How to Help an Alcoholic Mother
The older you get, the more you realize that your parents are people with problems and mistakes of their own. No parent is perfect, but having a mother who struggles with alcohol use can place a heavy burden on the rest of the family. You might feel hurt or angry because of the choices she has made yet still want to help her.
If you don’t have any other experience with alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), it can be difficult to know how to help. This page will explore what AUD is, how to notice signs of AUD, and steps you can take to help your mom begin treatment..
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction, formally known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic disease that involves not being able to stop or control alcohol use no matter the negative consequences to your health and relationships.1 But a person with AUD cannot stop drinking by just “deciding to quit,” as addiction changes your brain chemistry.1
Though people have been using alcohol around the world for millennia, not everyone who drinks develops AUD. There are many factors that contribute to the likelihood of developing AUD, such as:1
- How often, how much, and how quickly you drink.
- At what age you started drinking.
- Influence of parent’s drinking patterns.
- Co-occurring mental health disorders.
Does My Mom Drink Too Much?
Only a doctor or other licensed professional can diagnose someone with an alcohol use disorder. However, if you are wondering if your mother drinks too much, you may notice some of the following AUD warning signs below:2
- Wanting or trying to stop drinking but not being able to do so.
- Continuing to use alcohol despite the social problems it causes.
- Ignoring her responsibilities because of her alcohol use.
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms if she goes too long without alcohol.
How to Approach an Alcoholic Parent
If you are concerned for your mother, you can start the conversation. She doesn’t have to be at “rock bottom” before getting help. But, a parent-child relationship is unique. You may fear that your mother will feel upset by bringing it up, but ignoring her AUD can worsen your relationship over time. To have the most effective conversation, there are a few things to consider:
- Avoid bringing up the topic when she is intoxicated.
- Choose a quiet place with few distractions.
- Learn everything you can about AUD.
- Have specific examples of worrisome behaviors or consequences you’ve noticed.
- Write out what you want to say, and even bring that script to your conversation.
These kinds of conversations can be hard for everyone involved. But mustering the courage to have that conversation could be the thing that saves your mom’s life.
What to Say to Someone with Addiction
Pulled between your concern for your mother and not wanting to offend her, it can be tough to know what to say. One study asked people who were recovering from substance use disorders what they found helpful in these kinds of conversations with loved ones. The three main themes were understanding, having trust in the person confronting them, and that person expressing care more than anger or disappointment.3
Some practical ways to include these in your talks include:3
- Express your care for them.
- Include the people who are most important in your mom’s life.
- Offer emotional support and, where possible, practical support.
- Learn as much as you can about AUD before starting the conversation. Communicate what you do know, and be open about what you do not know or understand.
- Acknowledge any successes or progress your mom has made.
What Not to Say to Your Loved One
Just as there are things that should be said, there are also things to avoid. If your mother is like others who have gone before her in AUD recovery, she will most likely respond poorly to:3
- Open hostility or anger.
- Being spoken down to or “preached at.”
- Being told what they need to do to recover.
- Bringing up the past in a blaming context.
- Stigmatizing language, such as “drunk” or “alcoholic,” as these words can cause very real harm.
In the moment, it can sometimes be difficult to realize you are using these tactics in conversation. It is helpful to rehearse beforehand and be sure you are in a clear state of mind before starting a conversation about your mom’s alcohol use.
Support for Families of Alcoholics
Whether or not your mother or loved one is ready to change their alcohol use, taking care of yourself is important. Caring for someone with AUD can feel like a full-time job. If you constantly feel exhausted, you are less able to give the support that your mother needs to recover. Even if she isn’t ready to start treatment for AUD, starting therapy as a family can help improve your relationships, learn new coping techniques, and possibly move your mom closer to treatment.4
But you can only control your own behavior, and your mom’s behaviors are not your fault. So, it is important to change any behaviors you may have adapted that enable her alcohol use. Enabling behavior is anything you do that shields your mom from the negative consequences of her alcohol use. By removing the consequences of her actions, you may also be making it easier for her to keep drinking, which may in turn lessen her motivation to seek recovery.
Some examples of enabling behaviors include:5
- Giving your mom money that will be spent on alcohol. If she is in need, buy the specific things she needs instead of giving her money.
- Bailing her out of jail if she is there for an alcohol-related incident.
- Driving her everywhere she wants if she gets a DUI.
- Ignoring her alcohol use.
If support within the family is still scarce, there are many community support groups for family and friends of people with AUD. Groups like Al-Anon and SMART Recovery Family and Friends can offer a safe and non-judgmental place to discuss the challenges of AUD within the family. Many of these groups will encourage you to set boundaries to keep yourself healthy and safe. It can be empowering for you and motivating for your mother if you are able to share and hold your boundaries with her. Some examples of boundaries might be:
- “I will not see my mom if she is under the influence of alcohol.”
- “I will give her food or clothes, but I will not give her money.”
- “I will not lie to our family about her drinking.”
Setting boundaries does not mean you are removing your love or being selfish. Good boundaries can make the difference between starting recovery now or starting recovery years later.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Treatment for alcohol addiction can vary greatly depending on how much, how often, and for how long your mom has been drinking. Common treatment settings include:6
- Detoxification: Detox helps keep your mom safe during withdrawal and prepares her for further treatment.
- Inpatient rehab: Inpatient rehab offers 24/7 care and support. Around-the-clock detachment from her personal life can help your mother recover without her usual triggers.
- Outpatient treatment: In an outpatient program, your mom will live at home and attend regular treatment appointments during the week.
Which setting and treatment length is right for your mom depends on how severe her AUD is, her overall health, insurance coverage, and other factors. But, there are many available options for AUD rehab, and you are likely to find one that would work for her.
What if your mom refuses treatment? You can still control your own decisions and behavior, and taking a CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) approach can help.7 A CRAFT approach helps you develop motivation-building skills, communication skills, treatment entry training skills, and others.
How to Find Treatment for My Mom with AUD
After getting through the difficult conversation of confronting AUD, finding a treatment center does not have to be a challenge. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has alcohol treatment centers located across the United States. It’s easy to get involved in finding one that will work for you and allow you to help your mother. Call to learn more about finding the right rehab for your mother or other loved one.