How to Talk to Someone Who Has an Alcohol Problem

There’s a good chance you know someone with a drinking problem. One in 12 American adults have an abuse or dependence problem, and millions more have risky drinking habits that could turn into problems in the future.

This puts family members and friends of the drinker in a difficult position. On one hand, they feel a responsibility to talk to the person about it because they know it’s happening. But on the other, there’s a fear it’ll cause anger or end a relationship.

In either situation, it’s important to take the risk and talk about the problem. Alcohol abuse doesn’t just go away if you ignore it. It tends to get worse over time, hurting both the abuser and their family and friends. It’s also just as life threatening as diseases like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. And like those diseases, there are many treatments available that can help.

What to Do When You Want to Help

One of the best things you can do when you want to help a person with a drinking problem is educate yourself about alcohol abuse and alcoholism (alcohol dependence). This can give you a better understanding why their behavior is the way it is.

You’ll also feel a sense of comfort to learn it’s a very treatable medical condition when people seek help. Millions of Americans and their families are in healthy recovery from alcohol problems.

Researching treatment options in your area is a good way to find out what type of help is available. Primary care and mental health practitioners, treatment programs, and support groups are all a part of the support network.

When to Have The Conversation

After learning more about alcohol abuse and alcoholism, along with treatment options in your area, decide who else, if anyone, should be involved in the conversation.

Rehearse how you think the conversation might go – including what you’ll do if things get off track. Anticipate objections and practice being calm so you’ll be ready when the time is right.

Like any important conversation, pick the right time to have it. You want it to be close to an incident where drinking had negative consequences, like a bad fight or an accident. But wait until the following day when they have a clear mind, but the problem is still top of mind. This will give you the best chance to get your message across.

What to Talk About

Include specific examples that demonstrate how their drinking is actually hurting them, and the damage it’s doing to their body, family, work, or finances.

Focus on the behavior and consequences, not the person.

Use “I” phrases, such as “I noticed” or “I’m worried,” since they can’t argue with the way you feel. You may be met with excuses, denial, maybe even anger. Be prepared to speak with respect and love.

How to Help Them Get Better

To the best you can, encourage them to get help right away. Leaving “time to think about it” can lead to more denial or binge drinking. But don’t force them.

When they decide they’re ready, take them to get evaluated for treatment. A good place to start is their primary care doctor. alcoholism also offer treatment and support.

Remember this is a long-term commitment. Once your family member or friend starts treatment or going to meetings, continue to encourage their participation and show you’re concerned about them getting better.

What to Do if They Refuse Help

Anger and denial are common defense mechanisms by alcoholics and other problem drinkers. Don’t take it personally. Back off and let them know when they’re ready, you’ll be there.

This might also be the time for you to look into a support system. There are groups available that can offer you support and help you find ways to help, but not enable, your loved one.

Meet the Author

Lance P. Longo, MD has been recognized as one of the area's top psychiatrists for treating addictions. He has a concentration in general psychiatry and addictive disorders with a specialty in pharmacological interventions for substance abuse. He also specializes in working with anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder and thought disorders. In addition to being board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology with added qualifications in addiction psychiatry, Dr. Longo is certified in addiction medicine by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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