How to cope with family members who drink excessively during the holidays


How do we deal with family members who do not know when they have had enough?

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Everybody has a crazy aunt or uncle. “Crazy” is not a nice word; a better description would be the relative who drinks too much at family gatherings making others uncomfortable. Sometimes, Aunt Norma or Uncle Joe knows they have a problem and arrives at the dinner with the intention of stopping at one or two. More often, however, problem drinkers are among the last to realize their use has crossed the line from social to alcoholic.

Many bristle at the term “alcoholic,” and it’s not worth spending hours debating. A person can have a problem with alcohol if they only drink once a year, yet when they drink, behaves in a manner that is reckless, insensitive or dangerous. The notion an alcoholic must drink every day or even most days, in my experience, is not accurate.

If you choose to confront a relative who doesn’t have the judgment to use alcohol responsibly, be prepared for a knock down, drag out debate that could last hours. At the end, no one is likely to have changed their minds, so many of us choose to either look the other way or not get into it.

Am I saying to avoid the wobbly elephant in the room? No, not at all. I am suggesting telling a person their drinking is problematic may not be productive the first, second or even the fifth time, but choosing to ignore a loved one in trouble is not the answer either. Those who have successfully stopped usually don’t do so their first attempt nor do they get motivated the first time another mentions their drinking is a problem. Many who successfully stop do so after several failed efforts to stop, then, finally, it sticks.

The message here: While throwing up your hands and saying, “Why bother? They won’t listen anyway.” is the easier route, it’s not the most productive. There is a difference between nagging, threatening, giving ultimatums and approaching someone you love in a manner that conveys concern, not judgment. It’s best not to condemn the person but focus on how their drinking affects you.

Is that sidestepping to avoid judgment? No, most of us hear best when we are not beat over the head, called names or told we are worthless.

Start the conversation with how much you love them, what the relationship means to you and then state not what you have heard from others but have personally witnessed. Confrontations/interventions that include statements like, “Hey, everyone knows you’re an alcoholic and even so and so has mentioned it…,” are not helpful. Yes, it’s more powerful if more than one person talks to the drinker, but if that is not realistic or cannot be done in a manner that isn’t a pile on, speak about your experience when you see them drink.

Hopefully, the takeaway from this article will be substance abuse is treatable and people successfully can stop. We are not responsible for another’s use but can enable the problem by pretending there isn’t one.

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