How to Help An Alcoholic Parent

Do You Think Your Parent Has a Drinking Problem?

Alcohol use disorders, more commonly known as alcoholism, affect approximately 17.6 million Americans. Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance in the United States. Alcoholism can severely and negatively impact an individual’s personal, professional, social, and financial life.  Unfortunately, alcoholism doesn’t just impact the alcoholic. It can also cause crippling effects on the alcoholics loved ones, especially their children.

Alcoholism can lead to emotional, physical, mental, and financial abuse and neglect of children of all ages. This is especially true of children who still live with or nearby their alcoholic parent. Although less damaging, alcoholism can also cause a parent to act in ways that are extremely embarrassing, or even humiliating, to their children and themselves.

Even when alcoholism doesn’t lead to severe harm or distress, it often leaves children feeling unloved, un-cared for, and unimportant. Many children of alcoholics struggle with self-esteem issues, as well as issues with the alcoholic parent. It isn’t fair that children have to take on the role of an adult in the family, which can lead to bitterness and resentment. What causes the most stress for many children of alcoholics is the constant fear and worry. “Is my parent going to come home safe. What kind of mood are they going to be in? Are they ever going to find help?”

One of the most common issues that children of alcoholics struggle with is blaming themselves, or at least thinking that they could be doing more for their parent. This is especially true when the alcoholic drunkenly (and falsely) blames that child to their face. The guilt can be overwhelming for some. This is not only incredibly untrue, but unfair. No one is responsible for someone else’s drinking problem, and it is certainly not their fault.

Some children have dealt with their parent’s alcoholism since the time they were born. Others either don’t notice it until many years later, or perhaps their parent didn’t develop a drinking problem until later. This is becoming especially common as alcohol abuse is a growing problem among seniors. Luckily, no matter how old an alcoholic is, or how long they have had a drinking problem, help is out there.

Signs of Alcoholism

Alcohol and alcohol addiction impact everyone differently. Some alcoholics exhibit many signs, while others exhibit very few (this is especially true of high-functioning alcoholics). However, some signs are common to many, if not most, alcoholics. Here are some of the most common.

  • Blackouts and memory loss
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Excusing drinking and bad behavior
  • Prioritizing drinking over other obligations
  • Isolation from friends and family members
  • Increasing difficulties at work or with finances
  • Drinking alone or secretly
  • Frequent hangovers
  • Changes in appearance, behavior, and social circle

How Do You Approach Your Parent About Their Problem?

You cannot force someone to change. You cannot make them quit drinking, or even drink less. You cannot make them go to rehab. You can’t even make them see that they have a problem. The best thing you can do is to bring to their attention the fact that you think that they have a problem.

If you are concerned that your parent may have a problem with alcoholism, you might be terrified to bring it up to them. You might fear them getting angry, yelling at you, or getting violent. You may feel they will make a scene in front of others, embarrass you, move out, or either use more or more secretly. These are all things that have happened to others, but they don’t have to happen to you. Included below are a list of guidelines that may help you improve the outcome of any conversation with your parent. Remember that unless violence is a concern, the risks of having this conversation generally far outweigh the potential benefits. If you are genuinely concerned about a violent reaction, however, it is best to not have the conversation alone. Always have someone with you.

  • Remember that the point of the conversation is not to convince them that they have a problem, but to let them know that you are concerned that they might.
  • Don’t initiate the conversation when your parent is intoxicated.
  • Don’t initiate the conversation when you are intoxicated.
  • Unless violence is an issue, establish a time to have the conversation on a one-on-one basis, just the two of you.
  • Start the conversation by saying that you’re doing it because you care about them.
  • Continually emphasize that you’re having this conversation because you’re concerned about their well-being.
  • Always come from the perspective of yourself, not a general perspective. “I am concerned by how much you are drinking. I have noticed that your behavior has been different. I think you are putting yourself at risk.”
  • List behaviors and incidents that you’ve observed and why they concern you.
  • If you feel it may benefit the conversation, discuss how their behaviors have impacted you and how that has hurt you.
  • Make sure the discussion is a two-way conversation so that they don’t feel cornered or get defensive. A good way to do this is to ask open-ended questions.
  • Keep on the main point. Don’t get sidetracked with speculation, judgment, or an explanation for why.
  • If the person denies there is a problem, try to get them to agree to have another conversation in the future.