How to talk about drinking too much

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drinking problem, how do you bring it up? Here are a few ideas to help you open up the drinking conversation and ways to prepare for the talk.

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Opening up the drinking conversation

If you are concerned about the drinking of a friend or family member, it can be a difficult subject to broach. It is something that requires handling with sensitivity and empathy and may still not result in a person admitting they have a problem. The recognisable signs of the alcoholic process include:

  • denial of the drinking problem
  • increased tolerance leading to higher consumption
  • withdrawal symptoms when the person hasn’t had a drink for some time

Alcohol addiction, if left untreated, can cause significant physical and mental health issues for a person. So how can you best go about starting the conversation and how should you prepare?

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

There is a strong likelihood your loved one will be in denial about their drinking, and find ways to justify it such as, “everyone is doing it” or “I don’t drink as much as so-and-so”. It is possible they are continuing to justify their drinking to themselves but are, in fact, using alcohol as a coping mechanism for an underlying mental health problem such as depression or anxiety. This isn’t uncommon and is an additional issue which requires treating.

How can you prepare for the denial?

To begin with, ensure you are familiar with the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction. By reading as much as you can on the subject beforehand you can better equip yourself for any direction the conversation may take. You can also observe your friend or family member as much as realistically possible to confirm your worries about their drinking. It can also be helpful to speak with a professional or ring a helpline to discuss what to do with an expert.

Furthermore, preparation can significantly help inform how you approach your loved one, and help steer the conversation down the route you want it to go. It is vital not to appear as if you are attacking the person – they may well react in a defensive fashion and could be volatile emotionally. Stick to using phrases starting with “I” rather than “you”, phrases such as:

  • “I am worried about you”
  • “I wonder if drinking less may help you feel fresher and help your wellbeing?”
  • “I am concerned about the amount you’re drinking”
  • “I’ve noticed you aren’t as upbeat as once were”
  • “It was great when you were doing lots of exercise, you were full of life”

Beginning phrases as such doesn’t place the immediate onus and pressure on the person and may make them feel more relaxed.

Additionally, your approach should be characterized by positive language and avoidance of labels such as ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict’. Try to keep your tone concerned but not disapproving. And if you ask questions, ensure they are open, such as: “I’ve noticed you aren’t doing this anymore: Why do you think that is?”

Finally, try to choose a time and place that is safe and private so you can safely bring your concerns up in person. The more comfortable the environment is for the person, the better they may respond.

Moving forward: Willingness increases treatment outcomes

It is possible that your loved one will not immediately accept they have a problem, or they may agree to what you’re saying at the time without sincerity. It is crucial, however, that they accept they have a problem themselves and are not pushed into anything. The likelihood of successful recovery is significantly higher when a person actively wants to seek help and treatment.
Billy Henderson, Addiction Unit Manager at The Priory Hospital Glasgow, says:

“For anyone suffering from an alcohol addiction, recognising that they have a problem and need help is a huge stride. Addictions can be treated with professional help, and the earlier intervention takes place, the better the chances of recovery are. This makes it so important to take the necessary step and start the conversation.”

If, however, your friend or family member concedes they have a problem with alcohol, it’s important to remain positive and offer solutions. This may be referring them to their GP, speaking with organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (they have a free help line), or looking into private therapy (see Priory’s free addiction assessment).

Accepting there is a problem is one of the most important steps, and the person can then begin the road to recovery.

Questions about talking with a loved one?

Still have questions? Please leave us your questions in the comments section below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly!

About the author
Priory is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK including mental healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and older people’s care. As the UK’s leading independent provider of addiction treatment services, Priory provides professional, specialist treatment programmes for a wide range of addictive substances and behaviours.
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