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Dos and Don’ts when Talking to a Loved One with an Alcohol Addiction

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When you love someone with an alcohol addiction, things get complicated. You want to intervene, and you want to help an alcoholic, but you don’t know what to do. Every time you say something, it comes off the wrong way and starts a fight. You’re told that “There isn’t a problem” or “I can quit anytime I want to” or “My drinking is none of your business.”

Alcohol addiction creates chemical and physical changes in the brain that impact behavior and make your loved one very defensive of their right to continue drinking. To effectively change your loved one’s mind so that they choose to get help for their alcoholism, you need to carefully plan out an alcohol addiction intervention with the goal of achieving three main objectives:

  • Lay out concrete examples of how the person’s destructive behaviors have affected his or her life and the lives of others
  • Provide treatment options that can begin immediately after the intervention, with the first steps already planned out
  • Specifies consequences that will result in the event the alcoholic refuses to get needed treatment help

To achieve these objectives, you need to learn the best ways of talking to a loved one with alcohol addiction. Here are a few dos and don’ts of alcohol interventions that will allow you to get your message across in the most helpful way possible.

Things to Do When Talking to a Loved One About Their Drinking

DO: Empower Yourself

When you love an addict, you need to empower yourself with knowledge. Learn everything you can about addiction and recovery. Know the signs of dependence, withdrawal, and relapse so you have the tools you need to help your loved one overcome his or her addiction. Alcohol addiction is impairing your loved one’s thinking and behavior, and the better you and anyone else involved in the intervention understands this, the better equipped you’ll be to handle the emotionally-charged events of an intervention.

DO: Assemble the Right Team

The members of your alcohol addiction intervention team should include anyone who holds a prominent place in your loved one’s life, including friends, family, and trusted spiritual advisors. One of the reasons your loved one may be denying the need for help is out of a fear of having to tell people what’s really going on. Having their most beloved and respected people present at the intervention puts the addiction out in the open where it has to be dealt with. Facing the concern of a group of loved ones will also make denial more difficult to maintain. Just make sure that team members are all willing to play by the rules of the intervention, and think carefully about whether or not to include children in the process.

DO: Stay Calm

It can be hard to stay calm when talking to an alcoholic about his or her drinking, especially when there’s denial involved. That’s why it’s so important to remain composed, talk about your concerns, and speak from the heart. Even if your loved one gets angry, it’s your job and responsibility to stay calm, cool, and collected. Getting angry will only make the alcoholic defensive, and make them feel justified in ignoring your concerns.

DO: Have a Plan for the Next Steps

Know exactly what you want your loved one to do. If treatment is the goal, know what facilities accept his or her insurance, know when there’s a bed available, and have the transportation already set up. If you want your loved one to start going to meetings, know where one is and be ready and willing to accompany him or her on the trip. Getting your loved one to admit that they need professional help is difficult—make the next step for getting that help as easy as possible, so they don’t have the opportunity to change their mind.

DO: Understand that the Intervention is Just the First Step

No matter how your loved one reacts to an intervention for alcoholism, you need to know that this is just the first step. If they don’t accept help, you will have to set boundaries and be firm with the consequences you laid out in advance. You will also have to be patient, knowing that sometimes the intervention plants a seed that will take time to grow.

Things to Avoid When Talking to a Loved One About Their Drinking

DON’T: Enable

Enabling always starts out of love, but ends in heartache and does nothing to stop alcohol addiction. Instead of truly helping, covering for an alcoholic, lying for them, buying them liquor and cleaning up his or her messes makes drinking easier and protects your loved one from facing the consequences of his or her behavior, which in turn makes it easy to continue denying the need for professional help.

DON’T: Go in Unprepared

Interventions are highly emotional, and you are likely going to have difficulty staying on track and remembering everything you want to say unless you’ve planned it out and practiced beforehand. Write out a script of what you want to say. Include specific examples of how the alcoholic’s behaviors have hurt others and make it clear that wanting your loved one to get treatment comes from a place of love and concern. Then practice in advance so that you can feel confident on the day.

DON’T: Get Mean

It’s easy to fall into negative behaviors, but when you’re talking to a loved one about his or her alcohol addiction, you can’t allow yourself to get upset. Don’t criticize and don’t place blame. He or she may even try to push your buttons, get you upset and off track, but don’t let them. Stay in control and focused on your goals. It can help to use lots of “I” language, like “I feel,” and to keep reminding yourself and the alcoholic that this intervention is meant to be an act of love.

DON’T: Be Okay with Promises

It’s easy for alcoholics to make promises, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to follow through. Getting sober isn’t easy, and most people can’t do it on their own. Therefore, it’s necessary that you don’t end the discussion with only promises. You don’t want to hear words; you need to see action. An intervention can’t work unless you make the alcoholic accountable for his or her choices. Outline some consequences that you will follow through on if your loved one refuses to get help. Explain that you will no longer be giving them rides, or loaning them money. Make it clear that you won’t be making apologies on their behalf or doing damage control. Let your loved one know that they need to accept help or face the consequences.

If your loved one does accept help, you need to be prepared to support them throughout their treatment. You may have to attend family therapy and make changes in your own life. Remember, too, that while your support is key, your loved one is responsible for their own recovery.