How to Help an Alcoholic Son
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
If your son is an alcoholic, it is one of the most difficult challenges you may face as a parent.
Alcoholism is a chronic and potentially hereditary disease that is treatable. Though there is no cure, it can be effectively managed.
It is important to avoid enabling an alcoholic. Instead, the goal is to help them realize that they need professional help. An intervention with additional family members can help, and a professional interventionist can guide you through the process.
When looking for a treatment program for your son, seek out options that will be a good fit for him personally. This can depend on the level of care he needs and what types of programs the facility offers.
Family programming can offer support for you too. This is a challenge for you too, so you need to take care of yourself. Support groups for family members of alcoholics can be beneficial.
Prevalence of Alcoholism
In 2019, approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 and older in the United States had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). An alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that can be mild, moderate, or severe, and it makes lasting changes in your brain.
AUD involves health, social, and personal problems. An alcoholic often struggles to fulfill obligations and will opt out of activities if they do not include alcohol.
Signs Your Son Is an Alcoholic
If you notice significant mood and behavior changes in your son, and recognize that he is drinking a lot, it is possible that he is abusing alcohol.
Alcoholism is often evident by missed appointments, a desire to drink over everything else, declining grades in school, a decline in work performance, and trouble in relationships. Criminal issues, including driving under the influence or other risky behaviors, can also be signs of an alcohol problem.
Alcoholism can vary in severity. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that even as few as two warning signs can indicate a drinking problem.
These are questions to ask yourself if you think your son might be an alcoholic:
- Does he frequently say he is going to stop drinking without being able to, or does he regularly drink more than he intended to at an event?
- Are mood swings and erratic behavior common?
- Have his sleeping and eating patterns changed?
- Has he either gained or lost weight? Is he sleeping at odd times?
- Does he skip out on events or activities that he used to previously enjoy?
- Do recreational or social events need to involve alcohol in order for him to go?
- Does he regularly neglect chores or obligations?
- Is he late or a no-show to work, or is he absent at school regularly?
- Does he suffer from health issues or seems sick often?
- Is most of his time spent drinking, talking about drinking, or recovering from drinking?
- Does drinking interfere with daily life activities?
- Is he continuing to drink even when he knows it is interfering with personal relationships?
- Does he continue to drink despite knowing that alcohol is contributing to medical or mental health problems?
- Has he regularly gotten into situations that are potentially risky or dangerous due to drinking?
- Is he having to drink more and more to feel the effects of alcohol?
- Does he suffer from withdrawal symptoms, such as restlessness, sleep issues, shakiness, irritability, nausea, sweating, fatigue, racing heart, depression, anxiety, or seizures when alcohol wears off?
Potential Causes of Alcoholism
Alcohol use disorder can run in families with a heritability rate of close to 60 percent, but it is likely both genetics and environment that contribute most to the disorder. Children of parents who drink are more likely to drink themselves, for instance.
Patterns of alcohol abuse — which can include drinking too much at one time, binge drinking, heavy alcohol use, or drinking a significant amount regularly — can play a role in the development of alcohol use disorder.
Other factors can include the age at which your son started drinking. The younger he was when he took his first drink, the more likely he is to struggle with alcohol abuse later in life, studies show. A history of trauma or mental health conditions can also increase his risk for developing alcohol use disorder.
Talking to Your Son About Getting Help
When talking to your son about issues with alcohol, it is helpful to start with small conversations that are nonconfrontational and done when he is in a good space. This means when he is sober, not hungover, and seems generally balanced in terms of mood.
Start by expressing your love and concern, and allow him to express his own feelings. Ask questions about how he feels about drinking and the impact on his life.
Empathy is important. Remember to be assertive and not aggressive. Use “I” statements when talking to him, letting him know how his drinking is impacting you personally.
It is equally important to avoid denial. You both know drinking is an issue for him. The subject needs to remain out in the open and not swept under the rug.
Expect some pushback and even some anger or defensiveness, but try to be consistent in your stance without expressing blame. You may need to leave the conversation and come back to it later. The goal is to help him see the need to change.
You need to hold your son accountable by stopping enabling behaviors, but also continue to let him know that you love and support him throughout his recovery.
It’s likely that this won’t be a single conversation. Often, it takes many conversations over a period of time before a person takes the first step toward treatment.
What to Do if Your Son Is Unwilling to Seek Help
If your conversations do not have the desired effect and your son is still not willing to get help for his drinking, it may be time to try something different, like an intervention.
An intervention is a structured and well-prepared meeting between you, your son, and other people in your circle. You may include other family members, friends, neighbors, or anyone else who cares about your son and wants to help him stop drinking.
A professional interventionist can help you to plan and carry out a successful intervention. With the help of a trained professional, interventions are significantly more successful.
The key to a good intervention is planning and structure. Prepare what you are going to say ahead of time, and establish clear consequences for what happens if he decides not to get treatment at the end of the intervention.
