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How to Help an Alcoholic Parent

Reviewer Dr. Juan Harris MBA, MS, MCAP, CMHP, SAP, CIP, ICADC
Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S.; there are over 17 million Americans that are affected by alcoholism. Unfortunately, alcoholism affects not just the individual addicted to alcohol but also their loved ones, especially their children. Alcoholism can and often does lead to physical, emotional, mental and financial neglect and abuse of children of all ages, especially children who still live with or close to their alcoholic parent.

If you are the child of an alcoholic parent, then you know the struggles associated with alcoholism in a special way. However, even if your parents have been drinking for all or most of your life, there is hope that they can change. It is essential that you understand it is not your fault. Drinking is completely your parent’s decision, and it is completely within their own willpower to choose not to drink. One of the best things you can do for an alcoholic parent is to learn as much as you can about alcoholism and learn how to get appropriate help for an alcoholic parent.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholismhow to help an alcoholic parent

Many alcoholics deny that they have a problem and will defend their right to drink. There is more to alcoholism than simply drinking too much; it also means that there is a psychological and physical dependence on alcohol. Even though your alcoholic parent may not drink on a daily basis, in most situations, they probably cannot stop once they do start drinking and will continue to drink despite negative consequences. As their child, you may be able to see your parent’s drinking habits better than others, but there are several key signs and symptoms that you can look for to help you identify if your parent is struggling with alcoholism. Signs and symptoms of their alcoholism may include:

  • Neglecting their appearance
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Trying to hide their drinking or appearing ashamed when you see them drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Hiding bottles of alcohol
  • Lying about consuming alcohol
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol over long periods of time
  • Having trouble taking care of you or keeping a job
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Talking about quitting without being able to
  • Experiencing blackouts or memory loss

Addressing the Problem of Having an Alcoholic Parent

No child, regardless of their age, wants to admit that their parent is an alcoholic, but you must recognize the problem before an effort can be made to improve it. If you are concerned that your parent has a severe drinking problem, the first thing to do is realize that they can get help to overcome their addiction.

The next and perhaps the most important thing to realize is that it is not your fault if your parent is struggling with alcohol. One of the most common issues that children of an alcoholic parent struggle with is blaming themselves or thinking that they could be doing more for their parent. Unfortunately, the guilt can be overwhelming for some children, which is completely unfair because no one is responsible for someone else’s behavior. After you’ve done all you can for your parent, remember that it is ultimately up to them to make choices that will improve their life.

Understand Why They Drink

Before taking action or approaching your parent to discuss your concerns, it may be helpful for you to learn more about alcoholism, including how and why people become addicted to alcohol. Keep in mind that there is no single cause of alcoholism; there are many reasons why someone chooses to drink. For instance, the person may be experiencing depression, they may be experiencing stress from work, or they may feel as though something is missing from their life. Whatever their reason is, your parent may be drinking in order to make their disappointing reality a little less realistic. Many people drink to feel more confident, to forget, or to feel brave. Unfortunately, excessive drinking is a circle of negativity that only increases the negative feelings they were trying to block out. Alcoholics often believe that when they are intoxicated, they are surrendering their responsibility and giving up the negativity in their life. However, what you and your parent must both realize is that it was their choice to drink, and only their choices can bring them out of this spiral of negative behavior.

When and How to Confront an Alcoholic Parent

It is essential that under no circumstances should you attempt to discuss the issue with your parent when they are under the influence of alcohol. If they are intoxicated, it could make the confrontation seem like an attack, and they won’t be able to focus and logically discuss the problem with you. Even worse, they may not even remember the conversation the next day. It can be extremely difficult to know how to confront an alcoholic parent, but it can be done. Remember that you cannot make someone, not even your parent, stop drinking and go to rehab or make them realize that they have a drinking problem. The best thing you can do is bring their attention to your concerns and to the fact that you think they have a drinking problem. If they feel that your concerns come from a place of love, they are more likely to listen.

