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How to Talk to a Loved One About Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is common. In the United States, for example, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that more than 86 percent of people 18 and older have drank alcohol at least once in their lifetime, and over 50 percent reported they drank some in the last month [1].

Many people can enjoy alcohol without negative physical, psychological, or social consequences. In other words, these individuals can “drink in safety.” Others, however, can drink too much, too fast, or too often, and these patterns of alcohol consumption can lead to negative consequences.

It can sometimes be hard to know for certain if a friend’s or family member’s relationship with alcohol is safe, or if it might be problematic. Even more confusing is knowing how — or even if — to talk about alcohol with someone you care about, if you’ve been concerned about their drinking.

If your interest was piqued by the title of this article, the short answer is yes, you should talk to your loved one. This is an easy answer, because alcohol can be extremely detrimental to both physical and psychological health, as well as careers and relationships. To put it bluntly, alcohol can cause death.

For example, more than 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year, and it is the third leading cause of preventable death, just behind smoking and sedentary lifestyles [2].

Despite this easy affirmative answer, it may not feel easy for those of you who are uncomfortable bringing up friend’s or a family member’s drinking. If your aunt or best friend had a nasty cough, would you ask about it? No problem! It would be normal to express concern and wonder if they had seen their doctor. If your workout buddy or office mate was walking with a limp, or kept rubbing their knee, would you ask if they were in pain? Of course!

But talking about alcohol use often feels “different” for those of us who worry about a loved one’s drinking. This is because much like mental illness, problematic behavior around alcohol is stigmatized, and talking about it can sometimes evoke feelings of guilt and discomfort in both yourself and the person you care about. As a result, you may feel hesitant to speak up.

Please, say something anyway! Regardless of what kind of evidence you have to support your worries, your feelings of unease and your desire to check in about it is evidence enough that you should talk with the person you’re concerned about. Not their significant other, not their roommate, not even the other friends in your circle of friends — the loved one themselves.

Here are some ideas for how to talk to someone you love when you think that alcohol might be a problem.

1. Call a Spade a Spade

You do not need fancy words, research, or anything other than your own experiences to bring up your loved one’s drinking. With empathy and compassion, you can speak directly to the observations you’ve made. For example:

Cindy, I just want to check in with you, because the last three times we’ve gone out, I noticed you had so much to drink that you started slurring your words, and you had to go home early. Then, the next morning you’ve told me you were blacked out on all of those nights. I feel worried that you are drinking too much.

When someone is having trouble with their drinking, they are not objective and will not be able to see their drinking clearly. It may feel confrontational, but if you speak with empathy, your honesty and clarity can help your friend or family member put things into perspective.

In addition, it is common for people who have a problem with alcohol to minimize their drinking, or the effects of their drinking. When you can describe your observations in a black-and-white way, you leave no room for minimization and are helping the person you care about see their drinking more clearly.

2. Have an Idea of What to Do Next

You do not need to solve this problem for your loved one, but if they are open to your feedback, they may respond with “What should I do?” They may not be ready, or willing to make any changes, but if the question gets asked, it will help you to have one or two suggestions for how they can find out more. So here are a few thoughts:

Encourage Your Loved One to Find Out More

It can be helpful to learn about the signs and symptoms of problematic drinking, what constitutes heavy or high-risk drinking, and when someone should seek help. You can be part of the process, or provide a link to information, but either way, encourage them to be an informed consumer.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers a free screening tool to assess your pattern of drinking, identify signs of an alcohol problem, and answers common questions about alcohol and alcohol problems.

Recommend Getting Help

The NIAAA offers a free Alcohol Treatment Navigator and lists options for finding help. Your friend or family member should talk to a professional about their drinking. They could see their primary care doctor, but they could also talk with someone who has expertise in alcohol and problems with alcohol.

Some therapists have specialties, or even special credentials in alcohol and drug abuse counseling. These professionals will offer the most expertise, and they often work with people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol.

Suggest Going to Check Out an AA Meeting

Free, anonymous, and often open to the public, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings are widely available in many parts of the world. You can go to AA.org to find local meetings, both online and in person, in addition to loads of free information and literature about alcohol and alcoholism.

If your loved one is open to checking out a meeting, you will want to select a meeting that is “open,” which means open to people who do not necessarily identify as having a problem with alcohol. This will make it more approachable for the person you’re concerned about, and also open to you, if you do not identify as having a problem with alcohol yourself.

In order to find an open meeting, search for meetings in your area, examine the initials listed next to a meeting you’d like to attend, and look for an “O” next to that meeting. This means the meeting is open to all. In addition, there are meetings specifically for women (W), young people (YP), newcomers, and other special groups.

3. Repeat As Needed

Minimization, rationalization, and denial are symptoms of the disease of addiction. If your loved one has a problem with alcohol, count on them responding with these three defenses, and do not back down.

Express your concern each time you feel it. Alcoholism does not only impact the individual drinking, but the people around them. Often, the loved ones of someone with a drinking problem will feel they “shouldn’t harp on it,” or “feel bad” bringing it up repeatedly. These are also symptoms, sometimes referred to as the second-hand effects of alcoholism.

When in doubt, remember that the only reason you’re concerned, reading the article, and planning to talk to a friend or family member, is that you love them! There is no place for feelings of guilt or reluctance. Those hesitancies are the second-hand effects of your loved one’s drinking, and all the more evidence that you should talk to them.

If you need more encouragement, go to any of the links provided in this article, and educate yourself more. Alcoholism is a disease that is chronic, progressive, and fatal; the sooner and more directly you address your concerns about a loved one’s drinking, the better.

Speaking to a friend or family member honestly about their drinking can intervene with alcohol problems that are just developing and curtail the extent of the consequences for alcoholic drinking.

References

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2015. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015.htm#tab2-41b
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2006-2010. Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact, Alcohol Attributable Deaths. https://nccd.cdc.gov/DPH_ARDI/Default/Report.aspx?T=AAM&P=f6d7eda7-036e-4553-9968-9b17ffad620e&R=d7a9b303-48e9-4440-bf47-070a4827e1fd&M=8E1C5233-5640-4EE8-9247-1ECA7DA325B9&F=&D

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About The Author: Dr. Lisa Lewis

Dr. Lisa Lewis is a licensed psychologist with a passion for wellness and fitness. She earned her doctorate in counseling psychology with a specialization in sport psychology at Boston University, and her doctoral research focused on exercise motivation. Lisa is also a certified drug and alcohol counselor and has taught undergraduate courses as an adjunct professor at Salem University, Wheelock College, and Northeastern University in courses including exercise psychology, developmental psychology, and abnormal psychology. Lisa currently works as the associate director of a college counseling center in Boston, MA, and she has a small private practice in the nearby town of Brookline.

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