How to Help Alcoholic Parents: Communication Tips & Treatment Options
Last Updated: November 15, 2023
Growing up with a parent who is addicted to alcohol can have a significant and lasting impact on a child. Parental alcohol abuse can place children in dangerous situations and even lead to children feeling obligated to assume adult responsibilities. Once these children reach adulthood, they are likely to struggle with feelings of shame, anxiety in personal relationships and feelings of low self-worth.
If you’re the adult child of alcohol-addicted parents, it’s important to recognize that alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for alcoholism, is a disease that can improve with treatment. Encouraging your parents to seek treatment can help them overcome the effects of alcohol addiction, which can be healing for the entire family.
Signs Your Parent May Have an Alcohol Addiction
Before learning how to cope with alcoholic parents, it’s important to recognize that there is a difference between occasionally drinking and having an alcohol use disorder. Some people may enjoy a drink or two on special occasions or have a glass of wine with dinner each night, but this doesn’t mean they have an alcohol addiction.
Someone living with an alcohol addiction loses their ability to control their drinking because brain changes from repeated alcohol abuse lead to compulsive alcohol consumption. A parent living with an alcohol addiction will show some or all of the following signs, which are part of the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder:
- Strong alcohol cravings, which may lead to drinking first thing in the morning
- Inability to cut back on drinking
- Continuing to drink, even when it causes conflict in important relationships, such as those with a spouse or children
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol so that larger quantities are needed to achieve the same desired effects
- Continued alcohol consumption, even when it causes health problems or makes existing health issues worse
- Showing withdrawal symptoms like tremor or headaches when not drinking
- Consuming larger quantities of alcohol than intended
- Spending large amounts of time drinking or recovering from being drunk
- Withdrawing from usual hobbies and social activities in favor of drinking
- Being unable to work or fulfill family responsibilities because of alcohol
- Putting oneself in danger because of alcohol (i.e., driving under the influence)
Communicating With Your Alcoholic Parent
When you recognize signs of alcohol addiction in a parent, it’s natural to be concerned. You may even have lived with the consequences of parental alcohol addiction while growing up, and now you’re ready to take action. If you want to have a conversation with a parent addicted to alcohol, there are a few pointers that can help you be most effective.
Choosing the Right Time
Approach your parent at a time when they are alone and not distracted. It’s best to wait until they’re in a positive mood and not experiencing any stress. For example, confronting them at the end of a long work day probably isn’t the best option. You should also avoid communicating your concerns at a time when they’re under the influence of alcohol, as they will not be able to fully participate in the conversation, and their reasoning abilities are likely to be impaired.
Expressing Your Feelings
When you express your concerns to your parent, it’s essential to avoid placing blame or making them feel as if you are punishing them. Use “I” statements to express how you feel, and be prepared to give specific examples of your concerns. For instance, you might say, “I have noticed you’re drinking so much that you aren’t getting out of bed during the weekends, and I’m concerned for your health.”
You must also give your parent a chance to talk, and be prepared for the fact that they may be upset or defensive. Instead of arguing, remain calm and truly listen to what they’re saying. Offer empathy and maintain a nonjudgmental, caring stance so they’ll be willing to open up to you.
Protecting Yourself Emotionally and Physically
It’s natural that you’ll want to try to help a parent struggling with alcohol addiction, but it’s also important to set healthy boundaries. This means that you don’t have to accept harmful or abusive behavior from your alcohol-addicted parent.
For your own well-being, as well as the health and safety of your parent, you must set and consistently enforce boundaries related to what behavior you will and won’t tolerate. For instance, you have every right to decide that you won’t interact with your parent when they are belligerent or intoxicated, and you can walk away from a conversation if they are being disrespectful.
Seeking Support for Yourself
Growing up with an alcoholic parent can have significant and lasting effects on children, which can persist into adulthood. This means that you also must care for yourself so you can learn healthy coping skills and overcome the negative effects of living with an alcohol-addicted parent.
Research has found that adult children of alcohol-addicted parents can struggle with a range of issues, including insecurity, anger, communication problems and difficulties in romantic relationships. As such, if you grew up with a parent who was addicted to alcohol, you may have some of your own healing work to do.
