How to Help an Alcoholic Parent

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What You Can Do for Your Parent With Alcohol Abuse Disorder

Medical professionals define alcohol use disorder (AUD), the preferred term for what has long been known as alcoholism, as a condition in which a person has a desire or physical need to consume alcohol despite its negative impact on their life. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or family history — even your parent.

Alcoholics often desire to consume more alcohol than most people would find reasonable or safe. They might also experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking. The more a person drinks, the greater the risk of developing alcoholism.
If you’re concerned about your parent’s drinking habits and wonder what you can do to help, read on to learn more about AUD and the options for treatment and recovery.

Signs That Point to AUD

The term AUD includes alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse. Alcohol dependence is a chronic relapsing disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use despite adverse consequences. Alcohol abuse is a maladaptive pattern of drinking that results in clinically significant impairment or distress, such as failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. People often use the terms alcoholism and alcohol abuse interchangeably to describe the same problem.

Alcoholism affects every system in the body, including the brain and liver, which are affected by the toxic effects of alcohol on organs, tissues, and cells. As a result, long-standing alcohol abuse can lead to serious health problems.

When Should an Alcoholic Seek Treatment?

The answer to this question depends on a few factors. It may be time to seek help for your parent if he or she has begun to experience any of the following over the past year:
• A strong craving or need to drink
• A loss of control over the amount of alcohol that they drink
• A need to drink more and more to feel the same effects (tolerance)
• Drinking to the point that it interfered with taking care of home, family, or job responsibilities
• Continued alcohol use despite negative consequences like trouble with friends, loved ones, or the law
• Continued to drink despite depression, anxiety, or a memory blackout
• Involvement in risky and potentially dangerous behaviors while drinking or afterward
• Stopping or cutting back on formerly enjoyable leisure activities in order to drink
• Drinking alone or in secret
• Trying to cut back or stop drinking but being unable to
• When the effects of alcohol were wearing off, withdrawal symptoms such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, sweating, or sensing things

Does Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder Work?

There is no question that treatment for alcohol use disorder can work. According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), around half of Americans with AUD will recover at some point in their lives, and about 23% will recover within the first year after treatment. Research also suggests that people with a history of alcohol use disorder who seek treatment are more likely to stay sober than those who don’t. This means most people do not need to go through years of treatment before achieving sobriety.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating alcohol use disorder. Treatment options vary depending on the individual’s life stage and the severity of the addiction. If your parent has an AUD, they may need professional help to stop drinking and manage any other issues related to their substance abuse.

Treatment Options for an Alcoholic Parent

There are four levels of care to consider for your parent with an alcohol use disorder. They include:
Medically-directed 24-hour services; may manage withdrawal.

Intensive Inpatient

This is the highest level of care. It provides medically directed 24-hour services and may be used to manage withdrawal.

1. Residential Care

This may involve low- or high-intensity programs in 24-hour treatment settings with a team of professionals. It usually lasts about 30 days.

2. Inpatient Care

You can visit your parent while they reside at the facility for 30 to 90 days, depending on the severity of their addiction.

3. Intensive Outpatient Care or Partial Hospitalization

This level of care involves coordinated outpatient care for complex needs.

4. Outpatient Care

Outpatient care is generally less intensive than residential care or inpatient rehab. It involves regular office visits for counseling, medication support, or both. The length of treatment varies according to the needs of the individual. Lower-intensity outpatient care may consist of building your own support team that includes a primary care provider, addiction specialist, and therapist, or even arranging telehealth visits for talk therapy or medical care via phone or video sessions.

10 Ways to Help an Alcoholic Parent

If you’ve ever been in the situation of caring for someone who is struggling with alcoholism, you know how difficult it can be. Here are 10 ways to provide loving support for a parent with an alcohol use disorder.

1. Do Nothing to Provoke a Violent Reaction

If you think your parent may react with physical or verbal violence, wait until he or she is calmer, and consider bringing along another loved one who understands the situation. In severe cases, though, you may need to confront your parent at an inconvenient time if it’s necessary to get him or her on the road to recovery.

2. Don’t Confront a Parent Who’s Drunk

Confronting an inebriated parent will only increase the risk of negative reactions and may not allow for a positive outcome. A drunken parent won’t be able to exert much control over thoughts, feelings, or actions, which can increase the chances of a hurtful or even violent interaction.

3. Don’t Start the Conversation When You Yourself Are Intoxicated

You only risk escalating any conflict that may already exist in your relationship if you try to bring up a parent’s AUD while you’re under the influence of alcohol or another substance. You couldn’t blame your mom or dad for reminding you that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” or otherwise calling you out for hypocrisy.

4. Approach the Issue Indirectly

Unless a doctor has diagnosed your parent with an alcohol use disorder, there’s no need to try to convince him or her that there’s a serious problem. Make it clear that what you say is only your opinion and that it might be helpful to talk to a medical professional about alcohol use.

5. Stress That You’re There Out of Love

Starting the conversation with a statement of love and support and stressing these themes throughout your talk will go a long way to minimize the chances that your parent will feel criticized and take offense. Emphasize that you’re on the same team — it’s you versus the AUD.

6. List Specific Negative Behaviors Caused by Your Parent’s Drinking

Prepare a list ahead of time so that you can bring up specific times when your parent’s drinking has caused problems. It will be harder for your mom or dad to evade the issue of AUD if you can point out incidents you know they remember.

7. Don’t Be Judgmental

Let your parent know that you’re not there to judge. Just say you believe there could be a problem involving alcohol use, and if so, you’re ready to do all you can to help.

8. If Your Parent’s Behavior Has Hurt You, Say So

While being judgmental won’t help, being honest will. If your mom or dad has harmed you physically or emotionally due to his or her alcohol abuse, state your case calmly. Stick to the facts, and don’t speak in an accusatory manner. Preferably, have this talk at a time when neither of you is drinking alcohol or has recently done so.

9. Make Communication a Two-Way Street

Even during a confrontation, there’s no need to make your parent defensive. Keep the dialog going by asking your mom or dad to respond to any suggestions you make. Indicate that you are listening by repeating what your parent says and confirming that you got it right.

10. Suggest Having Another Talk Later

Don’t force the issue if your parent seems to be uninterested or in denial. Just let them know you enjoyed spending time together, hope this conversation was helpful, and look forward to talking more about the issue of alcohol use disorder at another time.

It can be challenging to figure out how to help an alcoholic parent. Your mom or dad is likely to deny the problem and make everything difficult for you. The best you can do is to approach the situation in a calm and understanding manner. Find out what their needs are and try to meet them.

Don’t give up hope. Even if you feel as if your efforts haven’t yielded any positive results, you’re letting your parent know that you love him or her enough to care about a potentially serious medical condition. Just being there in your parent’s time of need says a lot. There are plenty of resources if you need coaching on what more to say, how, and when. Don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals who can offer the support you need in your efforts to guide your parent toward recovery.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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