How to Help an Alcoholic Parent
What Is “Alcoholism”?
“Alcoholism,” now more properly called “alcohol use disorder” or AUD, is a condition where a person habitually craves or uses alcohol regardless of any negative consequences. “Alcoholism” and “alcoholic” are less preferred terms today because of the stigma attached to them.
Alcohol use disorders are diagnosed by qualified medical personnel and are considered to be a type of mental illness under the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), last updated in 2013.
How Can I Tell If My Parent Has an Alcohol Use Disorder?
While only doctors and qualified rehabilitation specialists can officially diagnose and safely treat an AUD case, you can still get a fairly good idea if someone needs to be examined. The DSM-5 has 11 criteria for alcohol use disorder. AUD cases are rated as “mild,” “moderate,” or “severe,” depending on how many items in the DSM-5 criteria apply. If your parent, you, or another loved one exhibits one or more of the 11 signs below, immediate intervention by a qualified professional is likely needed.
- The patient frequently drinks more than intended
- The patient has admitted a problem or has attempted to quit unsuccessfully
- More and more time is spent trying to get alcohol or recover from its effects
- Powerful alcohol cravings
- Misses personal and work obligations and deadlines
- Continued drinking despite negative consequences
- Work, hobbies, and personal life are sacrificed for alcohol
- Using alcohol in potentially dangerous situations, such as when driving, etc.
- Continued drinking despite having mental or physical health issues that could be worsened by alcohol
- Increased tolerance for alcohol
- Painful or uncomfortable physical withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop drinking
If any of these signs apply to your parent, contact a qualified doctor or alcohol rehabilitation expert to discuss your options. Please note that only a doctor can properly diagnose an AUD and its severity. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has an extensive list of recommendations for finding and getting help for someone with an AUD.
How Do I Approach My Parent?
If you see signs of an alcohol abuse disorder and have already discussed it with someone experienced and knowledgeable about AUDs, then you have to consider approaching your parent so that they can get a proper diagnosis and get started on their treatment.
This is perhaps the most difficult part of helping your parent or any loved one with an alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, you cannot force people to change, especially if they are suffering from a disease that affects their free will. They cannot be compelled to join a rehab program if they don’t want to. However, it’s important that they at least know that you believe they have a problem.
Here are some commonly recommended tips on how to approach a parent with a possible AUD. Be sure to do more research on AUD and to discuss things with a qualified professional before you talk to your parents about their drinking problem:
1.) Assess the Risk of Violent Reactions
If you are convinced your parent will react with physical or verbal violence, you should reconsider confronting them at that time. You may want to choose a different time to bring it up with your parent, possibly accompanied by another loved one who understands the situation. It’s important to note, however, that in many cases, the risks of a level-headed conversation are worth the benefit of getting your parent on the road to alcohol recovery.
2.) Don’t Confront Them While They’re Drunk
Confronting your parent while they’re inebriated will only increase the risk of negative reactions without much benefit. They won’t have much control over what they say or what they feel either, which can increase the chances they will say something hurtful or act violently.
3.) Don’t Confront Them If You Are Intoxicated
Attempting to confront your parent when you are drunk or high will only increase the risk of escalated conflict. It may also serve to undermine your attempts to get them to seek medical attention.
4.) Don’t Try to Directly Convince Them They Have a Problem
Unless they have already been properly diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, you shouldn’t try to strongly convince them that they have a problem. Make it clear that what you say is only your opinion and that you believe they might need to talk to a medical professional.
5.) Make It Clear That You’re Doing It Out of Love
Not only should you make this point at the beginning of your conversation, but you should also continually re-emphasize it as you talk. You don’t want the conversation to be framed in such a way that you seem mean-spirited or hurtful as this might cause your parent to further resist treatment.
6.) Prepare a List of Specific Negative Behaviors That You Feel Are Caused by Their Drinking
These kinds of conversations are very emotional times. It may be difficult to come up with examples of how their drinking has negatively affected them in the moment. For this reason, you might find it helpful to list down specific times their drinking has caused problems. Being prepared with a recounting of specific events can help your case and prevent them from evading the issue.
