What Not To Say To An Alcoholic

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020

Knowing a loved one has a drinking problem is not the same as knowing what to say to them to get them to stop drinking. Finding the words to say to get them the help they need can be so important.

What Not To Say To An Alcoholic

We usually start conversations about our loved one’s drinking problem with the best of intentions. However, good intentions aren’t always enough to keep the conversation on topic and calm.

Talking with friends or family members about their substance abuse or alcohol addiction often evokes intense emotions. These emotions could include anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, irritation, anxiety, fear, and resentment.

Trying to manage those powerful emotions can be complicated and feel impossible. This is especially true when you are trying to help your loved one see that they need help for their addiction, and could benefit from a substance abuse treatment program.

Framing your feelings in a way that your loved one is more receptive to can make all the difference. Most statements can be reworded to be more productive and accepted.

How To Talk To An Alcoholic

Do Not Say: “This Is Ruining My Life”

While it may feel accurate, telling someone that they are ruining your life is not usually going to elicit the response you want. Your loved one’s drinking may be causing financial burdens, issues for you at work or at home, or just weighing heavily on you emotionally.

However, projecting blame typically only fosters resentment or anger. And depending on the mental state of your loved one, they may lash out verbally or even physically.

Of all the statements a person can make to a person with an addiction, this is quite possibly one of the least productive. Many addicted people live in denial of their addiction, and saying things like this put that denial on full blast.

A more productive statement can make a difference, such as:

Instead Say: “I Miss How Our Life Used To Be/I Miss Spending Time With You”

A statement like this is likely to get the attention of your loved one in a more productive way. There is a very real chance that they also feel this way, but aren’t sure how to say it.

This is a statement that an alcoholic can carry with them when they are starting to realize they have a substance abuse problem, and into recovery.

This statement can remind them that you love them, you support them, and you only want the best for them. It also can help remove the blame and decrease potential for defensiveness.

Do Not Say: “I Don’t Think You’re An Alcoholic”

This statement can be interpreted as enabling and viewed as counterproductive. It creates an environment where excessive alcohol consumption can seem to be encouraged or dismissed by a person within their support system.

Regardless of whether you personally think a person has a drinking problem, there is a set of criteria that is used to diagnose someone with an alcohol use disorder.

Unless this statement is made by a professional once they have completed an assessment, it is not a productive statement.

The criteria for diagnosing an alcohol use disorder include:

  • a strong compulsion to drink alcohol (cravings)
  • repeatedly drinking in situations that are dangerous
  • continuing to drink despite health issues
  • being unable to keep up with responsibilities
  • lots of time (excess) spent drinking or recovering from drinking
  • stopping previously enjoyed activities
  • continued drinking in spite of poor relationship, job performance, or social relationships
  • consuming more alcohol or for longer than planned
  • needing more alcohol to feel its effects (tolerance)
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms if not drinking
  • being unable to cut down or stop drinking

A person who meets two of these criteria would be diagnosed with a mild alcohol use disorder. Severe alcohol use disorder requires six or more of the criteria. Alcoholism is the previously used term for severe alcohol use disorder.

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A more common definition of a drinking problem is either a woman that drinks more than seven alcoholic beverages in a week, or a man who drinks more than 14 in the same time frame.

If your loved one falls into those categories, it is highly probable that they have an issue with alcohol abuse. It can be difficult to admit, but there are support groups to help families of alcoholics accept the reality of their disease. Groups like AlaTeen and Al-Anon are incredibly helpful for the loved ones of those with addiction.

Instead Say: “How Can I Get You Help?”

So many things are implied in this short statement. First, your loved one immediately knows that you support them, and that you have been paying attention to the struggles they’ve been experiencing. Not to mention, there is no judgment in a statement.

If you say something like this, make sure you are committed to being able to help them. This can include making phone calls to check insurance, finding outpatient or inpatient treatment programs, or locating support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous) and their meeting times.

After you ask this question, if your loved one opens up about their struggles with alcoholism, this is a moment for you to prove that you can be trusted and that you take this seriously. Do not take this information to gossip to others. The only time this information should be repeated is if they have asked you to tell someone or they are in danger.

Do Not Say: “Treatment Is Going To Change Who You Are”

Rehab has not and will never take a person and turn them into someone they were never capable of becoming. Instead, the purpose of substance abuse treatment programs are to give the recovering alcoholic the chance to be as healthy and productive as they can.

During their time in treatment, they will learn how to address their alcohol problem, how to manage cravings, establish better coping strategies, and not be consumed by the disease of alcoholism.

The recovery process can be daunting enough without discouraging words from friends and family. Remember, support and love are so important during the time your loved one spends in a recovery treatment center.

Instead Say: “I’m Proud Of Your Decision, And I Am Always Here For You”

Taking the steps toward sobriety can feel overwhelming to someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder. Having the support of family and friends can make all the difference.

Being clear with the person entering treatment about your intentions to be supportive and available throughout the addiction treatment process can help them remain fully committed to sobriety.

Once they have completed treatment, it can help them to know they can reach out to you as a friend to spend time with you or have your support. If you can offer a safe space or room to stay, that can mean so much to someone who has just completed a treatment program.

Obtaining Alcoholic Treatment For A Loved One

When a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, support is very important. Knowing they can depend on friends and family members can be helpful to their mental health.

Finding a treatment facility where healthcare professionals are trained to treat substance abuse problems can provide a strong beginning to the recovery process.

We are available at our helpline to give assistance to you or your loved one by discussing treatment options and providing support. Call today for more information about alcohol treatment programs.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020
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