How to Tell If Your Family Member Is Abusing Alcohol

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Alcoholism is a serious, life-threatening disease that currently affects around 15 million American adults. One of the most difficult parts of alcoholism is watching someone you love suffer at the hands of it, while you stand on the sidelines feeling helpless and alone. The truth of the matter is that you are not helpless and you are certainly not alone. If you have a family member who is abusing alcohol you’re probably wondering what you can do to help – if anything. It is commonly said that there is nothing anyone can do to help an alcoholic unless they want to help themselves. This is true to a certain extent. An alcoholic must be willing to get clean, and must be willing to take certain steps in order to do so. There is an important distinction between “wanting” and “willing.” Alcoholics rarely want to get sober. They are physically and psychologically addicted to the substance, and what they really want to do (or what the disease wants them to do) is to continue drinking at all costs. Being willing simply means that your loved one is open to the idea of receiving professional help.

There are some things you can do to help point them in the direction of recovery, or at least to help plant the seed. Alcohol abuse and addiction recovery is a lifelong process, and with adequate support and ongoing treatment your family member can absolutely go on to leave a happy, fulfilled and alcohol-free life. It is very possible that your family member doesn’t even know that he or she has a serious problem with alcohol. Many times, alcoholics convince themselves that nothing is wrong and that if things get “really bad” they might consider seeking help. Of course the definition of “really bad” continues to change depending on what consequences the alcoholic is currently suffering.

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Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Family

It is important that if you notice one of your family members struggling with an alcohol-related disorder, you don’t keep your observations a secret. Speak with other members of your family to see whether or not they have noticed any changes in behavior. If they have noticed that the person you are concerned about has been drinking heavily, ask them if they would be willing to join in on a conversation and express their own personal concerns. It’s important that – when confronting a family member – you tune into the way they might react to different situations. Do you think that it would be better if you sat down for a conversation one-on-one? Would your family member feel attacked if you asked a sibling or parent to join in on the conversation? Are you the best person to deliver the message? If you aren’t an immediate family member you may want to recruit someone who is. Be sure to keep in mind that a conversation is very different from an intervention. A staged intervention must be professionally mediated, otherwise it may end up doing more harm than good. For more information on interventions give us a call and we will put you in touch with someone who can help.

It is completely normal to want to do whatever you can to protect your family too, seeing as they are a loved one and grappling with an untreated alcohol abuse problem could put them in embarrassing situations. You will probably be inclined to make excuses for them and cover up their behavior, maybe by avoiding social events or by keeping them away from other members of the family. It is important to recognize that alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, and that symptoms will never resolve on their own. Things will never get better because you ignore them. The best thing you can do for a family member who is abusing alcohol is offer them support and encourage them to seek professional help. But how do you know if a family member truly is abusing alcohol?

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Alcohol Abuse – Signs and Symptoms

Look for the following signs and symptoms of alcoholism to help you determine whether or not your family member is struggling with a condition that requires professional, medical help:

  • Hiding alcohol and being secretive about drinking patterns

Those struggling with alcohol abuse disorders will usually hide their drinking habits from their family. They might stash bottles of alcohol in secret spots throughout the house, or say they are running to the grocery store when they are really drinking liquor in an empty parking lot. There are certain things you can look for – the smell of alcohol on your family member’s breath at strange times, mini bottles of alcohol hidden in strange places (like utensil drawers or medicine cabinets), and lying about drinking.

  • Increased need for privacy/isolation

Those struggling with alcoholism will want to hide their problem for their loved ones for fear of being found out and confronted. This leads to drinking in private. If you find that a family member has been drinking alone, this could very well be cause for concern.

  • A steadily increasing tolerance for alcohol

One of the most telltale signs of a drinking problem is an increased tolerance, meaning more alcohol will be required in order to produce the same result. Maybe your family member used to limit him or herself to two beers, and now regularly polishes off an entire six-pack. Take note of drinking habits and how they change over time.

  • Emotional outbursts and unexplained shifts in mood

Those struggling with alcohol abuse are prone to mood swings and increased irritability and agitation. If your family member seems happy one moment and angry the next, it could be because he or she is struggling with a drinking problem.

  • Risk-taking behavior

Increased risk-taking behavior is another sign of an alcohol abuse disorder. This could mean driving the kids to school while intoxicated, drinking on the job or having an affair. The definition of “risk-taking behavior” will vary from person to person, of course.

  • Avoiding family events that don’t include alcohol, or bringing alcohol to events when it might be inappropriate to do so

If you’re having a family gathering that doesn’t include alcohol, your family member might get anxious or leave briefly in order to go get some. Those struggling with alcohol abuse generally feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available, and they may even avoid events altogether if they know other people won’t be drinking.

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Addiction Treatment for Family Members

Once your family member becomes willing to seek professional alcohol addiction treatment, he or she will have a variety of treatment options – ranging from inpatient treatment to intensive outpatient or partial-hospitalization. The level of care will heavily depend on the severity of the alcohol abuse disorder. Traditional alcohol addiction treatment is a multi-step process. It begins with a medical detox, where the alcoholic will withdraw safely in a secure and supportive environment. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening, and those who have been abusing this chemical substance for any length of time will need to be stabilized in a medically monitored detox facility. Once your family member has been medically cleared he or she will transfer to an inpatient alcohol rehab for an extended length of time (typically between three and six months depending on the severity of the addiction). Inpatient treatment will focus on healing through therapeutic intervention, and will help residents develop the coping skills and life skills that are necessary to maintain recovery for years to come. The final stage of recovery is aftercare, which is a lifelong process that will usually begin with sober living and an intensive outpatient (IOP) program. For more information on our comprehensive program of recovery or to learn more about how to get your family member started on his or her personal recovery journey, give us a call today.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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