How to Talk to an Alcoholic: Reaching Out, Connecting, and Offering Help
This article will help you understand alcohol use disorders, how to approach someone you think may have a drinking problem, how to offer them assistance, and how to take care of yourself during this process.
Remember: it may take more than one conversation with a person who has an alcohol use disorder to encourage them to seek help. However, by showing your support and concern, you may be able to help them to see they have a problem with alcohol and would benefit from addiction treatment.
About Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Use Disorders
Drinking becomes problematic when it affects a person’s life to the point where they can no longer control their alcohol use. They continue to drink despite negative impacts it has on their life. When someone’s drinking progresses to this extent, a person may have an alcohol use disorder.1
An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic, but treatable condition that can develop in association with certain cognitive changes and physiological adaptations that can make it additionally difficult for a person to stop drinking – even if they want to.
You may suspect that someone has an AUD if they meet at least two of the following criteria outlined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):1
- Drinking more often or in higher amounts than originally intended.
- Expressing a desire to cut down or stop drinking, but being unable to do so.
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking.
- Experiencing cravings, which means feeling the need to drink to the point that they cannot think of anything else.
- Being unable to meet responsibilities at work, home, or school because of their drinking.
- Continuing to drink even though it causes problems with family or friends.
- Stopping or cutting back time spent on hobbies or other activities the person once enjoyed so they can drink.
- Getting into dangerous situations during or after drinking that increases their chances of harming themselves or someone else (such as drinking before or while driving).
- Continuing to drink even if they have a mental health disorder (like depression or anxiety) or a physical health issue that is either caused by or worsened by drinking.
- Needing to drink more than they used to in order to feel the same effects of alcohol (i.e., tolerance).
- Having symptoms of withdrawal (such as sweating, insomnia, shakiness, racing heart, seizures) when they try to stop or significantly reduce drinking.
Consuming more than one drink a day (equivalent to a 12-ounce beer) for women and two drinks a day for men may be considered unhealthy.2 Remember, only a physician can diagnose someone with an AUD. However, being aware of the signs of an AUD can help you prepare for your conversation with the person you suspect has a problem with drinking alcohol. To learn more about addiction, how it manifests, and its effects on society, view our addiction statistics page.
You may notice certain physical changes in a loved one that could indicate that they have a problem with alcohol use. These physical signs may include bloodshot eyes, alcohol on their breath, sleeping more than usual or appearing tired, or an unsteady gait.3
You might also notice behavioral changes if your loved one has a problem with alcohol. For example, they may become frequently angry, belligerent, or moody for no apparent reason. They may appear intoxicated, become less interested in relationships, work activities, schoolwork, or being unable to refuse an offer of alcohol.3
Sometimes, people struggling with alcohol misuse may begin telling lies or being secretive about their whereabouts, alcohol use, and more. You may notice that a person no longer provides consistent stories about their whereabouts, the people they’re with, or what they are doing. These factors alone don’t mean that a person is an alcoholic, but they may certainly be indicative of a problem with alcohol when accompanied by other telltale signs.3
Creating a Plan & What to Say
Now that you’ve learned more about AUDs, you may be able to better understand what your coworker, friend, family member, or other loved one is experiencing. However, you might not be ready for the emotionally taxing part of your conversation. This is where making a plan and writing down your ideas can be helpful.
Writing down the main points you want to talk about can help you to formulate and remember your ideas during the conversation. Points you may want to consider when writing your conversation plan include:4
- Focus on your concern about your loved one’s drinking. Remember to use “I” statements that express your feelings and your concerns and the ways that you are impacted by your loved one’s alcohol use. You could say, “I am concerned about your alcohol use. I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly worried when you come home late at night and I don’t know where you’ve been.”
- Explain that you’re worried about your loved one’s health. We suggest that you genuinely express your feelings to your loved one by saying something like “I’m concerned that drinking so much every day is harming your health. I’ve noticed that you’re sleeping all day on the weekends.”
- Avoid using labels like “alcoholic” or “addict.” Instead, focus on the person and their behavior instead of the label. People who are struggling with alcohol addiction can become upset or defensive when they’re referred to by these labels.
- Be empathic and understanding. Use empathetic, not blaming, statements such as “I know that you’ve been having a hard time at work and you’ve been feeling more pressure,” or “I know that you’re feeling more stressed than usual.”
- Offer options instead of demands. Present options by saying something along the lines of “I was wondering if you would consider seeing a doctor to talk about your alcohol use,” instead of, “You need to get help.” Even though you think it’s obvious that your loved one should seek help, it’s always up to the person to decide what course of action is best for them. You can suggest they seek help, but you can’t force someone to do something they’re not ready to do.
