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Drinking problem is affecting my family relationships

Published 16/04/2008

How many people get caught in the crossfire when a member of the family has a drinking problem? Whether the alcoholic is a spouse, a parent, a child or a sibling, the whole family can spend a great deal of time and energy covering up for them, reprimanding them, taking responsibility for their actions or making excuses.

"When one person in a family is affected by alcoholism, then everyone in their family has to deal with alcoholism as well," says Julie Woolley, a therapist at Linwood Group. "Learning how to cope with the alcoholism of a loved one is the best way to help the person and stop the problems associated with it," she says.

Unfortunately, she adds, alcoholism is a progressive illness and it's often the case that family members recognise the signs of alcoholism long before the drinker does themselves. While an alcoholic is still in denial, they are unlikely to seek alcohol help. But there are a number of steps that family members can take to help the alcoholic reach the point of acceptance - as well as make life easier for themselves in the meantime.

Don't enable the alcoholic to drink

Concerned family members should put a halt to activities that encourage the alcoholic in their drinking behaviour. Don't drink around the alcoholic. Don't give them money to buy alcohol. Don't take them to places or events where alcohol is served. Explain why you are taking these measures, with reference to past episodes where their drinking has been uncontrolled - but do so without blame or recrimination.

Do be prepared to listen

Everyone needs to feel able to make decisions for themselves, including alcoholics. The role of family members is to help the drinker reach a stage in their thinking process whereby they are ready to make the decision to stop drinking. As hard as it may be, that means avoiding bullying, begging or issuing direct orders. It means asking questions and avoiding statements. It means demonstrating empathy and concern, rather than criticism. Above all, bide your time and wait until the drinker spontaneously expresses their own concerns about their drinking - that's the perfect opportunity to put these principles into practice.

Do be prepared with advice about treatment options

Help for alcoholics is widely available, so gather information in advance about local alcohol treatment options. If your family member is willing to seek help, call immediately for an appointment and offer to accompany them on their first visit to an alcohol clinic.

Don't neglect your own needs

Living with an alcoholic can be emotionally exhausting and family members often need help to find coping mechanisms. These will enable them to take responsibility for their own responses to the situation and for their own recovery, whether the alcoholic stops drinking or not. Support groups offered in most communities include Al-Anon, which holds regular meetings for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic's life, and Alateen, for children of alcoholics.

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