How to Address a Family Member’s Addiction

Family relationships can be challenging at the best of times—sibling rivalries, power struggles, and unresolved jealousies are common issues that can arise. At this chaotic time of year, fragile relationships can become even more strained. Details like who is hosting the holiday dinner, which relatives are going where, and how to afford gifts can all create stress.

If substance abuse is layered into the mix, family dynamics can reach the breaking point causing long-term animosities that sometimes cannot be repaired. Is your younger sister a drug addict who solves her teenage troubles by shooting up in her room? Is mom an alcoholic who is rarely seen without a glass in her hand? Does dad stay at the office until all hours to avoid family discussions? These and other situations create havoc in families and bring about dread in advance of family gatherings.

Family and friends endure tremendous pain when loved ones suffer with addiction and other disorders, yet having a supportive network is an integral part of the recovery process. There are things you can do to help these difficult situations move toward a positive outcome. Using the mother as the example, here are some tips on how to handle a family member with an addiction.

Step 1: Share Your Concerns With Others

Perhaps you are the family member who has taken responsibility to help your mother stop drinking. The first step would be to share your observations with other family members and friends to determine how they view the situation.

Step 2: Seek Guidance From a Professional

If other family members agree there is a problem, prepare in advance of talking to your mom. Contact a substance abuse counselor, mental health practitioner, physician, employee assistance program, guidance counselor, clergy, or other qualified professional to help you. When you describe your mom’s drinking pattern, make sure to provide details such as …

  • The type of alcohol she uses
  • How much she is drinking
  • How often
  • How long the pattern has continued
  • Negative consequences
  • Your mother’s response to any previous discussions or confrontations that have taken place about her drinking 

Step 3: Plan Your Approach

Establish a time to talk with your mom when the two of you can have more than a few minutes alone. Don’t bring up the subject when your mother is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs (you also should avoid any substances for the sake of the conversation). Your goal is to have a two-way dialogue in which you can state your concerns and understand your mother’s perception of the situation. You don’t want her to feel lectured or badgered so avoid blaming, arguing, and reproaching.

Consider employing conscious communication techniques. Be prepared to state your observations. You have feelings that stem from needs you have that are not being met. Therefore, calmly share your feelings and needs. Without making demands, you should also prepare to state what concrete steps you’d like your mom to take and offer to support her on this journey.

Step 4: Initiate a Calm and Loving Conversation

When you meet, tell your mom that you care for her. Emphasize that it is concern for her well-being that has led you to this conversation. List the behaviors you’ve observed, state that you’re worried about the effect drinking is having, and express concern about continued use.

Don’t expect a dramatic shift in thinking or behavior right away. What you can expect is denial, distortion, avoidance, rationalization, and intellectualization of the problem from your mom.

This conversation might be the first time she has thought about this problem. Keep in mind there’s no quick fix, and you must be prepared for the long haul.

If your mother states that there is definitely not a problem, ask to talk again at some point in the future. Your goal is not to convince her there is a problem, but to let her know that you believe there is one and that your belief is based on observable behaviors.

If your mother is willing, you might suggest the idea of treatment or counseling to help her overcome her dependence on alcohol. Formal treatment takes many forms, and no one type of treatment is best for everyone. There are many roads to recovery. Experts believe that any number of programs can lead to success if the addicted individual is willing to accept help from others and invest energy in working on recovery. A physician or another healthcare professional can also help you choose where your mother should go for treatment.

The Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center is one example of a center that provides a safe and compassionate environment for those dealing with addiction issues and their families. Family and friends are given an opportunity to learn about addiction and disorders, understand family systems, and how best to be supportive of loved ones in treatment. This can be the place for relationships to begin or continue to heal and emotions to become acknowledged and expressed. Misunderstandings and confusions can be explored, thus strengthening the foundations for these relationships so they can continue to grow.

Step 5: Take Care of Yourself

It’s critical that you take care of yourself during this process. Al-Anon is a 12-step organization that provides help to family members of alcoholics. Meetings are widely available and free of charge. Find an Al-Anon organization in your state. If drug abuse is your primary concern, contact Narconon for help coping with a drug-addicted friend or family member. 

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About the Author

Nirmala Raniga

Founder of the Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center, Vedic Educator
In addition to being a Vedic Educator, certified in Primordial Sound Meditation , Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga , and Perfect Health: Ayurvedic Lifestyle, Nirmala is an addiction specialist and the founder of the Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center —a residential addiction recovery treatment center in Squamish Valley, B.C., Canada. The Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center offers holistic recovery programs based on the ...Read more