In addition to these considerations, there are some concrete actions you can take before and during confronting the person you know who is struggling with an AUD.
Ways to Get in Contact With Us
If you believe you or someone you love may be struggling with addiction, let us hear your story and help you determine a path to treatment.
There are a variety of confidential, free, and no obligation ways to get in contact with us to learn more about treatment.
Step 1: Seek Support
Seeking support for yourself through resources or therapy can help you feel like you’re not going through this challenge alone. These resources may provide additional strategies for addressing the person’s alcohol abuse problem and can also help you understand how to best approach your loved one.
There are many ways you can go about this—one idea is to talk to a therapist or mental health or substance abuse specialist to advise you on how to talk to your loved one about their alcohol use. You might consider reading articles, books, or websites, or accessing other free resources on AUDs, too.
Need help from a substance abuse specialist?
Step 2: Engage in Self-Care.
Taking care of yourself is an important thing to remember when you’re concerned for someone you love – yet it’s sometimes one of the first things people push aside. Unfortunately, if you feel burnt out, you’ll be less capable of providing love and support to your loved one.
Remember to seek your own social support during this stressful time. You could begin counseling or therapy with a mental health professional to discuss and process your feelings. Or, you might consider joining a support group for loved ones of people with alcohol use disorder, such as Al-Anon or SMART Recovery for Friends and Family.
These resources can also help you learn and remember the importance of setting healthy boundaries when dealing with someone with an AUD. Your needs are just as important as anyone else’s, and taking care of yourself doesn’t mean that you’re selfish or that you don’t care about your loved one.
If you love someone with an AUD, you may unknowingly engage in caretaking, rescuing or enabling behaviors. You may experience what is known as codependency, or an unhealthy emotional reliance on your loved one. Talking to others who have been in your position (in a support group, for example) can help you develop healthier strategies to protect your boundaries. This way, you will be less likely to lose touch with your personal needs.5
Step 3: Have Treatment Options Ready.
As a part of the planning stage, you’ll need to assemble a list of quick, ready, and accessible treatment options.
If you’re able to say to your loved one, “I’ve done some research and I’ve found these treatment options,” and then present them with a list of readily available resources, they may be more willing to consider treatment. Research viable treatment options online before speaking with your loved one, make calls to treatment centers that appear appropriate for your loved one, and ask them any questions you may have.
Typical questions for treatment programs include:6
- How much does treatment cost?
- Do you accept our insurance?
- How long is the treatment program?
- Can I visit my loved one while they’re in treatment?
- What type of vocational services do you offer?
- Do you offer any specialized programs for veterans, LGBTQ people, and family members?
- Do you have an educational program?
- Will I need medication, or do you offer medication?
- What type of counseling is offered in your program?
- Will I be seen by a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist in drug addiction treatment?
Timing is important when it comes to speaking with your loved one about their alcohol use. Your loved one may waver between feeling that they need help for their alcohol use and feeling that they can handle their alcohol use issues on their own. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that people who need help for an AUD tend to slip through the cracks if treatment isn’t immediately available or readily accessible to them. The earlier someone with an addiction gets help, the more effective treatment will be.7
Step 4: Participate in Your Loved One’s Treatment.
When your loved one decides to enter treatment, you should plan to be involved. The support of loved ones is an important part of the recovery process. You may be asked to participate in couples or family counseling, or you may be asked to make changes in your behaviors, such as not drinking around your loved one or keeping alcohol out of the house.4
Alcohol Treatment & Recovery from Alcohol Use Disorders
No matter how dire your current situation may seem, know that recovery from an AUD is possible.
American Addiction Centers can help you and your loved one find the right rehab for your needs. We have treatment facilities across the nation that offer personalized treatment plans and compassionate, understanding staff who know what your loved one is going through. At our facilities, you may participate in inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab program, 12 step treatment, and more. If you’re interested in learning more about treatment options or if you have any questions or concerns, call our free, confidential helpline to talk to an admissions navigator any time of day or night.
Find Alcohol Rehab Centers Near You
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding alcohol use disorder.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2021). Moderate Drinking.
- Drink Aware. (2021). Alcoholism: signs, symptoms and treatment.
- Medline Plus. (2020). Helping a loved one with a drinking problem.
- Mental Health America. Co-dependency.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Information.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (third edition): Principles of effective treatment.
- New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports. Supporting a loved one in recovery.