What to Say

This is going to be a difficult conversation to have, but you must be strong. Alcoholism is a serious matter that needs to be addressed before more harm can be done to your whole family. It is often helpful to have all siblings or another family member present when confronting an alcoholic parent. This doesn’t mean that you are ganging up on your parent; it simply shows them that you aren’t the only one concerned about this problem. When having this sensitive conversation, it is important to stay consistent because any differences from one person to the next could create an opening for misinterpretation. Stay strong, but make sure you show compassion. Ask your parent not to speak until you are done expressing your feelings, and then carefully listen to what they have to say.

Start the conversation by expressing your love and offering your support. Make sure your parent knows that you are doing this act of tough love because you care deeply about them. Don’t be disrespectful, and don’t accuse, blame, or call them names because this won’t solve the problem. Just be concerned for their well-being and express your concern about their drinking habits. The following are some talking points to open a discussion that is respectful and honest:

  • Inform your parent of how their drinking has a negative effect on the people in their life.
  • Ask why they feel the need to drink.
  • Explain problems that have come up as a result of the drinking.
  • Tell them your feelings about their decision.
  • Express which of their actions are acceptable and which aren’t.

When your parent has an understanding of how their drinking problem affects you and other people in their life, try to convince your parent to get help.

Have Information on Hand

You can help your alcoholic parent get help by providing them with useful information about the disease and connecting them with a reputable rehabilitation center in your area where they can get professional help. Before sitting down with your parent to express your concerns, visit a local rehab center to gather information about available programs. While at the rehab center, ask for a tour and talk to someone in charge who can give you information about what your parent can expect while in rehab. For example, ask if therapy is available, if detox is offered or whether detox will need to be done elsewhere, and what types of follow-up services are available after discharge from the rehab center. The more information you have on hand when talking with your parent, the better.

Helping an Alcoholic Parent in Denial

When you confront your parent about their alcoholism, one of two things generally happen: Your parent may be receptive to your feelings and concerns, or they may deny having a problem and not respond well to your pleas for them to get help. If they are unwilling to listen and unwilling to seek help, it may be necessary to impose consequences. If you must give them consequences, it is extremely important that you are ready and willing to follow through with what you propose. For example, telling your parent that you will limit your involvement with them until they get help must be something you are willing to follow through with. It is important to remember that you are doing this for both of you, so be gentle but firm.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many options available to you if your parent refuses help. After all, they are an adult, and you cannot force them to change their behaviors and habits. Those who abuse alcohol can have a tendency to become violent, so if your parent becomes abusive in any way, do not be afraid to leave because your safety is a priority. Keep in mind that you are not being disloyal or abandoning them by keeping yourself safe. If you are a minor and you are experiencing neglect, emotional abuse, or physical abuse as a result of your parent’s alcoholism, then you should consider reporting them to an adult you can trust, such as a family member, school staff member, or law enforcement official.

These negative consequences may be difficult, but it is possible that they could inspire your parent to confront their addiction and take steps to change.

Getting Help for an Alcoholic Parent

If your parent takes the conversation well and agrees to get help, be prepared to provide them with the information you obtained about local rehab centers. Talk with them about multiple rehab centers that offer different treatment options. Let your parent know that you love them and support their decision to seek help. Many treatment centers offer family therapy for those who are receiving treatment, so if this is an option and your parent requests you to attend, it is important to show your support. When your parent comes home from rehab, offer to go with them to meetings and follow-up therapy, and remember to show your support for their achievements.

It is equally important for you to get the support you need. As a child of an alcoholic, your emotional well-being and physical health may be suffering, so it is essential that you consider your health and safety. It will be beneficial for you to seek out the help of support groups and therapy. If your parent is refusing help, it doesn’t mean that you are unable to change your own life to protect your physical health and emotional well-being. There are a variety of support groups available that can provide you with help for yourself, including emotional support and resources for getting through daily life.

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