate. Do not force the conversation to take place if they’re unwilling.
Keeping these points in mind is essential to ensuring that the conversation can take place in the most peaceful and straightforward manner possible. From the first time you want to have an intervention with someone, you should sit down and make a plan to get the person on the path to recovery. For instance, you’ll want to explore rehabilitative programs before you have that conversation so that you know precisely how to offer them help. While the person may not be open to help right at that moment, having the options in front of them is important.
If you are holding an intervention with multiple people, it’s crucial that you prepare them all before the process begins. This step means finding a time and place for the intervention that meets the above criteria. It also means talking to each participant to ensure they speak without implying judgment, shame, or other negative emotions.
If a person does not accept rehab as an option when offered during an intervention, the next step is for each person involved to help define the consequences of not addressing their disorder. Each person will explain why they’re concerned, personally request them to attend treatment, and then reiterate how the disorder has and will impact their life and relationships if they don’t go.
Do You Need a Formal Intervention?
Even a simple conversation with someone you suspect is suffering from alcohol use disorder can act as an informal intervention if you approach it correctly and offer them a rehabilitative program. However, there are benefits to bringing a professional intervention specialist into the occasion and arranging a formal intervention. Bringing in an experienced intervention specialist may be necessary, especially if you’ve tried to have an informal intervention in the past and it proved ineffective, or the participant was unwilling.
The role of an intervention specialist is to act as the neutral third party. They will lead and moderate the discussion, helping to ensure the individual doesn’t feel judged, attacked, or singled out. The specialist will also give the person a sounding board to keep them calm. They’ll also make sure everyone is speaking fairly and truthfully about their condition and options. Usually, professional interventions are more successful than informal ones.
Aside from being there as someone from the “outside” for the individual to turn to if they feel like their family is ganging up on them, the specialist can also set up the rehabilitative plan as soon as the person agrees to treatment. An intervention specialist can even take the person to a treatment center for admission themselves, personally and immediately.
Lastly, a professional intervention specialist can speak to each family member and friend involved. From that conversation, they may recommend therapy to help them through the distress associated with their loved one’s addiction. This is also helpful for the affected person because therapy can ensure that the family dynamic is healthy and that everyone knows how to proceed to minimize the chance of relapse.
The Alcoholic Recovery Process
As soon as someone with an alcohol use disorder agrees to rehabilitative treatment, they should be taken to a treatment center right away. Once they arrive at the treatment center, the admission process will begin. During admission, the person will speak with a medical professional who will assess their physical, emotional, and psychological health and begin structuring a personalized recovery plan.
The detox process is the first stage of treatment for any addiction. Detox is when the person officially stops consuming alcohol and allows all of the alcohol to leave their system entirely. Alcohol use can lead to withdrawal symptoms, just like other addictions, so the medical detox will help the person manage those symptoms. Some medications may be given to alleviate symptoms of the detox process, like nausea or headaches.
Generally, the detox process is over within two weeks, and that’s when the rehabilitative part of the program officially begins. The rehabilitation for alcohol use disorder often combines one-to-one therapy, peer support groups, general wellness classes, and discussions about challenges and goals. The purpose is to discover what led to the alcohol use disorder to begin with, what has worsened it over time, and what needs to change for the person to avoid relapse for good.
The rehabilitative part of alcohol use disorder recovery can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the person’s needs. Rehabilitation can take place in the form of in-patient, partial hospitalization, or outpatient care. However, what’s important is that the individual has a strong support system around them during their rehabilitation. The involvement of the family is encouraged throughout recovery.
At the end of structured rehabilitation, the individual enters into the third and final phase of recovery: Continuing care. Continuing care implies continued but less structured and frequent support from medical professionals. This care tends to taper off with time. For instance, a person attending meetings 2-3 times a week during outpatient rehabilitation may begin attending only once or twice a week.
The availability of therapy and other resources during continuing care is paramount to long-term success, and the involvement and support of family members and friends are also critical. If a person does begin to experience cravings, or if they have a relapse, they don’t have to start all over—their treatment professionals will help them get back on track.
Codependency Caused by Alcohol Use Disorder
In many cases, the person experiencing the alcohol use disorder is not the only person who needs help getting through it. Codependency is a well-known disorder that can affect people living with someone who suffers from alcohol use disorder or another addiction. Even people with the best intentions may unintentionally play a role in enabling or supporting alcohol use disorder, which is why recognizing codependency is essential.
It’s impossible to help someone with alcohol use disorder until you think about helping yourself. This is especially true if you have become codependent. Codependency occurs when a person takes on the role of caretaker in response to someone’s alcohol use disorder or other addiction. Codependency often begins from a place of love and compassion, but it ends up with a person being unable to lead their own life because they’re consumed with caring for someone who has an addiction.
Unfortunately, codependency can lead to the person in the caretaker role unknowingly enabling the other person’s alcohol use disorder or addiction because they’re filling in for them, looking out for them, and allowing them to continue as safely as possible. They may be trying to reduce their alcohol intake or the consequences of that intake, but that’s only worsening the issue. In the absence of therapy and medical intervention, codependency simply prolongs alcohol use disorder.
Supporting a Loved One During Recovery
Codependency is not the only example of a case where a family member should seek help for themselves while seeking help for a loved one. Alcoholism rarely affects just the individual. Often, alcohol use disorder sparks from a family disease. For instance, a family member’s addiction, a traumatic event, or a dysfunctional household dynamic can all lead to alcohol addiction. This means that family can play just as significant a role in causing and worsening an addiction as they can in healing it.
Treating alcohol use disorder does not simply end with a person entering rehabilitation. Typically, success is also based on the people around them also going through therapy so that they can learn to understand what caused the disorder and how they can better support the individual as they come out of the treatment center.
If anyone around someone with an alcohol use disorder is experiencing problems in their own life, it’s important that they seek help alongside getting help for the person with the condition. Even better, everyone might attend family therapy together as a unit. Going to family therapy can improve interpersonal dynamics, which can transform relationships and help heal old wounds. Family therapy is often recommended at a mid-point in the person’s recovery after they have made some progress.
If everyone is on board and willing to participate in family therapy, the result is often new understanding and ways of living that can make for a healthier lifestyle for everyone. Therapy can also help the entire family plan for life after structured treatment, providing them with the emotional and behavioral tools they need to support one another and avoid relapse. To go along with those, most treatment centers offer family days.
Family days at treatment centers are social, sometimes centered around an activity like a cookout. The goal is to get people to connect with their families and enjoying their time to give them a glimpse of the restored healthy lifestyle that is to come. The participation of family members is particularly important for those recovering from alcohol use disorder in a residential treatment center. The more involved family is, the easier it is for the person to successfully transition back to home life.
Are You Looking for Help with Alcohol Use Disorder?
Zinnia Healing is proud to offer leading innovations in addiction treatment, backed by a team of caring professionals. Zinnia Healing has helped hundreds of people turn their lives around with our research-based programs personalized to the individual. If you believe someone is experiencing alcohol use disorder, it’s essential that you seek help for them as soon as possible.
At Zinnia Healing, we offer one-to-one, confidential, and supportive programs that help people recover from addiction for good. Our continuing care is some of the best available and ensures that people have the ongoing support and guidance they need to avoid relapse. Are you interested in learning more? Contact Zinnia Healing today to explore your options.