This can include distancing with love. This means that you care enough about your son to allow him to learn from his mistakes and that it is time for him to be responsible for himself. It is important for you to stop enabling the drinking behavior.
Enabling behavior includes making excuses for him, cleaning up after him, or not holding him accountable for his actions. If he lives with you, you may need to tell him he needs to find somewhere else to live, or that you are no longer going to see him or support him financially until he decides to get help.
Finding the Right Program for Your Son
When your son has agreed to seek professional help, it is time to find the right program for him, as all programs are a little different.
When looking for an alcohol rehab program, think about what his personal needs are. For example, if he has not been drinking for long and still needs to go to work or school during treatment, an outpatient program close to home can be a good fit. If he has been drinking for a long time and is significantly dependent on alcohol, medical detox followed by a residential treatment program can be ideal.
When looking for a treatment program, consider the following:
- Cost and financing options
- Programs offered and level of care provided
- Licensing and accreditation of facility and staff
- Specialty services, accommodations, and amenities
Program Options & Levels of Care
There are nearly 15,000 drug and alcohol treatment centers in the United States to choose from. There are many different options and several different levels of care.
When choosing a rehab center, think about the specific needs of your son. Many have specialty programs that can be age- or gender-specific, for example.
It is highly beneficial to be with other individuals who are in similar life circumstances during recovery to foster a positive social environment that is open and welcoming. Treatment programs will include both individual and group therapy as well as support groups.
If your son also struggles with anxiety, depression, or another mental illness along with alcoholism, a dual diagnosis program (one that specializes in managing co-occurring disorders) can be ideal. These programs aim to manage the mental health issue and addiction simultaneously, as these issues are often complexly intertwined.
Staying in a treatment program for at least three months is crucial for recovery. Many programs offer long-term stays between 6 and 12 months to really allow time for making successful life changes that support long-term recovery.
There are several additional levels of care to choose from. As a person moves through treatment, they can also transition through the different levels, which include the following:
- Detox: This is often the first stage of treatment. It may include the use of medications to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms as alcohol processes out of the body.
- Outpatient treatment: Individuals will attend treatment for several hours several days per week and return home each day.
- Intensive Outpatient Program and Partial Hospitalization Program: These are similar to outpatient services where your son returns home every night, but they are more structured and require more hours of treatment per week.
- Residential treatment: Also called inpatient rehab, individuals remain on site for the duration of the program, attending counseling, therapy, and support groups in a structured, safe, and monitored space.
- Sober living or halfway houses: This is a transitional living environment where people can reside after residential treatment is completed. It allows time to readjust to society in a sober and structured environment.
Questions to Ask Treatment Centers
When looking into a treatment facility, there are several questions you can ask to ensure it is going to be the right fit for your family.
- What levels of care do you offer, and does this include detox?
- What types of specialty programs do you have?
- What type of licensing and accreditation do you carry?
- Do you take insurance? If not, what types of payment options are available?
- What are the accommodations like, and what types of amenities and recreational opportunities are available?
- What does a typical day look like?
- What is the client-to-staff ratio?
- What types of staff members are employed?
- How many beds are there, and are the rooms private or shared?
- How long is the program?
- What options for continuing care do you offer?
- What types of family support do you offer?
It can also be helpful to look up reviews, client testimonials, and success stories for the treatment center you are considering.
Families play an important role in recovery. Programs that offer family support and programming can help to strengthen family relationships and the overall family unit.
Family programming can include family therapy and counseling sessions as well as educational programs for parents and guardians. It can be especially helpful to understand what to expect with an alcoholic son in recovery and how to best support him while also taking care of yourself.
How to Take Care of Yourself
If your son is an alcoholic, it is important to remember that to best take care of him, you also need to take care of yourself. It’s common for parents to neglect their own health and self-care as they wholly focus on their child’s struggles. Your own care plan, including therapy sessions, is essential for you during this time.
Self-care is vital during this time. You will likely need frequent breaks to make sure that you are getting what you need to stay mentally strong. Set aside time to read a good book, exercise regularly, spend time with friends, and make sure that you have people to talk to and lean on for support.
There are multiple support groups available for families of alcoholics, such as Al-Anon. These groups can offer peer support from other families that are going through what you are.
Treatment programs often offer support groups for parents and families. These groups can connect you with resources, educational materials, and a positive social network of others who understand what you are going through.
While your son’s alcohol abuse can feel isolating, know that addiction is common. You are not alone, and help is available.
What Are the Consequences? Rethinking Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)? Rethinking Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Impact of Age at First Drink on Vulnerability to Alcohol-Related Problems: Testing the Marker Hypothesis in a Prospective Study of Young Adults. (March 2009). Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Intervention: Tips and Guidelines. (July 2015). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD).
Drug Addiction Treatment in the United States. (January 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Principles of Addiction Treatment. (January 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Al-Anon. Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.