Dealing With a Relative Who Drinks Too Much During the Holidays

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Occasionally, everyone comes across someone who drinks too much—a coworker at an office party or a college friend at a wedding. But, when that person is a relative who consistently drinks too much—especially around the holidays—the situation becomes a little more challenging and laughing it off doesn't seem like a suitable answer.

Whether you drink yourself, or you've decided that's not the life for you, dealing with a relative who misuses alcohol is stressful, especially if you love the person dearly.

Consequently, understanding how to approach these situations and conversations is important. Here are some ideas on how to address your relative's drinking in a direct and honest way.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

Feeling angry, upset, embarrassed, or frightened when your relative drinks too much is normal and understandable, especially if they have a tendency to become abusive or belligerent.

Consequently, you may feel anxious or afraid around them or re-experience negative memories from the past even before they are intoxicated. These feelings are normal and an indication that something is wrong.

Even if you were made to feel that you are the problem or the motivation behind your relative's drinking, that is not true. Your relative makes a choice to drink and it has nothing to do with you.

Still, if you are like most people who have a close relative that drinks, you may feel responsible for them or that you have an obligation to them because they are family. But, you do not.

No one deserves to be abused or treated poorly and alcohol misuse is not an excuse for such behaviors.

Recognizing that you are not to blame nor are you responsible for your relative's drinking are the first steps toward establishing healthy boundaries.

Start a Conversation

All too often, families with a relative who misuses alcohol or other substances fall into the trap of avoiding conflict and denying the truth. As a result, you may be tempted to lie or make up excuses when it comes to holiday celebrations. But, you need to resist this urge and discuss the real reason you prefer not to spend time with them.

Be honest about how the drinking makes you feel. Use "I" statements and avoid being critical. Indicate that you are not trying to change them—they can still choose to drink if they want. But remind them that you also have a choice, and you are choosing not to be around them when they are drinking.

Remember, being related to someone doesn't require you to spend time with them, especially if their behaviors are damaging and hurtful.

While it is understandable that you want to avoid conflict, ultimately your relative may be more likely to address their drinking once they realize it's driving you away.

At the very least, knowing that their time with you and your family is being affected might cause them to pause and think about their drinking. Consequently, it's worth the effort to have that conversation. Here are some suggestions for addressing the issue.

  • Avoid making excuses or lying. Stick to your decision to tell them the truth.
  • Be honest and let them know how their drinking makes you feel.
  • Be prepared for guilt, blame, or manipulation, especially if your relative lies all the time.
  • Indicate that you will celebrate with them at a different time.
  • Schedule a time to talk when they are not drinking.
  • Try not to criticize them but focus on why their alcohol misuse bothers you.

When you approach a conversation honestly, you're not trying to control the situation or your relative. Instead, you're recognizing their right to choose and acknowledging your own right to choose as well.

Remember, if someone is going to stop drinking, ultimately it needs to be their choice. So, don't try to use this conversation as a way to control their drinking.

Manage Holidays and Celebrations

If past celebrations have been ruined by your relative's alcohol use, think about whether you should put yourself—and your family—through another painful experience. Even if you're afraid it would hurt your relative's feelings if they weren't included, you have to make a decision that keeps everyone healthy and safe.

This decision is particularly important if your relative is known for being inappropriate, abusive, or completely unreasonable when they drink too much.

Although your relative might expect to be included in family celebrations, you are not required to extend an invitation if you're the one hosting the event.

If someone else is hosting the event, you have every right to decline in order to protect your family and ensure a peaceful holiday celebration. Making this decision is difficult, but you need to do what is best for you and your family.

Remember, you are not rejecting your family member, you are simply erecting boundaries. Your relative makes the choice to drink excessively, but you are not required to condone that behavior. Additionally, you don't have to completely avoid your relative over the holidays (unless you want to). Consider alternatives like:

  • Mail or drop off a card or gift before the holiday if you plan to be away at that time.
  • Spend a holiday breakfast with them if they are more likely to be sober in the morning. But also consider how they might behave if they are hungover, and plan accordingly.
  • Visit the day before instead. Choose a time earlier in the day and keep it limited.

