How to deal with a family member’s unhealthy drinking

So many of us have been there. Rather than looking forward to family gatherings, we start to dread them, knowing that things might get awkward (at best) and downright traumatic (if things escalate) around family members who drink too much.

When your relatives are engaging in behaviors that negatively affect those around them, it can be paralyzing.

Remember: the only thing you really can control is yourself, and make sure you’re taking care of YOU this holiday season.
The following strategies will help you navigate potentially explosive or hurtful situations while taking care of yourself and creating healthy boundaries.

1. Plan preemptively.
If you think the person would be open to it, try to address the situation in advance. Keep the conversation light and, above all else, nonjudgmental.

“Hey — I noticed you seemed to get tipsy pretty quickly when we were at ____’s house last Christmas Eve.”

Choose your response based on their answer. Offer your support and talk about what has worked for you (if you’ve had this experience) or how you’ve supported someone else in this type of situation.

“If you ‘d like, I can help with [insert potential stressors], but only if you give me the green light.”

The offer of support may not even be directly related to the alcohol: It could be about how to ease the pressure from another relative, helping with food, managing stress, or any number of other things.

Caveat: Try this strategy only with someone you are confident will be receptive. Otherwise, follow the next tip.

2. Keep it light.
Holidays are high-pressure times for many people, bringing up complicated emotions and extra stress. Despite your well-meaning intentions or a feeling that this is the perfect time to talk to this person with family support, it probably isn’t.

There are many, many reasons someone might be drinking more during the holidays or face an exacerbated problem with drinking.

If you decide to talk to them about their drinking, pick a time when they are rested and relaxed. Try to stay away from passive-aggressive comments, judgment, or blame.

Try to focus on “I” statements. Explain how you feel as a result of the person’s drinking. Be as loving and supportive as you can, but also be clear about your concerns.

If talking face to face is too difficult, consider writing a letter. Again, be gentle but firm. The letter doesn’t have to be long, but it’s important that it be direct. Remember, focus on how the person’s drinking affects you.

It is likely that that person may become defensive, especially if confronted around other people. If you see any potential for that to occur, consider postponing any further discussion until after the holidays and follow the rest of these tips.

3. Be the example.
If drinking has become a challenge for one or more relatives, focus on your own behavior. If their drinking is affecting you negatively, find strategies to handle it differently.

For example, not to drink with or around that person this holiday season. You may decide not to bring alcohol to the event or family gathering, or, if you are hosting, decide not to provide alcohol. Yes, it might seem unfair to those without a drinking problem, but think about it: You have 360 or so days of the year to drink alcohol. Is it really so important to drink it now, in this situation?

If you are hosting, even if you don’t go dry, make sure to have lots of non-alcoholic drink options available and offer them first. Make it enticing: “I’m starting everyone off with some hot apple cider. Can I pour you a glass?”

4. Opt out early.
Remember, you have choices. If you have a sense that the situation might get too uncomfortable, or that there are too many threatening variables out of your control, take back your power by choosing to leave early.

Limiting time spent at an event or on interactions with family is creating boundaries and taking care of your needs. That is crucial in dealing with loved ones who struggle with problematic drinking.

It helps to let the hosts and attendees know in advance that you are planning on leaving early. Be gracious, thank them for the invitation, and let them know that you need to duck out early. If it helps to plan an “out,” try volunteering at a holiday meal program or arranging other plans that will provide a clear reason for your early departure.

Make sure to plan your ride in advance or bring your own vehicle so you aren’t dependent on someone else (particularly if that person has been drinking) for a ride.

5. Opt out completely.
Of course, you can always decide to skip the event altogether. Though this time of year seems to bring an extra-heavy dose of “family obligation” and an avalanche of “shoulds,” remember that the choice is always yours. If a situation makes you too uncomfortable, you are the only one with the power to remove yourself from that situation.

6. Plan alternatives.
Plan alternative activities, such as going for a walk, driving around to see the Christmas lights, outdoor ice skating, or whatever might get your family members out of the house (and away from alcohol) for a while.

Another option is to plan shorter events or invite anyone whose behavior concerns you only to the latter half of the event.

7. Take five (or ten).
If you do end up going to an event or relative’s house where you know things might be challenging, take a few minutes to yourself either just before or just after you arrive.

See if there’s a spare bedroom you can slip into or even the bathroom (as long as it doesn’t create a long line)!

Take five or ten minutes to meditate, practice deep breathing, pray, or do any combination of those things — whatever will help you feel more centered, strong, and grounded. Again, remind yourself that the only person’s behavior you can control is your own, and if things get too difficult, you have the right and the wherewithal to leave the situation.

8. Know you’re not alone.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 1 in every 12 adults suffer from alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence, along with several million more who engage in risky drinking patterns.

If your family is larger than 12 people (or even if it isn’t), you’re likely to have to deal with a relative who struggles with alcohol. While the experience can feel quite isolating, especially if other family members are unwilling or unable to discuss the issue, it is important to remember that you are not alone.

Look up local chapters of groups that support family members or spouses of people who struggle with alcohol, or reach out to a trusted friend or confidante.

In the end, you may or may not be able to influence your family member. Their lifestyle is ultimately their choice. You control your boundaries.

By setting boundaries, having a plan, and getting support, the holidays will seem manageable and even — dare I say it? — fun.