7.) Don’t Be Judgmental
The reason you want to be specific and to emphasize that what you are saying is only your opinion is that you don’t want your parent to feel that they are being judged. Avoid getting sidetracked from the main point, which is to say that you feel they might have a problem that could be helped. For this reason, it’s best to avoid making judgmental statements, speculation, and “what-ifs” in your conversation.
8.) If You Have Been Hurt by Their Behavior, Tell Them
Your parent must know if and when their drinking has affected you. If you have been physically or emotionally hurt by an inebriated parent, you must communicate this clearly, if you can find a period where they are sober.
9.) Make It a Two-way Conversation
While you may be, in a way, confronting your parent, you need to avoid making them defensive. Ask them questions and allow them to say their side, even if they deny they have a problem or even if what they say does not necessarily make sense. Try to show that you are listening by repeating what they say and asking if you understood them correctly. Resist the urge to escalate the conversation or to twist their words, as this might be counterproductive to them getting proper treatment.
10.) Consider Having Future Conversations
In the course of your conversation, it may become clear that your parent is either in denial or uninterested in talking to you. Don’t attempt to force the issue. Simply tell them that you’ll be revisiting the conversation eventually, just so they know that you don’t intend to let their alcohol misuse continue. You should also be careful not to nag them about it, as it might cause them to be resentful of you.
11.) Don’t Expect Things to Go Perfectly
Alcohol use disorders can attack a person’s ability to think and manage their emotions. There will always be some temporary risks to your relationship if you choose to help your parent recover from their drinking problem. You can only do your best to prepare and to reduce the risks to yourself and your parent.
They Don’t Want Treatment. What Are My Options?
Not everyone is willing to be told that they might have a problem. If your parent is still in denial or refuses to get help, here are some things you can try.
1.) Tell Someone Who Can Help
Be sure to discuss your parent’s likely AUD with your other parent, your siblings, and especially with qualified professionals with experience treating AUDs. They may be better able to help your parent seek the support they need.
2.) Take Care of Yourself
Children of those with AUDs are often in need of care themselves, especially if they are still living with their parents. While it’s important to get an alcohol-misusing parent on the road to recovery, one’s own welfare should still be a priority. If you feel that you or someone else is in imminent danger from your parent, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE.
3.) Understand Your Own Emotions
Seeing a loved one suffer from AUD or any illness can be traumatic, making it difficult to understand your feelings. Seeking the advice of a qualified counselor may be important for your well-being. If you are still in school, you may already have access to a counselor that can help.
4.) Consider Leaving the House
If there is an imminent threat of violence or abuse, leaving your parent temporarily while things calm down may be a good option if you still live with them. Be sure that you make plans for this even before you talk to your parent about their possible drinking problem.
5.) Find a Support Group
Having a parent who regularly misuses alcohol can be isolating, as not everyone can relate to the situation. Today, there are several support groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, and other organizations with a similar mission that can connect you with others that are going through the same problems,
6.) Wait for a Better Time to Try Again.
Just because a parent has refused to get checked before, it does not mean that they will not agree eventually. If they refuse, you can wait for a time that they will be more willing to listen.
Helping an alcoholic parent is going to be one of the most difficult things anyone has to do. Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies and options for treating and counseling not just parents with AUDs, but those who care for them as well. If you have a parent that you feel has an AUD, be sure to contact a qualified medical professional immediately.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder: A Guide for Families. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics. (n.d.). Help for Children of Alcoholics. Retrieved from https://nacoa.org/help-for-children-of-alcoholics/
- Al-Anon Family Groups. (n.d.). What Is Al-Anon and Alateen? Retrieved from https://al-anon.org/newcomers/what-is-al-anon-and-alateen/
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Find Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment
- Mayo Clinic. (2022). Alcohol use disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Treatment Navigator. Retrieved from https://alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov
- American Psychological Association. (2018). Substance Use Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/substance-use-disorder
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (n.d.). Helping a Family Member or Friend. Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/family-friends/there-is-help/helping-a-family-member-or-friend
- Psychology Today. (2021). How to Help an Alcoholic Parent: A Guide for Adult Children. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/202106/how-help-alcoholic-parent-guide-adult-children