There’s no doubt that alcohol consumption is fairly widespread. People bring wine to dinner parties, coworkers plan social gatherings at bars and movies constantly depict scenes of people getting drunk. And yet, the subject of alcoholism remains taboo, which can make it difficult to know how to talk to an alcoholic.

In 2021, almost 30 million Americans suffered from alcohol use disorder (AUD). However, less than 5% of those individuals sought treatment. Negative emotions, such as shame, fear and discomfort, may prevent someone from being up front about their alcoholism and getting support. If you believe a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, it’s important to communicate in a way that’s empathetic and encouraging.

Recognizing the Signs of Problematic Alcohol Use

Before we go over how to confront an alcoholic, let’s take a closer look at potential signs of alcohol abuse. Sometimes, it may be clear that a loved one is struggling with alcohol use — for example, you might see them drinking frequently. In other cases, however, alcoholism isn’t very noticeable. It’s possible for a person to abuse alcohol and not even realize it themselves. This makes it helpful to know the following signs of AUD:

  • Frequently consuming or craving alcohol
  • Struggling to reduce alcohol consumption
  • Increasing alcohol intake to experience effects
  • Withdrawing from obligations (such as work or school)
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • Engaging in risky, unsafe behaviors
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (such as nausea or shaking) when refraining from alcohol

Over time, alcohol use can seriously impair judgment and negatively impact mental health. For example, many alcoholics go through periods of depression and anxiety. Alcoholism can also impact physical well-being. Liver disease, digestive issues and high blood pressure are just a few health conditions that have been linked to prolonged alcohol use.

The more a person consumes alcohol, the more likely they are to develop an addiction. This makes it important to act fast if you believe someone is struggling with their alcohol use.

How to Talk to an Alcoholic

The first step toward helping someone overcome an alcohol addiction is having an open, honest dialogue. Often, people with AUD aren’t fully aware of their alcohol use and the effect it has on themselves and others. Having a conversation helps highlight the issue and gives you a chance to share resources or treatment ideas.

Now that you know the importance of communication, you might be wondering: How do you talk to an alcoholic? Confronting an alcoholic is easier said than done. For many individuals, their alcohol use is a sensitive subject. Not only may they be reluctant to discuss it, but they might also become defensive, angry or frustrated with you. To help ensure the conversation goes as smoothly as possible, it’s important to approach the subject carefully. Here are a few key tips on how to talk to an alcoholic:

  • Choose the right time and place: If you create a safe, welcoming environment, the person is more likely to be receptive and open up. Select a place where they’ll feel comfortable, such as your home. You should also be mindful when picking a time — avoid times when they may be stressed, such as immediately after work.
  • Express your concerns: Because some alcoholics may be unaware of their issue, it’s helpful to explain why you’re concerned. Try thinking of specific examples of when their alcohol use had a negative effect. This could be something that impacted them personally (such as a health problem) or something that affected you (such as a pattern of rude behavior).
  • Be empathetic and understanding: When talking to an alcoholic, try to come across as empathetic and nonjudgmental. Avoid blaming them for their alcohol use or criticizing their behavior. One way you can accomplish this is by using “I” statements. For example, instead of saying “You’re making me concerned,” say “I feel concerned.”
  • Ask questions: While some people may engage in the conversation, others might avoid talking. In these cases, ask open-ended questions to help encourage the discussion. For example, you could ask if they’ve experienced any challenges with their drinking or if there’s anything you can do to help.
  • Offer support and resources: The conversation should end with discussing treatment options, such as rehabilitation facilities, therapy and medications. If possible, find specific resources in your area and offer to help the person obtain treatment.

Ideally, the conversation will go well and they’ll feel motivated to seek treatment. Keep in mind, however, that it often takes more than a single conversation to inspire change.

What to Do When an Alcoholic Won’t Listen to You

It can be incredibly frustrating when a loved one isn’t receptive to your concerns. When this happens, it’s important to be patient while also catering to your own needs. Here are a few things you should do:

  • Take care of yourself: Alcohol use can take a toll on family members and friends. Seeing a therapist or joining support groups (such as AI-Anon family groups) can help you cope.
  • Consider hosting an intervention: You don’t have to handle this on your own. Recruit other friends or family members of the alcoholic for an intervention, or an open conversation about alcohol use. Many times, interventions will also include a professional who mediates the discussion.
  • Set boundaries: It’s important not to condone bad habits. For example, you shouldn’t make excuses for someone’s drinking or help them avoid consequences.

Above all, try to be patient and supportive. While you don’t have to enable bad behavior, you can remain a resource and promise to help them find treatment when they’re ready.

Finding the Right Alcohol Treatment Program

It may take days, months or years before an alcoholic is prepared to make a change. Once they’re ready, it’s helpful to have a treatment plan you can implement as soon as possible.

At Sunlight Recovery, we offer a wide range of resources designed to help people overcome alcohol addictions. In addition to substance use professionals, we offer medical detox programs, inpatient treatments and therapy sessions. Ultimately, we aim to help people regain control of their lives. If you or a loved one is living with AUD, contact us today.