It can be helpful to seek out counseling services and attend support groups, such as Al-Anon, so you can overcome the effects of parental alcohol addiction in your own life.
Seeking education on the nature of alcohol addiction can also be helpful. When you learn about the science behind alcohol addiction, you’ll come to recognize that alcohol use disorder is a legitimate medical condition that can improve with treatment. You’ll also be less likely to blame yourself for your parents’ struggles. You can use internet resources to learn more about alcohol addiction, or you can also learn from others in support group meetings.
Encouraging Treatment for Your Parent
Ultimately, the best outcomes occur when individuals with an alcohol use disorder seek professional treatment. There are a variety of different treatment options available.
Researching Treatment Options
If you want to encourage your parent to seek treatment, it’s essential to be aware of treatment options for alcohol use disorder. Treatment programs can be offered on a residential or outpatient basis. Residential programs require individuals to live on-site at a treatment center, whereas outpatient programs allow patients to live at home while attending appointments at a clinic or facility within the community.
Both residential and outpatient programs provide a range of treatment options, including individual and group counseling, support groups and medical oversight. Various different therapies can be beneficial for treating addiction. Some of the most common are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches coping skills, and contingency management, which provides rewards for desired behavior—such as attending appointments with a counselor. Family therapy is also commonly incorporated into addiction treatment so family members can learn how to support their loved one’s recovery.
Regardless of the type of rehab program chosen, alcohol addiction treatment typically begins with a medical detox program to help patients through the withdrawal process. Alcohol withdrawal is often uncomfortable, but in severe cases, it can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Detox programs provide patients with access to medical monitoring and support, as well as medications if needed, to reduce the risk of withdrawal complications.
Interventions: What They Are and How They Work
Some families turn to the expertise of a professional interventionist when they are concerned about a loved one’s alcohol addiction. An interventionist is trained in addiction treatment and conflict management, and they can help you have an effective conversation with your parent.
With the help of an interventionist, you can plan a formal meeting with your loved one, during which you and other family members express your concerns about their addiction and encourage them to seek treatment. The services of an interventionist can be helpful if your parent is resistant to treatment or if you worry that they will not be responsive to your efforts to help them.
You can play an important role in supporting your parent during their recovery journey. After they complete a rehab program, you can encourage them to stay connected to the recovery community through ongoing counseling and support group attendance. You can also be mindful of their relapse triggers and offer support by remaining alcohol-free in their presence and offering to take part in alcohol-free activities with them, such as seeing a movie or hiking at the park.
Coping with the Reality of the Situation
While you can learn about alcohol addiction and offer support to your parent, it’s helpful to remember that you ultimately are not responsible for their recovery. You can play an active role and ensure that you’re not enabling them to continue with their addiction, but if they do not engage in recovery, you cannot blame yourself or allow yourself to become fixated on their choices.
Accepting What You Can and Can’t Control
Despite your efforts to be supportive and empathetic, you cannot control whether your parent chooses to engage in treatment. You can encourage them to do so, but recognize that the decision to enter recovery is ultimately up to your parent. If they choose not to overcome alcohol addiction, it’s important for you to accept that this choice is out of your control.
Building Resilience and Hope
Even if your parent does not enter recovery for alcohol addiction, you can create a better future for yourself. You might have come to believe that your success and happiness are dependent upon your parent entering recovery, but the reality is that you can build the future you’ve always dreamed of, even if it means accepting that your parent has an addiction. Focus on your own goals, and you can create a life that brings you happiness.
Overcoming the effects of growing up with an alcohol-addicted parent can be challenging, and self-care is essential when you’re working toward your own healing. Be sure to make time for relaxation, as well as activities and hobbies you enjoy. Care for yourself with regular exercise, nutritious foods and healthy stress relief methods. You’ll learn to make room for your own needs, which can help you recover from the effects of having to care for an alcohol-addicted parent.
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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
Haverfield; Marie; Theiss, Jennifer. “A theme analysis of experiences reported by adult children of alcoholics in online support forums.” Journal of Family Studies, 2014. Accessed September 17, 2023.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” March 9, 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
Bayard, Max; Mcintyre, Jonah; Hill, Keith; & Woodside, Jack. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician, March 15, 2004. Accessed September 17, 2023.