scorecardHow to talk to someone about their alcohol use and what resources can help
  1. Home
  2. Science
  3. Health
  4. news
  5. How to talk to someone about their alcohol use and what resources can help

How to talk to someone about their alcohol use and what resources can help

Sanjana Gupta,Jeremy Novich   

How to talk to someone about their alcohol use and what resources can help
LifeScience5 min read
Be supportive and nonjudgmental when approaching someone about their alcohol use.    Westend61/ Getty Images
  • If someone you know is drinking too much alcohol regularly, they may have alcohol use disorder.
  • To help someone struggling with alcohol, use nonjudgemental language and avoid chastising them.
  • Resources like Alcoholics Anonymous and professional treatment programs can help someone stay sober.

There is a right and wrong way to seek help and support for a loved one struggling with alcoholism.

People struggling with alcoholism often feel like they need alcohol all the time and that they cannot function normally without it.

Helping them get treatment is important because alcoholism that's left untreated can affect the person's work, relationships, and health. Weight gain, weaker immunity, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, increased risk of cancer, and liver damage are some of the health conditions associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

Here are some tips from a clinical psychologist for what to say, and what not to say, to someone with alcoholism.

How to recognize if someone has alcohol use disorder

It can sometimes be difficult to recognize alcoholism, because the person may hide it from their friends and family by isolating themselves and drinking alone.

However, some signs are easy to recognize and should not be ignored. Paying heed to these signs and helping the person get treated is important, even if their alcoholism is mild.

Signs of alcoholism

Some of the signs of alcoholism include:

  • Distress at the prospect of not being able to drink
  • Inability to limit alcohol consumption, even though they may want to
  • Prioritizing alcohol over work, family, and friends

Helpful resources for people with alcohol use disorder

Expressing concern for a family member or friend can be a very loving act, says Aimee Chiligiris, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Columbia University Medical Center, who specializes in the treatment of substance abuse disorders.

"Try to look for an opportunity to express concern when both of you are open to communicating and not under the influence of substances. Let them know what you observe in a caring and nonjudgmental way," says Chiligiris.

She recommends having resources available and ready for when they are ready to engage in treatment. Even if they decline, she says to thank them for listening and remind them you are there to support them.

Offering support to someone struggling with their alcohol use can help them seek recovery and sobriety. A 2009 study with 210 participants found that people who had the support of a peer network had a 20% higher rate of abstinence over a two-year period, as compared to those who did not have a peer network.

You can find treatment specialists as well as educational information at Alcoholics Anonymous is another option that offers peer support with the shared goal of remaining sober.

What the research says: A 2020 study found that Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs are an effective, low-cost treatment option that is proven to promote abstinence and reduce alcohol-related consequences.

Rehabilitation programs or professional treatment programs are effective, if expensive option to help those struggling with alcohol use disorder. They can help someone immediately become sober and can be a needed intervention if someone is engaging in particularly destructive behavoir.

What to say to someone struggling with alcoholism

Chiligiris shares a few ways to express your support to someone struggling with alcoholism:

"I really like spending time with you when you are sober"

"Let your loved one know you are enjoying spending time with them when sober. Reinforcing positive sober behaviors has been shown to support positive change. Further, framing this as a 'positive' rather than a 'negative,' (saying 'I hate it when you drink,' for instance) is more likely to elicit an effective and productive interaction," says Chiligiris.

"How can I help?" or "Would it help if I…"

"Offer help. When phrased as a question, an offer to help can communicate nonjudgmental, solution-focused support," says Chiligiris. This approach positions you with your loved one against the problem of alcoholism, rather than you against them.

"I feel sad and worried when you drink"

"It is important for the person to know the impact of their drinking, but it is best to communicate it without blame. Focus on how you feel and use 'I feel…' rather than 'you make me…' to promote positive communication and avoid putting them on the defensive," says Chiligiris.

What not to say to someone struggling with alcohol

Chiligiris also shares a few things you shouldn't say to someone struggling with alcoholism, to avoid making it worse:

"You act like such an idiot when you drink"

"The person will likely feel judged and shamed; this will not help their motivation to change and they may be less likely to come to you when they are feeling open to talk about their struggles. It is more effective to focus on positive communication," says Chiligiris.

"You always ruin things, you never change"

"While frustration, anger, and sadness make sense when someone you care about is struggling with alcohol use, this statement may inadvertently imply that you do not think they can change, and demotivate them," says Chiligiris.

"I'll stop speaking to you if you keep drinking"

"Punishment is not the most helpful strategy to encourage change. The person will likely feel defensive and this will move things in the opposite direction. Further, if you detach, you will not be able to positively influence their behavior," says Chiligiris.

"I don't care what you think, you need to go to rehab right now"

"Non-confrontational, collaborative approaches are more likely to move people towards treatment. It is important to know that a non-confrontational approach does not mean doing nothing; rather it's a strategic approach to work with the individual's motivations and help move them towards positive change," says Chiligiris.

Positive reinforcement can help them stay sober

Chiligiris also recommends providing positive reinforcement, in the form of acknowledgement, praise, compliments, or hugs for positive behaviors, like sobriety, self-care, vulnerability, help-seeking, and communication that demonstrates connection.

She says positive reinforcement can help build internal motivation and shape behavior, so it's important to make it a point to let the person know what the reward is for.

"Ambivalence is part of the process and your loved one will likely have fluctuating levels of motivation. Sometimes it can be helpful to ignore behaviors as 'negative' attention can be rewarding," says Chiligiris.

She suggests allowing for natural negative consequences; while it might be hard to see your loved one struggle, natural consequences, like a failed class or a missed work deadline, are powerful promoters of change.

Insider's takeaway

Over 17 million Americans struggle with alcohol use disorder. If you have a friend or family member who is struggling with it, educating yourself and finding treatment options can help you be a source of support for them.

"One of the most powerful things you can do for a loved one struggling with substance use is to seek education and support," says Chiligiris. While it may not always be easy, you need to approach the person with positivity and patience.

"It is important to know that change takes time. Progress is not always linear; relapses or slips are often a part of the process," says Chiligiris.

Since the process can be rough on you too, Chiligiris recommends making your own self-care and support a priority as well; modeling self-care to a loved one can be important for when they decide to make their own changes.

If needed, you can also reach out to groups like Al-Anon and Community Reinforcement and Family Training, a treatment for family members to help get loved ones into treatment, which provide support for people who have a loved one struggling with alcoholism.

All of the ways that stress can make you sick: Headaches, stomach pains, a weaker immune system, and moreA timeline of symptoms to expect during alcohol withdrawal and how to get proper treatmentHow to stop a panic attack: Practical tips to deal with sudden anxietyHow social media affects the mental health of teenagers