Alcohol abuse has far-reaching effects, not only on the individual but also for their family members and loved ones. It can be difficult and traumatic for a family member to see a person they care about struggle with alcohol addiction.
A family member’s substance abuse can lead to disagreements and tension in a family as family members adopt coping mechanisms to deal with the destabilized family dynamic. Family members may also have differing opinions on how best to help the person and protect the family from the negative consequences of the substance abuse.1
Understanding the effects of alcoholism on a family can help those with loved ones who are struggling with alcohol addiction to seek help if desired.
How Alcohol Abuse Affects Family Structure
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are several ways that alcohol abuse can affect a family.2 Often, this impact is determined by the type of family structure. For example:
Parents of young children: When a parent has a spouse who suffers from alcoholism, they may have to shoulder a significant portion of the family’s parenting responsibilities. This can put a tremendous strain on a parent or significant other.
Single-parent homes: When a child has a parent who struggles with alcohol addiction, they might often act as a “surrogate spouse” for the parent, taking on more and more household responsibility at a young age. The child may also have a significant amount of denial regarding the extent of a parent’s problem.
Parents of an adult with alcoholism: The child will often be dependent on aging parents, which can negatively affect their ability to mature emotionally. Doctors refer to this dynamic as codependency. The parent often enables the dependency of their child and might even unintentionally allow the addictive behavior to continue or worsen.
In addition to these known effects of alcoholism on immediate families, extended family members may also experience negative situations—commonly involving finances. People who struggle with alcoholism often have trouble meeting their financial responsibilities, and family members may attempt to compensate for these shortcomings or protect the individual from the consequences of their actions.
Help for Those Whose Family Member Is Experiencing Alcoholism
Having a loved one struggle with alcoholism can greatly affect a family’s ability to function normally. Family members may adopt different roles, and they may have difficulty communicating. This can lead to friction, tension and disagreements related to their family member. Some may be in denial over the person’s problems, while others may be frustrated or concerned over a person’s drinking and how it jeopardizes their safety and the safety of others.
Support for Family Members
Many treatment centers offer support for those who have a family member struggling with addiction. This can be in the form of assistance with planning an intervention, therapy for the family or group therapy with both the individual and the family. Support groups, both in-person and online, are also available to help a person learn more about alcoholism and its effects and suggestions for how to help a person struggling with alcohol addiction. Through education and supportive services, families can get the help they need.
It can be difficult to determine when socially acceptable drinking crosses over the line and becomes a drinking problem. Having a drink, or two, or more, is almost always socially acceptable. Virtually every celebration we attend—weddings, birthday parties, holiday gatherings—offer alcohol. We’re inundated with advertising portraying people having a good time while drinking.
We drink to celebrate, and we drink to relax. How do we know when socially acceptable drinking turns into a full-fledged drinking problem?
The Stages of a Drinking Problem
A drinking problem can start with the development of tolerance, which is where you have to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the desired results. This overconsumption can then develop into dependence, where withdrawal symptoms appear if alcohol is decreased or stopped.
Heavy alcohol consumption that moves from tolerance to dependence often leads to the development of an addiction. Alcoholism, known clinically as an alcohol use disorder, is when a person continues to drink despite negative effects on their health and well-being, and often despite a desire to stop.
Alcoholism looks different person to person. Some people drink excessively only in the evenings, and others take their first drink in the morning and continue throughout the day. Others drink only on occasion, but those occasions always involve binge drinking large quantities of alcohol to the point where they black out.
Recognizing the Signs of a Drinking Problem
Alcoholism has a fairly consistent set of signs that can help you determine if your drinking has progressed from occasional overindulgence to problem drinking:1
- You drink more alcohol or for longer periods of time than you intended.
- You’ve felt more than once that you need to drink less alcohol, or you’ve tried to stop drinking.
- You spend significant amounts of time drinking or recuperating from hangovers or other effects of alcohol.
- You crave alcohol or have urges to use alcohol.
- You miss work or school or fail to meet your family obligations due to drinking.
- You drink despite the relationship problems it’s causing with family or friends.
- You put drinking before other things and cut back on other important or pleasurable activities to make room for drinking.
- You put yourself at risk by drinking before or during situations that are dangerous, such as drinking and driving or having unprotected sex.
- You continue to drink alcohol despite the fact that it causes depression or anxiety, or it’s causing health problems or memory blackouts.
- You’ve developed a tolerance to alcohol. Tolerance means you need more alcohol than before to get the desired effects.
- You experience withdrawal when you’re not drinking. Withdrawal symptoms include sleeping issues, having the shakes, feeling restless, nausea, excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat, seizures or hallucinations.
If you have experienced two or more of these situations within 12 months, it may be time to face the truth and seek professional help.
Getting Help for a Drinking Problem
If you think you might have an alcohol use disorder, consider seeking professional addiction treatment to reclaim your life. To ignore the signs of a drinking problem is to put yourself at risk for more serious consequences to your health, such as cirrhosis of the liver or neurological complications.2 The impact of a drinking problem on family and work life can also be devastating.
Treatment for a drinking problem works, and it can work for you. Reach out to a high-quality addiction treatment center and get the help you need.