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Addiction: Helping Others

When Someone in Your Home has a Drinking Problem

​​​​​​Is drinking a problem in your home?

When a family member abuses alcohol, it impacts everybody in the family. But there are changes that will help your family to be safer and healthier.

Think about these questions:

  • Do you feel safer when the problem drinker isn't home?
  • Does the problem drinker drive after drinking with family members in the car?
  • Do you sometimes make excuses for the problem drinker to other family members or employers?
  • Is the problem drinker physically or emotionally abusive?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, alcohol is causing problems in your home.

You might be reading this because there’s an alcohol problem in your family. If so, you’ve taken the first step in helping yourself.

What can happen to a family if someone has a drinking problem?

Alcohol problems often cause a lot of stress in the home. The family might have lost income because of drinking. The person with the problem might not take care of children or pay bills. Maybe the person has legal problems because of drinking or has embarrassed you when he or she was drunk. Any or all of these things might be happening.

Your family is coping with stress the best way it can. Relationships change and are often strained as each family member copes in their own way. When someone in the family has a drinking problem, other family members might behave in these ways:

  • become a peacemaker (always try to resolve conflicts between family members)
  • try to cover up for the problem drinker (e.g., call in sick for him or her at work or lie to friends)
  • a child might get in trouble or even overachieve (to give the family something else to focus on)
  • withdraw

All of the above behaviours are ways to cope with a really stressful situation. But, these behaviours aren’t helpful because they don’t deal with the real problem and sometimes even let the problem continue. People in your family (including you) might have lots of different feelings (e.g., shame, embarrassed, angry, sad, hopeless, and guilt). These feelings are normal. But, when a family member has a drinking problem, these feelings are not often talked about. Sometimes family members go out of their way not to show their feelings.

There are 3 unspoken rules that often happen when a family member has a drinking problem:

  • Don't talk. Family members learn not to talk about what’s really going on or they call the problem something else (e.g., saying that a hangover is the flu or a drinking binge is a stress release).
  • Don’t trust. Children and family members learn to always be on guard for the next crisis or scene. Promises are broken and responsibilities are not done (e.g., meals aren’t made, bills aren’t paid, promises to stop drinking are not kept). Family members (especially children) learn to look out for themselves and don’t trust that anyone will be there for them.
  • Don’t feel. To survive what’s going on, family members often turn off their feelings. Sometimes people in the family don’t believe their feelings are real. They are afraid someone will make fun of them if they share how they feel. Often, they don’t trust that anyone will listen or care about how they feel.

Living by the 3 rules listed above is harmful to everyone in the family, especially children.

People in the family likely spend a lot of energy focusing on the person with the drinking problem. The family constantly adjusts its behaviour to try to control or cover up for the problem drinker’s behaviour. People in the family start to ignore their own needs and focus on someone else’s. For example, you stop seeing your friends because you don’t want them to know that your husband, wife, son, or daughter has a drinking problem.

Maybe you’ve stopped saying anything about the drinking because you’re scared of making the problem worse. Maybe you’ve taken a second job to make up for lost money from drinking. These behaviours don’t help you; they make it easier for the problem drinker to keep drinking.

I know my family has problems, what can I do?

If you have an alcohol problem in your family, you might be able to relate to some of what you’ve read so far. Now, you need to know what to do. Your decision to ask questions and read this information means you want to start doing things differently. That’s the only way to start recovery for you and your family.

Get Information

Getting information is a good place to start. You can get information from:

  • videos or DVDs
  • books
  • handouts
  • talking to others who have been through it
  • Alberta Health Services (AHS) Addiction & Mental Health, Addiction Services
  • AHS or Addiction & Mental Health websites
  • 12-step support groups like Al-Anon, Alateen, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA)
  • group or individual counselling from AHS

Remember, you can get help even if the person with the drinking problem isn’t getting help.

Find Someone to Talk to

Not talking about the drinking problem often means things won't change. It's okay to ask for help. Talk honestly about what’s going on with a friend, family member, someone from a spiritual or religious group, a counsellor, or a support group. An outside person can help you get perspective and talk out some plans. It is important for children to have someone to talk to. If one parent has a bad drinking problem, the other parent (or another adult like a teacher, aunt, or uncle) can help balance the negative effects of the drinking.

Stop Doing the Dance

Many people talk about being locked in an unhealthy situation with others as being in a dance with them. Stop by taking care of yourself and your needs. Often changing one behaviour can help you see the situation in a new light and think about what other changes you can make. For example, if you’ve stopped going out with friends because of the problem drinker, return to those friendships. If you’ve covered up or made excuses for the problem drinker to friends, family, or employers, stop doing it.

You can make changes even if the other person doesn't want to. You can get help from your doctor, minister, therapist, addictions counsellor, or support group. Don’t take the blame for what’s going on in your family; try to change what you can.

Set Your Bottom Line

Ask yourself, “What am I willing to live with?” Threatening your partner or asking him or her to change often doesn't work, especially if you don't follow through on threats. For example, before you tell the person you’re going to leave if he or she drinks again, you need to be ready to do it. Threats can increase the risk that you will be abused or that your partner will drink more. Only you can say what you’re willing to live with and what changes you can make. The choices you make to take care of yourself will help you, but they might also help the rest of your family (including the person with the problem).

If the person with the problem chooses to get help or treatment, remember that it will take time for things to change. Just because the drinking stops, doesn’t mean that the problems will be fixed right away. Recovery is a long, rocky road for everyone in the family. Relapse is part of recovery, so try not to get discouraged if that happens.

By making a choice to live a different way, you’ve taken a step towards recovery. There is help.

To find out about help or to find an addiction services office near you, call the 24-hour Help Line at 1-866-332-2322.

Current as of: March 7, 2017

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services