Alcohol Use and the Family: How to Support a Family Member Who is Struggling

Apr 11, 2019
By Sarah Church, Ph.D.

Overcoming an addiction is incredibly challenging on one’s own. To alter negative behavior – and enact lasting, positive change – a strong support system is essential. At the core of that support system? Often, it’s family and loved ones.

Many of the families we work with enter treatment with high levels of anxiety and depression – and we even see some people experiencing symptoms of trauma.

They are often afraid that their loved one might overdose – or injure themselves or someone else by driving under the influence. They worry that they might have legal challenges, arrests, or other significant negative effects.

If someone you love is struggling with an alcohol use, know that treatment is available and effective – and that your support can help with successful recovery. Certain types of therapy – such as family therapy – can help you emerge with a stronger understanding of this impact and how to move forward from its reverberations.

Here’s what to know about how your loved one’s alcohol use impacts you and your family, and what you can do to help your loved one heal – while caring for your own wellbeing, too.

1. Seek support: Don’t let shame, stigma, or lack of knowledge prevent you from seeking treatment

Family members often don’t know where to turn and feel that they can’t reach out to family and friends because of the shame and stigma associated with alcohol misuse. As a result, they feel isolated and hopeless.

Know that you are far from alone! It is estimated that more than 20 million Americans have an alcohol or other substance use disorder. Given this number, your loved one – and you, by extension – are hardly alone in this struggle.

In addition to seeking individual therapy, joining a support group can help you connect with others who are managing similar stressors, and reduce possible feelings of isolation that might overwhelm you.

2. Learn about available treatments. Treatment is available – and effective

Many families aren’t aware that treatment is very effective. There are proven psychotherapies and medications that can help patients slow down and stop their substance use and move into recovery and family members can play a supportive role in their care.

There are several different treatment approaches for recovery, including – but not limited to – cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and mindfulness practices.

One of the most important messages that we share with families is one of hope and optimism. We want them to know that the research shows that treatment for substance use disorders is just as effective as treatment for other chronic medical disorders like diabetes and hypertension.

3. For family members in denial or rejecting treatment, try “CRAFT”

For family members who want to help a loved one who is refusing treatment, we use a therapy called Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT). This treatment approach was designed specifically for people who are concerned about a loved one who is drinking and/or using drugs.

CRAFT has two main goals: To support the family members, and to help them guide their loved one into treatment. Overall, it has been found to reduce conflict in the family, and it leads to a healthier and more sustainable life for the people who are caring for someone that is struggling with alcohol or drug use.

This approach utilizes non-confrontational behavioral principles to motivate the person to enter treatment. Using these methods, families can learn to change their interactions with their loved one, which results in changes in their loved one’s behavior. CRAFT provides families with hopeful, positive, and effective alternatives to addressing alcohol and substance problems in their families.

4. To help your loved one through the recovery process, try positive reinforcement

If you notice that they did something without using – in essence, “catch them” being good – you want to praise them.

For instance, if your wife went to your child’s soccer game without drinking, you want to tell her how happy you were that she was able to go to the game without drinking.

If your husband came directly home from work without going to a bar and having a few drinks, you want to tell them how great it was that he came straight home and make sure to tell him how much you like spending time with him when he hasn’t been drinking. You can even make him a nice dinner to really reinforce his coming home.

People are more likely to repeat behaviors that are reinforced, so by praising them for the things they did right, you are increasing the chances they will repeat the positive non-drug using behavior.

5. Not sure your loved one has an alcohol problem?

Seek professional consultation to help you decide the appropriate course of action For anyone wondering if their alcohol or drug use – or that of their loved ones – is interfering in their life: Don’t wait to come in to talk! Many people wait until there is a crisis or an urgent issue arises, but it’s better to come in early to make changes before things get out of control.

Talking with a therapist can help you figure out the best course of action depending on your situation. If your loved one does need treatment, getting help for yourself may prove critical for navigating the stress of helping your loved one recover.

Families whose loved ones are struggling with alcohol use may feel empowered just knowing that there are many effective treatment options. They can feel optimistic that – with the right professional help – their loved one can make positive, lasting changes.

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