How to Help an Alcoholic Parent

Alcohol is one of the most abused substances in the United States. In many cultures around the world, alcohol plays a large role in significant life events and celebrations such as birthdays, weddings and religious holidays. You may drink routinely yourself and not suffer from any negative consequences. Many people like to unwind after a long day with a glass of wine or share a beer with their friends on the weekends. In these instances, alcohol isn’t a problem. For other people, however, daily drinking gives way to addiction.

Figuring out how to help someone stop drinking is hard enough, but what about when the person in question is your mom or dad?

Getting help for an alcoholic parent is difficult for many reasons. They may not be willing to listen to you when you confront their substance abuse, or you could feel as if you’re crossing a boundary as their child by bringing up their drinking, even if you’re an adult. You may even suffer from a conflict-ridden relationship and struggle to address the topic without blowing up.

The first step toward helping an alcoholic parent is education. Educate yourself on the signs of alcoholism, the causes of the disorder and potential treatment options. Doing so will give you a greater sense of security as you seek out the best way to guide your parent to recovery.

Alcoholism in American Families

Drinking problems are far from uncommon in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that in 2015, 15.1 million adults over the age of 18 had alcohol use disorder. Every year, approximately 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes, which makes it the third leading cause of death in the entire country.

A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 1 out of every 10 children in America lives with an alcoholic parent.

You might be a teen yourself reading this and trying to find help. If you are struggling with a parent who has a drinking problem, you aren’t alone, and it’s not your fault. Substance abuse is a personal issue that can be caused by many different factors; some people are genetically more likely than others to become abusers while others may use alcohol and other drugs to cope with their emotional problems.

Living with an alcoholic parent as a teen can be extremely difficult. You may feel embarrassed about your home life or even avoid being around your parent as much as possible. Your parent may struggle to pay the bills or keep enough food at home.

It’s important to understand that there are people who can help. If you are abused, you can call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you aren’t sure whether you need help, check out the hotline’s website to learn about the signs of abuse.

You can also join Alateen, a support group for teenagers of alcoholic parents hosted by the organization called Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you’re an adult child who has noticed that your parent has a drinking problem, then there are more options available to help. You may live outside of the home or hold down your own job, so there are greater independence and safety than there is for a teenager or child.

Learning about the warning signs and investigating recovery options further will help you decide the best way to approach your parent and help them get the treatment they need.

Signs Your Parent Is an Alcoholic

The early stages of alcoholism are hard to detect, and many people often keep their drinking problems well-hidden from family and friends. If you don’t live with your parent, it can be even harder to realize that there’s something wrong with their alcohol consumption.

Eventually, the signs of alcohol use disorder emerge, and if you know what to look for, getting help becomes much easier.

The first thing you’ll want to look for is the frequency of your parent’s alcohol consumption. How often do they drink? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides drinking guidelines to help people stay safe and avoid addiction. A woman should not consume more than three drinks per day and no more than seven drinks per week. For men, the cap is slightly higher at four drinks per day and no more than 14 drinks per week. According to NIAA research, only two out of every 100 people with these drinking habits suffer from alcoholism.

If your parent drinks more than the NIAA guideline numbers, this is the first sign that they’re drinking too much. You may notice that they don’t drink every day but partake in binge drinking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides the definition and terminology of binge drinking on its website. Binge drinking, according to the SAMHSA, is defined as the consumption of four or five alcoholic beverages on the same occasion, usually within a short period of time.

The next sign you’ll want to look for changes in behavior. Some people will exhibit little to any of these symptoms because they have what is known as “high-functioning alcoholism.” However, many signs are evident in most alcoholics, and you should check for any of these when evaluating whether your parent has a problem:

  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Hiding drinking habits from others
  • Excusing drinking and other bad behavior as a result of circumstances or mood
  • Forgoing obligations to drink alcohol
  • Canceling plans with family and friends or otherwise avoiding a social life to drink
  • Having new struggles at home or in the workplace, such as problems with money
  • Exhibiting changes in social habits, friend group, behavior or appearance
  • Experiencing irritability, a depressed mood, and unpredictable mood swings
  • Being hostile and forcefully denying their problem when confronted about drinking

All of these signs may not be present, but if your parent is an alcoholic, there will be some indications of a problem. The actual degree of each symptom may vary, so you should take some time to look closely and find out what information you can through conversation. Don’t try to pry or lecture them, however; keep things casual. You may want to ask your other parent or anyone else who’s close to your parent whether they’ve noticed any changes.

