When someone has an alcohol use disorder, their friends and loved ones will want to help and reduce symptoms, but the process can be confusing and intimidating.

It’s painful to watch someone you love lose control. Alcoholism is no easy disease to bear, whether you’re struggling with the addiction yourself or you’re watching from the sidelines. You may begin to lose hope that the addiction will ever end.

As someone who cares for the alcoholic, you have an important influence over his or her life. While you cannot save them yourself, you can help them on their journey. Here’s how to help an alcoholic acknowledge their problem and find success in recovery.

When is it Time to Say Something?

Our society has many preconceived notions about recovery and how to help those struggling with addiction. “You have to wait for them to hit rock bottom,” a friend might tell you, or “They have toreally want to recover.” And yet, often those individuals have not dealt with addiction personally.

The reality is that people can find great success in recovery programs even if they didn’t initially want it, or they never “hit rock bottom.” You’ll know it’s time when the negative effects of alcoholism become clear in the addict’s life. The health problems associated with heavy drinking are nothing to be trifled with, and the sooner the habit can be stopped, the better off they’ll be.

How to Confront a Person in Denial

Talking to someone his or her addiction to alcohol is a delicate conversation. When planning the discussion, here are three key elements to consider.

Approach with Care

Before confronting your loved one, it’s important to do an attitude check. As frustrating as the individual can be, you have to remember where they’re coming from. It’s a complex issue, and alcoholism often accompanies other mental health problems such as depression. Negative talk about their failures may only drive them away further. Instead, focus on expressing your love and concern. Let them know you’re there to support them and that you care deeply about their wellbeing.

Discover Treatment Options

If they’re unmotivated to confront their addiction, it’s up to you to explore treatment options for them. Alcohol recovery begins with a detox to remove all alcohol from their system. However, this process can be dangerous to do at home. If someone has been a heavy drinker for a long time, the alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly. It’s best to work with a doctor or rehab center that will be able to monitor the individual’s health as they reduce their alcohol intake.

Hold an Intervention

An intervention is often a last-ditch effort for the alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge or deal with their problem. The individual’s closest friends and family will gather together in an attempt to persuade them to get help.

The thought of holding an intervention can be scary. What if the person reacts in anger, and the relationship is broken down further? While this is a possibility, don’t let it be your focus. Instead, let that fear help you put extra care into the planning. 

Interventions are actually extremely effective when approached correctly. It may be a very good idea to work with a doctor, counselor, or therapist who specializes in interventions to help you prepare for, and even facilitate the conversation. You can learn more in our Intervention Handbook.

Understanding Your Role

It can be easy to get emotionally swept up in the chaos of your loved one’s addiction. But you must remember to take care of yourself as well.

Take a Step Back

As you help your friend or family member through the stages of alcohol recovery, it’s important to remember one thing: You cannot save them. That is not your job. You can encourage them and give them some tough love. But in the end, they must take responsibility for their own decisions.

Don’t feel guilty

No matter what led them into addiction, it’s not your fault. They made their own choices. You are not responsible for their behavior.

Educate Yourself

One of the best things you can do is learn about alcoholism. And since you’re reading this, good job—you’re already headed in the right direction. Read all you can about alcoholism and share articles like this one with friends and family members. You may also want to consider attending open meetings of Al-Anon Family Groups. These meetings serve as support networks for family and friends who are dealing with a loved one’s alcoholism.

Take Care of Yourself

Finally, recognize that you don’t always have to be in the trenches with them, it’s okay to distance yourself when necessary and offer support from a distance. Roughly one in five Americans have lived with an alcoholic relative, and it can be a confusing and intensely stressful time. Addiction is often considered a family disease because of the direct damage it can have on the family structure.

If you feel the need, consider speaking to a counselor or therapist to help you process things yourself. Alcoholism can be painful for everyone involved, and it’s okay to reach out for support.

When Helping Becomes Hurting

Alcoholism can cause high emotions not only in the alcoholic, but in his or her friends and family. However, some interactions can be very damaging and even enable the individual to continue their addiction. Here are the behaviors to pay attention to.

Keep emotions in check

Watching a loved one hurt him- or herself is a powerless feeling. However, when talking to the individual, do not let your personal pain drive the conversation. Emotional appeals to how much they’ve hurt you can increase their own negative feelings, potentially increasing their desire to drink and escape the overwhelming emotions.

Don’t cover for them

They must take responsibility for their own actions. Making excuses to their boss or teacher, doing their work for them, and covering their bills only helps them continue their addiction. Unless it’s a life-threatening situation, never lend money to someone with alcoholism.

Pick the right battles

Lecturing them every time they come home intoxicated can turn your words into background noise. Wait until they’re able to have a rational conversation before confronting them.

Never drink with them

Sometimes, it might feel right to drink with them. Maybe they “just need this right now,” or you feel the need to meet them where they are. But no matter what, do not drink with them. This will only encourage their behavior.

You don’t have to do it alone

At The Recovery Village, we offer our patients support through a full spectrum of care. From the first day in drug or alcohol detox through experiencing a new life in aftercare, we’re here to guide your through the difficult and rewarding process of recovery. Learn about our treatment programs and how we can help your loved one get a fresh start.

a woman with long brown hair smiling at the camera.
Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
a man smiling in front of a brick wall.
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.