Help for Family Members of Alcoholics

Nonalcoholic spouses and children of alcoholics often believe they are alone in their difficulties in coping with an alcoholic family member. But they are not. It’s an unfortunate fact of life, but one of every six families in the United States is affected by alcoholism.

If help is sought, it is usually for the alcoholic. “What should I do to help him (or her) get sober?” family members ask. But it is just as important for family members or closely associated friends of alcoholics to realize that whether or not the alcoholic seeks treatment or gets sober, they have also been deeply affected and hurt by alcoholism. There are heavy mental, emotional, economic and social costs of living closely with an alcoholic for an extended period of time.

Spouses, children, closely attached family members and friends of alcoholics have been emotionally hurt by long-term coping with embarrassment, denial, anger, fear, guilt, being manipulated and lied to. Many family members are subject to physical abuse, and sometimes, even sexual abuse. The National Council on Alcoholism estimates as many as 60 percent of alcoholic families in treatment have experienced domestic violence.

These problems and hurts need to be addressed if there is to be improvement in living for these people, and more beneficial progress realized for an alcoholic under treatment. The best results in treating alcoholism occur if the whole family involved seeks help and education to cope with the alcoholic’s problems and their own.

Helping resources

In many areas, agencies and organizations exist devoted to helping spouses, older children of alcoholics, and others, learn about ways to cope with their feelings and problems more constructively, even if the alcoholic family member refuses to seek help. The most readily available services for everyone regardless of individual circumstances are the self-help groups of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Alateen. These usually do not regularly depend on professional counselors nor do they document one’s involvement. They are free of charge to all who wish to participate.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a program open to any person who wants to stop drinking. Al-Anon is open to adult relatives or friends of someone who has a drinking problem. Alateen is a support group open to young people between the ages of 12 and 21 who have either a family member or friend with a drinking problem.

Other kinds of agencies and programs also exist. These programs offer a various mix of services of professional and nonprofessional people with knowledge and understanding of the alcoholic family system. Group education and private counseling are often available.

No single program developed by any social organization will be totally acceptable, appropriate or effective for every person. Variations in effectiveness and quality will depend on leadership and philosophy of the organization. Responsible adult family members should seek advice from others who may be familiar with a program they feel may be appropriate. It is important to attend a number of meetings before deciding whether or not a certain program is a satisfactory resource for you.

In the United States and many other nations, the way to contact one of these groups is to simply look them up in the telephone Yellow Pages under “Alcoholism.” Or ask a local health department or hospital. Another helpful resource that may be listed in the Yellow Pages is the National Council on Alcoholism. People living in other nations, should seek help from government or local health agencies. Many nations have Alcoholics Anonymous chapters or other treatment facilities available.

Remember, alcoholics can and do get sober and stay sober. And family members of alcoholics can find help to cope with their problems. But first, they need to ask for help!


What Are the Signs of Alcoholism?

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This article was written in 1991 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

The following questionnaire will help a person learn if he or she — or a member of the family — has some of the symptoms of alcoholism and may need help.

  1. Do you occasionally drink heavily after a disappointment, a quarrel, or when the boss gives you a hard time?
  2. When you have trouble or feel under pressure, do you always drink more heavily than usual?
  3. Are you able to handle more liquor than you did when you were first drinking?
  4. Did you ever wake up on the “morning after” and discover that you could not remember part of the evening before, even though your friends tell you that you did not pass out?
  5. When drinking with other people, do you try to have any extra drinks when others will not know it?
  6. Are there certain occasions when you feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available?
  7. Have you recently noticed that when you begin drinking, you are in more of a hurry to get the first drink than you used to be?
  8. Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking?
  9. Are you irritated when your family or friends discuss your drinking?
  10. Have you recently noticed an increase in the frequency of your memory “blackouts”?
  11. Do you often want to continue drinking after your friends say they have had enough?
  12. Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you drink heavily?
  13. When you are sober, do you often regret things you have done or said while drinking?
  14. Have you tried switching brands or following different plans for controlling your drinking?
  15. Have you often failed to keep the promises you have made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your drinking?
  16. Have you ever tried to control your drinking by making a change in jobs, or moving to a new location?
  17. Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are drinking?
  18. Are you having an increasing number of financial and work problems?
  19. Do more people seem to be treating you unfairly without good reason?
  20. Do you eat very little or irregularly when you are drinking?
  21. Do you sometimes have the “shakes” in the morning and find that it helps to have a little drink?
  22. Have you noticed that you cannot drink as much as you once did?
  23. Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time?
  24. Do you sometimes feel very depressed and wonder whether life is worth living?
  25. Sometimes after periods of drinking, do you see or hear things that aren’t there?
  26. Do you get terribly frightened after you have been drinking heavily?


Yes to questions 1-8: Early stage of alcoholism

Yes to questions 9-21: Middle stage of alcoholism

Yes to questions 22-26: Beginning of final stage


Source: National Council on Alcoholism

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