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How to Help an Alcoholic Parent
Author: Phil Kosanovich
Published: June 7, 2022

Having an alcoholic parent can have a considerable impact on the home, and the spouses and children of alcoholics are among the first to suffer. Alcohol addiction is one of the most prevalent in modern society, and one of the easiest substance use disorders to slip into since alcohol is both legal and readily available almost anywhere. Children who grow up with an alcoholic parent may be at greater risk of developing a drinking problem themselves one day. Alcoholic parents often fail in their duties, by not showing up consistently to take care of their children for example. They may even be a liability if they display violent or otherwise irresponsible behaviors when under the influence. Fortunately, a number of treatment options exist.

How to Tell if a Parent Has an Alcohol Problem

Anyone living in the same household as a heavy drinker will almost certainly be aware that the person has a questionable relationship with alcohol. But, it may not be immediately apparent if their drinking should be considered actual substance abuse. In some cases, their condition will seem beyond doubt, and the need for some kind of substance abuse treatment is very apparent. In others, however, the kind of help and support the parent could most benefit from may be less obvious. American addiction centers offer guidelines on recognizing alcoholism. We can define it simply as having trouble controlling one’s drinking habits and continuing to drink in spite of negative consequences in a parent. If you have noticed more than one of the telltale signs below, then it is possible your parent suffers from alcohol addiction.

  • Has your parent ever drunk to visible excess for several consecutive days (or longer)?
  • Has your parent ever missed work or failed to perform other duties like cooking dinner, due to being hungover, or still drinking?
  • Has your parent ever driven while under the influence of alcohol?
  • Does he or she focus a lot on shopping for alcohol?
  • Does he or she ever appear to want to quit drinking, or at least reduce drinking, with no apparent success?

And looking at patterns that occur over a longer duration:

  • Does your parent seem stressed-out, or even unwell, without drinking? Does he or she need alcohol to relax and feel ‘normal’?
  • Has your parent caused problems in the family but continued drinking regardless?
  • Does your parent seem to have stopped enjoying things he or she used to love doing, or become more withdrawn and less sociable?

If you answered ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions, then some form of addiction treatment would be recommended. Any treatment provider will offer treatment options to suit the individual. However, as is well known, a person needs to have the desire to seek treatment in order for any treatment process to have the best chances of success.

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Steps in Helping an Alcoholic Parent

As a Child or Young Person Living With an Alcoholic Parent

Citing statistics, in 2017 it was estimated that just over one in ten children in the US aged 17 or younger live with a parent suffering from alcohol use disorder.

If you are still living at home, before you can help your parent, you need to take care of yourself. First, you need to be honest with yourself about how you feel. It is very common for children of alcoholics to believe that the drinking problem is somehow their fault, or that they are the reason their parent may abuse alcohol. Although this is a frequent reaction, nothing could be further than the truth. Alcohol use disorder is a medical disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and you did not cause it.

Other common feelings are loneliness and embarrassment – you may not know who to talk to about your parent’s alcohol addiction, or feel ashamed of it. It may be something you would rather people didn’t find out. You may also feel you somehow have to help your parent all by yourself, even while knowing this is impossible. It is easy for young people to think they are all alone in supporting an alcoholic parent, or that they have to deal with them single-handedly. There are numerous support groups out there for people with family members who abuse alcohol, and reaching out to them can make you feel understood by others in similar situations. One such group is Alateen, a sub-group of Al-anon – it is a fellowship of young people, mostly teenagers, “whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking.”

If you want to help your parent, try not to make them feel you are putting them under pressure to stop drinking. A parent with an alcohol abuse issue may become defensive if they feel the finger is being pointed at them, and less receptive to the good intentions of a family member. However, even when a person does not seem like they are ready to receive treatment, they may still be aware that they are not in a good space, and may be at least willing to look into support groups. In the meantime, you can certainly provide emotional support, and continue to express your concern in a gentle compassionate way, until your parent’s desire to break free of their alcohol abuse makes them open to seeking addiction treatment.

As an Adult With an Alcoholic Parent

Adult children may be in a stronger position to approach a parent and talk about their alcohol issue. Substance use disorders are always a delicate topic. There was a time when a confrontational approach, putting the person face-to-face with their alcohol or drug addiction was considered a powerful and impactful way of addressing the problem. Indeed, springing a surprise family reunion on an unsuspecting family member on live reality TV, before bundling them off to a treatment program, has always produced great viewer ratings. This is an extreme example of course, but research has shown that confronting someone with his or her drinking can be highly counterproductive. An approach called CRAFT, Community Reinforcement and Family Training, gives suggestions on how to talk to an alcoholic parent or relative in a non-threatening and caring way:

  • Try to choose a time when your Mom or Dad is showing signs of wanting to stop drinking. This indicates that, to some extent at least, he or she is acknowledging there is a problem. Definitely do not attempt a conversation while they are drinking alcohol.
  • Find a way to speak to them alone – family therapy is something you might look into, but initially the presence of other family members, or any other people, may make your parent feel they are being judged, or, worse, that everyone is ganging up on them.
  • Try to speak in a gentle, empathetic, and measured tone, to make your parent feel you are not trying to fix them, but are genuinely concerned and wish to help.
  • Choose your words carefully, and avoid language or labels that could put your parent ill at ease.
  • If the conversation gets difficult, try not to get angry – remember, for example, the inherent qualities of your loved one, and that they are capable of behaving differently.
  • Referring to specific instances in their drinking can keep the conversation real, not vague or hypothetical. This makes evasion or denial of the situation around alcohol more difficult – but can also make the conversation more tense – so keep your calm.
  • If the person appears open to the idea of receiving help, seize the opportunity to talk to them about treatment options.