Getting Help for an Alcoholic Parent

It isn’t always easy to help a parent who drinks too much. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have alcoholism to begin with. Ideally, they’ll heed your advice as soon as you express your concern and quit drinking on the spot. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Most people carry a lot of shame around their addiction. In particular, alcoholics may refuse to admit they have a problem because drinking is such a socially accepted behavior in our society. They may argue that everyone drinks now and again or even mention times you’ve had too much to drink.

Don’t fall into these arguments. Instead, realize that recovery isn’t something that can be forced. Your goal should be to guide your parent to make the right decision, not to make one for them. Besides, forcing someone to go to rehab seldom works. A person makes a choice to use a substance, and they have to choose to stop.

Intervention Strategies

Before you bring up your parent’s drinking problem, learn some intervention strategies that will help facilitate the conversation. Never approach them while they’re drinking or if you suspect they’re drunk. Doing so can lead to a hostile confrontation, which will most likely devolve to yelling, insults and even violence.

If your parent has reacted aggressively in the past, you should not hold the conversation alone. Always consider your safety first. No matter how much you want to help your parent, you can’t put your well-being at risk.

Unless you’re worried about violence, wait until you can speak to your parent one-on-one. The dramatic, staged interventions you see on TV where the person is tricked into entering a room filled with their loved ones isn’t ideal. This will often evoke shame, betrayal, and anger that will make reaching them impossible.

Focus on facts, not feelings. Use “I” terms instead of “you” statements, which can cause your parent to become offended. For example, you may want to say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking a lot, and I’m worried,” rather than “You drink too much, and it needs to stop.”

Practice asking open-ended questions. These types of questions don’t have black-and-white, yes-or-no answers. Instead, they encourage dialogue and help build rapport. Some examples of open-ended questions you can ask include:

  • How do you feel when you don’t drink?
  • How do you feel when someone brings up your drinking habits?
  • Is there anything I could do to help you right now?
  • What do you think about getting help?
  • What do you think about people who go to rehab?

Asking these questions and staying calm won’t guarantee that your parent reacts well. Remember that you can’t control them, their choices or their actions. Sometimes, a parent may even blame you, their spouse or other family members for their drinking, but you can’t let this get to you.

Set an emotional boundary, and make sure that you leave the situation when it becomes too heated. You may even find that your parent admits they drink too much but that they aren’t ready to get help. That’s still progress. You can try to arrange another conversation at a later date.

Remember that you aren’t a counselor, and you shouldn’t have to carry the burden of your parent’s addiction on your shoulders. As much as you want to help, it isn’t your job to fix them. Their addiction is their problem, and you can only act as an encouragement and support system.

Recovery for an Alcoholic Parent and Their Family

If your parent agrees to get help, great! You can start looking for rehabs, learn about inpatient and outpatient treatment programs and interview substance abuse counselors near you. Your parent should never quit drinking on their own without talking to a doctor first, however. Medical supervision can ensure that alcohol withdrawal doesn’t cause any life-threatening physical or emotional effects.

For those whose parents have refused to acknowledge their problem or won’t seek treatment, there isn’t much you can do but focus on yourself. You don’t have to give up on them or cut off ties entirely, but you must establish healthy relationship boundaries that protect your mental health and emotional well-being.

If your own conversation didn’t work, you might want to call an intervention specialist. There is no guarantee that even a professional can convince your parent that getting help is the right choice, but it can point you in the right direction and help you feel more at peace with the situation.

You might want to consider joining a support group. Al-Anon, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, is a support group for friends and family members of alcoholics. Many rehabs have a 12-step program to recovery, and a similar 12-step model is used in Al-Anon groups to help people develop effective coping strategies for dealing with their loved ones’ substance abuse.

Co-DA, which stands for Co-Dependents Anonymous, can help you overcome your co-dependent relationship with your alcoholic parent. It’s not always easy to cut ties with your loved ones even if their substance abuse is tearing your life apart. Co-DA helps people address co-dependency and build healthier, happier relationships through helpful resources and support groups.

Whether or not you can help your parent, remember that their alcoholism was a choice. Although they may struggle with it now, no one forced them to take up drinking. No one can make another person quit drinking or using drugs. The decision has to be made on their own.

You can still love your parent even if they’re an alcoholic. You’re still allowed to enjoy spending time with them. In fact, many alcoholics need someone who can demonstrate their love and kindness even in the face of their addiction. This doesn’t mean you should stay and enable their alcoholism or suffer abuse. In those instances, it’s best to keep as much distance as possible and talk to a therapist who can help you cope with the situation.

Remember that while you try to help someone else, your mental health matters, too. You don’t have to sacrifice your happiness, safety or well-being to help another. Don’t be afraid to reach out and get help and support from a rehab, counselor or family and friends. Addiction might be solitary, but recovery is a community.