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How to Talk to Someone About Their Drinking

When someone you care about is struggling with their alcohol use, it’s likely that you want to help. However, it’s not always easy to know how to tell someone you are concerned about their drinking.

Alcohol misuse is a feature of alcohol use disorder, a chronic, but treatable medical condition where it is difficult for a person to stop or control their alcohol use despite negative health, occupational, and social consequences.1 Alcohol misuse includes binge and heavy drinking. Binge drinking means consuming 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women in around 2 hours, while heavy drinking means consuming more than 4 drinks on any day for men or more than 3 drinks for women.1

If you think your loved one is drinking too much, you should know that only medical professionals can diagnose an alcohol use disorder. However, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you’re prepared to talk to your loved one about their alcohol abuse.

It’s not always easy to know how to talk to someone about their drinking, but educating yourself and creating a plan can help you help your loved one.

Talking With Someone About Their Drinking

You might not be sure how to talk to someone about their drinking, and that’s OK. You can take some time to think it over and make a plan before you have the conversation. It’s important to know that you’re not your loved one’s counselor, and it’s not up to you to get them to enter treatment. Sometimes, just showing your support and concern might motivate them to seek help.

If you’re not sure where to start, these 10 tips can help.

  1. Educate yourself: Educating yourself on addiction can help you and others understand that addiction isn’t a choice or a matter of “just quitting.”2 Researching treatment options and familiarizing yourself with different resources, such as those offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), can help.
  2. Plan the conversation ahead of time: Think about what you are going to say to them beforehand. You might want to make a list of your thoughts and concerns, write a script, or even try role-playing the conversation with another person. This can help you be prepared, maintain your focus, and stay on track.3
  3. Pick the right time to talk: Choosing a time when you both are calm is important. Don’t talk to them if one or both of you are intoxicated or if you’re distracted by other concerns.3
  4. Keep the conversation positive: Try to focus on helpful, constructive comments and the positive aspects of change, such as “What if we plan a fun night out every week that doesn’t involve alcohol?”3
  5. Be specific: Focusing on specific concerns can help them better understand where you’re coming from and why you’re approaching them about it now. Try to use “I” statements, such as “I’m worried about your drinking because I’ve noticed you’ve been missing work.”3
  6. Be supportive, not threatening: Be available and offer support in any way you can. You might ask them what they need, such as saying, “I know that drinking less is hard for you. How can I support you?” Focus on providing positive options such as telling them they can call you the next time they want to have a drink. Listen to their thoughts and feelings and let them know that they’re not alone in their struggles.3, 4
  7. Create a plan together: Making a plan in collaboration with your loved one can help them feel supported and less overwhelmed about taking the next steps. Create a plan that’s specific and easily measurable, such as not drinking 2 nights each week or scheduling an evaluation with their doctor about their alcohol use.3, 4
  8. Have treatment options ready: It’s a good idea to research treatment facilities and other potential options, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), in advance. Have a list of accessible treatment options on hand, so that you can present this to your loved one. Remember that timing is important. The National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that people who need help for an AUD tend to slip through the cracks if treatment isn’t immediately available or readily accessible to them.2
  9. Set an example: Think about the behaviors that you engage in that could impact your loved one’s alcohol use. For example, don’t drink or use other substances around your loved one or offer them alcohol.5
  10. Seek support for yourself: It’s not easy to cope when a loved one has a drinking problem. Seeking support for yourself through resources or therapy can help you feel like you’re not going through this challenge alone. Make time for self-care and seek support from family and friends when necessary; you might also consider attending support groups that are designed for friends and family whose loved ones are struggling with alcohol or substance use. This could include groups like Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA).

What to Say and What Not to Say

Understanding how to talk to someone who drinks too much can be challenging. It’s important to use the right terminology when talking to your loved one. When talking about addiction, people often unintentionally use words and terms that can be stigmatizing, meaning that they use words that are harmful or shameful and that could prevent someone from seeking treatment.6

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stigma means discrimination against “an identifiable group of people, place, or nation.” Stigma about people with substance use disorders can include statements that are biased or inaccurate, such as the idea that people with addiction are to blame for their condition, or that they’re dangerous or unwilling to seek help.6 Stigma comes from outdated or inaccurate ideas, fears, or beliefs about things that are misunderstood or different.6 Using the wrong terms can make a person struggling with addiction feel less willing to seek treatment.6

By changing the ways that you talk and think about addiction, you separate the person from the problem and you see them for who they actually are. Using first-person language that focuses on the person and not the disease can help, because then you’re not defining who they are by their illness.6 In other words, they’re not an addict, they’re a person struggling with addiction; they’re not an alcoholic or a drunk, they’re a person with an alcohol use disorder.6

When you talk to someone about drinking too much, it can be helpful to know the terms to use and avoid.

  • Avoid using the terms “addict,” “user,” “drunk,” or “alcoholic” and instead say, “person with alcohol use disorder,” or “person who misuses alcohol/engages in unhealthy/hazardous alcohol use.”6
  • Instead of “former addict” or “former alcoholic,” say, “person in recovery from alcohol use disorder,” or “person who previously used alcohol.”
  • Instead of the term, “clean,” say, “person who doesn’t drink or use drugs.”

What If They Are Not Receptive?

Your loved one might not yet be ready or willing to hear what you have to say. You both might experience different and challenging emotions during the conversation. This is why alcohol and relationships can be difficult, and why it can be hard to know how to talk with someone about their drinking.

If they’re not willing to hear you, don’t give up. You might need to keep returning to the conversation; it can take multiple attempts for them to be able to hear what you’re saying. Keep in mind that it’s important to avoid arguing or lecturing about the problem; if things get heated, take a break and come back to it later on.

You can’t and shouldn’t force your loved one into treatment. If they don’t like the suggestions you’ve offered, you can ask what kind of treatment they might be open to, or you could suggest that they start by talking to their doctor.3 It’s not easy to know how to tell someone they have a drinking problem, but your loved one might be receptive to hearing the opinion of a medical professional.

Next Steps

Treatment can be a beneficial way for your loved one to start the path to recovery. While there is no one-size-fits-all treatment that will work for everyone, treatment often includes a combination of behavioral therapies, medication, and mutual support groups like AA.1 The NIAAA says that medication can help deter drinking when a person is experiencing an increased risk of relapse, and behavioral therapies can help people change behaviors and avoid and cope with triggers to resume drinking.1

According to the NIAAA, many people with AUD do recover, but relapse is common among people in treatment.1 Seeking help early on may prevent a relapse.1 If your loved one experiences a relapse, it’s important to know that this doesn’t mean treatment has failed, but it could indicate the need to return to or try a different form of treatment.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of treatment for AUD, with rehab centers for alcohol across the nation. You can contact our free, confidential helpline at to speak to an admissions navigator who can answer questions, provide information on treatment, and verify your loved one’s insurance.

 

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