Remember that whatever your age, it is essential you care for yourself, and not let yourself get dangerously overburdened by other people’s problems – even when they are a parent or loved one. If you feel you could use the companionship of people who know what you are going through, try and find a support group near you. The 12-step and 12-tradition fellowships, Al-anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), are among the most well-known and sizeable such groups – there is almost certainly one in your area.

How to Be Supportive

Whether or not you share the same home, you can do your best to support the physical health and emotional well-being of your Mom or Dad, in whatever ways are available to you. You can try and make sure they eat properly and do not neglect their physical hygiene. You can also provide emotional support, but remember you need to be taking good care of yourself and your own physical and mental health first.

If your parent is open to outside help, you can connect them with support groups in their area – this will also help ease the burden on your own shoulders. If they seem willing to consider treatment, you can try and connect them with a medical professional, for expert advice. You could discuss with mental health professionals whether family therapy of some kind seems appropriate. You could speak to your parent about the treatment practices you know about and any treatment programs they might attend. In order to present this information in the least stressful way possible, it helps if you have first looked into which treatment provider you might reach out to for substance abuse treatment. If residential treatment programs are intimidating, you could explore additional treatment options.

Any parent, with substance use disorders or not, will, on some level, be acutely aware that it is the role of the parent to look after their children, and generally not the other way around. When you take steps to help, the roles are reversed. Knowing this, your parent may begin to feel uncomfortable. You may have to reassure them that they are not a burden on you, and that, should they begin a treatment process, they will be in good hands, for example, those of credentialed medical providers specializing in substance use disorders. All of these have their licenses and certifications verified by medical organizations, and with many of their staff holders of a medically reviewed badge in their field, willing patients can reach out to them with peace of mind.

Any treatment entails practical details, of course, such as insurance coverage. You can help your parent by looking at what their insurance provider would be willing to cover, and checking their insurance plan is up to date and still appropriate for their needs. All major insurance providers have centers in the behavioral health industry in network with them.

Healthy Boundaries and Knowing Your Limits

While it’s only natural to want to care for a parent struggling with alcohol abuse, you don’t want to help them indulge in their habit. Nor do you want to jeopardize your own health or mental balance. There will no doubt be times when you feel frustrated, exasperated, or angry. This is why it’s important to put up healthy boundaries, both for your own sake and your parent. And why there’s a time for tough love, too.

This, in fact, applies to family members in general – your role is not to facilitate their alcohol abuse, and certainly not how you help an alcoholic parent. Going to purchase alcohol at their request would be an example of directly assisting a person’s substance abuse, but it is possible to inadvertently facilitate their use indirectly – for example by taking over household chores or tolerating neglect of their responsibilities or personal hygiene. This just leaves them free to focus more fully on their alcohol consumption.

You put up certain boundaries for self-protection. As far as possible, concern for the alcohol abuse of your parent should not be at the expense of your own health or mental and emotional well-being. It is also important to make it clear when your loved one has crossed these boundaries, intentionally or not. People can, and regularly do, say or do things that are hurtful, or even dangerous, when inebriated. Knowing these behaviors are out of character, and not typical or representative of the person in their sober state, is important too. They should be made aware of any unacceptable words or actions while under the influence of alcohol, as it is essential for them to realize that their alcohol abuse (whether they would call it that or not) is having an impact on you and other people.

Treatment Options With In Network Providers

Thankfully, many high-quality behavioral healthcare providers work with a number of insurance providers to make appropriate care more accessible, in line with the efforts of the mental health services administration. Behavioral healthcare takes place not just within the walls of a medical facility. Support groups for substance abuse such as the ones mentioned above, and family therapy sessions, also contribute – indeed, they can be an important part of the treatment process in substance use disorders, and are included in many of the treatment programs on offer from treatment providers.

There is a wealth of medical information available to help you learn more about substance abuse treatment. Addiction treatment needs to be holistic, and meet exceptional quality care standards, if it is to give lasting results. Any treatment provider will be able to assess the condition of a person fighting substance abuse, and will look for possible medical contributing factors, such as mental disorders.

Treatment for alcohol abuse is in many ways similar to drug addiction or substance abuse treatment in general and revolves around helping the person stop drinking entirely, and addressing the underlying issues causing them to abuse alcohol. Behavioral healthcare assists them in creating new, healthier behavior patterns and coping skills, and building the support network necessary for long-term recovery.

At Cornerstone, we understand deeply the distressing impact an alcoholic Mom or Dad can have on their family, not to mention their own lives. With more than 40 years of experience in the treatment field, we know all too well what everyone concerned is going through. We follow strict guidelines in running a range of expert services and run a number of treatment programs. Reach out, and help us to help you!