How to Help an Alcoholic Parent
Alcohol use disorder doesn’t only affect the individual with the addiction. It also takes a toll on the entire family unit. If your parent struggles with alcoholism, you might cycle between feelings of shame, frustration, grief, and helplessness. Navigating such a stressful and unpredictable environment can be extremely damaging to your mental health.
No matter your age, as the child of an alcoholic, you probably crave a sense of stability and normalcy. Watching your parents struggle can be so painful, and you want to do everything in your power to help them. While you can’t force someone into recovery, you can offer support as your parent takes steps to heal.
How Alcohol Addiction Affects Families
Any type of addiction, including alcoholism, can wreak havoc on your family structure. An alcoholic makes feeding their addiction their top priority, so they may neglect other responsibilities in favor of drinking. Their performance at work may suffer, or they may stop working altogether. Additionally, they might neglect tasks around the house.
Alcohol addiction puts an intense strain on marriages and partnerships. Sometimes, the partner of an alcoholic distance themselves from the individual or seeks separation or divorce because the environment has become so harmful. In other cases, an alcoholic’s spouse enables their addiction and tries to justify their behavior.
Children of alcoholics also struggle with the emotional repercussions of addiction. In some families, one child takes the role of the scapegoat, so their own behavioral issues become the focus of the family’s anger and shame. Although this child may lash out, their behavior is a reflection of the unstable, confusing environment they’ve grown up in. Some children experience the opposite and become high achievers at school and at home in an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy. However, this can also lead to intense and long-lasting anxiety.
Adult children of alcoholics often continue to struggle with the effects of growing up with a parent with an addiction. You might find it difficult to trust others in adulthood because you’re so used to witnessing unstable behavior. It’s also very common for adult children of alcoholics to seek out romantic relationships with someone with addiction, mental health disorders, or other challenges.
Knowing the Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is sometimes obvious, but the signs aren’t always clear. People can become very skilled at hiding their addiction, and family members will often deny the problem until it’s unavoidable. The following are some of the most common signs of alcoholism you might recognize in your parent:
- Drinking more frequently or in higher volumes than they used to
- Hiding alcohol and empty bottles
- Spending more time than usual out of the house
- Acting secretive
- Reacting defensively when you mention their drinking
- Mood swings or erratic behavior
- Memory loss
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Redness in the face
How to Help an Alcoholic Parent
The most important thing to remember when trying to help an alcoholic is that you cannot force someone into recovery. The choice to quit drinking and recover is a personal decision, so your family member needs to decide for themselves that they’re ready. You can express your concerns, outline the solutions you think would be helpful for them, and address your own emotional needs. However, you can’t take responsibility for someone else’s drinking habits.
Here are seven tips on how to help an alcoholic parent:
Make Them Feel Comfortable
When having a serious conversation with your parent about their alcoholism, it’s essential to create a safe, private, and comfortable environment. This is an incredibly vulnerable topic, and your parent might feel like they’re being cornered or attacked. Addressing the situation in the right environment can make a big difference in how your parent receives your message.
Try to avoid starting the conversation when your parent is intoxicated. If possible, choose a time when they seem calm and regulated. You need to consider your own emotional needs, too, so you should find a time and place where you feel safe.
Focus on Your Concern
Alcoholics almost always feel defensive about their behavior. Addiction is a source of deep shame, guilt, and regret, and these emotions can come to the surface when you call attention to the topic.
The best way to offer care and support to your loved one is to focus on your own concerns instead of on their problems or behaviors. If your statements come across as accusatory, your parent may shut down or try to escape from the conversation. By highlighting how you feel, you can help the situation feel less confrontational for your parent.
Use “I” Statements
Using “I” statements is a great way to ensure that you focus on your concerns and avoid sounding accusatory. No matter your beliefs or feelings about the situation, you can probably phrase most of your thoughts with an “I” statement.
For example, you might be tempted to tell your parent, “Your drinking is controlling your life.” Although this statement may be completely true, an alcoholic doesn’t want to hear someone else’s opinion on their behavior. Instead, you could say, “I’m worried about the impact that alcohol has on your life.” This way, you’re focusing on how you feel, which creates space for an emotional discussion rather than a confrontation.
Mentioning some specific examples of concerning behaviors can help you back up your point. Many alcoholics will make excuses or deny their problem, but offering examples will help you stand your ground.
However, you should continue to use a concerned tone of voice and opt for “I” statements as much as possible. You don’t need to give a long list of every problematic behavior you’ve ever seen from your alcoholic parent. One or two examples of times when you are worried about them can help you make your case without creating conflict.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
You probably have a lot to say to your parent about their alcoholism, but you should also take time to actively listen. When discussing addiction with your parent, ask them open-ended questions to give them space to express themselves. Then, truly listen and try to empathize with them. Although you may never understand how they feel, making an effort to understand their perspective can help you gain clarity and can help them feel supported.
Set Firm Boundaries
If you’re the child of an alcoholic, setting boundaries is essential for your own well-being and your parent’s well-being. Your parent’s addiction is never your fault, but you also should never enable their behavior. Be clear and firm with your parent that you will not support their drinking or make excuses for them.
Additionally, you need strong boundaries in place to protect your own mental health. As much as you want to support your parent through anything, everyone has limits. If you need to step away from the situation and create space for yourself, communicate that clearly with your family. For example, you might set a personal boundary that you cannot be in the presence of your parent while they’re intoxicated.
Reach Out for Support
You’re not alone in your struggle, and you don’t need to handle this situation by yourself. If your parent is ready to seek help, you can direct them to a number of resources. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous provide a community for recovering alcoholics, and connecting with others can be an excellent way to heal. Individual counseling is also a valuable resource for people with alcohol use disorder.
In many cases, inpatient addiction treatment is needed as individuals take the first steps toward recovery from alcoholism. If your parent is physically dependent on alcohol, detoxing from the substance may be physically dangerous. You can help your parent find a medically supervised detox program so that they can safely withdraw from alcohol with the help of medical professionals. From there, your parent could attend inpatient rehab or intensive outpatient to get the mental health support they need.
You should also continue to recognize your own mental health needs. If you grew up around an alcoholic, you may experience the effects of that trauma well into your adult years. Processing your experiences in therapy can help you heal and prevent yourself from repeating the cycle in other relationships. Additionally, you could attend Al-Anon or other support groups for family members of alcoholics.
Helping an alcoholic parent is never easy, so you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for support. Long Island Interventions provides inpatient and outpatient addiction services for people struggling with alcoholism. You can reach out to us today to learn more.