Protect Others

No matter how important your relative is to you, there are probably other people who matter as much, if not more. Consequently, these people—whether family or friends—should not be subjected to your relative's alcohol misuse. It's unfair to expect them to tolerate such disruptive and hurtful behavior, especially if they are children.

Spending time with your sober friends and family members should take priority over anyone who insists on drinking to excess. You deserve to enjoy the holidays with people who respect you and your choices.

Likewise, family and friends deserve to be able to enjoy these celebrations as well without the disruption of a relative who drinks too much. In particular, if you have children, you should prioritize enjoying authentic, low-stress time with them around the holidays.

Keep in mind, spending time with an intoxicated relative could be hurtful, emotionally damaging, and frightening for children—particularly if they witness disrespectful behavior, cursing, slurred speech, or violence.

Even if these behaviors are not directed toward them, they still have an impact on their emotional development. So, politely decline any invitations involving your relative when you suspect they will be drinking.

Decline Drinking Together

It can be tempting to try to connect with a relative by joining them for a drink or two. But that is rarely a good idea, especially if their behaviors when they are intoxicated bother you. Even if your relative pressures you to join them for a drink, remember that you always have a choice.

Plus, drinking together will only encourage more drinking, so don't do it. Instead, use effective strategies for refusing. Treat this situation as you would any type of peer pressure.

If you do choose to drink with your relative, remember that your ability to respond appropriately will be impaired and you may end up behaving negatively.

These situations also increase the likelihood that arguments and disagreements will occur. Even if your relative doesn't get violent or abusive when drinking, dealing with their impaired communication, problematic behavior, and poor role modeling can spoil your day.

Instead of trying to connect with your relative over a drink, try understanding your relative's addiction. Doing so may help you make sense of the situation.

For instance, some people drink because they want to avoid negative emotions. Then, when drinking becomes a problem for them, they can't stop without facing the reasons they started drinking in the first place.

Learning how to better support your relative and communicate in a way that won't encourage more drinking also helps. In fact, family support is an important part of the recovery process and could be the first step in getting them the help they need.

Seek Help

There are some helpful ideas to remember if you're encouraging your loved one to recognize the negative impact their drinking has on you.

You Can't Force Them to Stop

Many children who grow up with a family member who drinks too much dream of rescuing them. You may even crave the person they were when sober. Or, if you never knew them sober, you may yearn for a relationship that is everything it should be—supportive and kind.

Although your support is important if your relative decides to change their drinking behavior, you can't keep them from drinking. That is a decision only they can do for themselves.

They Might Try to Blame You

Likewise, letting your relative know how much you would appreciate them quitting or cutting down on their drinking may encourage them to think about change, but it also may make them defensive.

You may even find yourself on the receiving end of unfair accusations and blame. Generally, people who drink a lot don't respond well to other people telling them to stop. Sometimes families try an intervention, but responses to interventions are unpredictable.

Resources That May Help

An approach called Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) is an evidence-based method that is preferred over interventions when helping people with addiction. The approach utilizes behavioral principles to help people find ways to reduce their loved one's alcohol or substance use and encourage them to seek help.

Studies have found people with alcohol use disorder are two to three times more likely to attend treatment after four to six CRAFT sessions compared to some other approaches.

The results of a 2016 clinical trial found that CRAFT was effective for helping the loved ones of alcohol-dependent individuals improve family cohesion and mental health.

There are many resources for people who misuse alcohol, including Alcoholics Anonymous. Studies show that AA participation is linked with less drinking and more periods without drinking for those who attend.

Your Support Matters

The bottom line is that even if your relative tries to quit because you ask them to, they may not be successful. However, the good news is that those who are successful often cite encouragement and support from their family in helping them succeed in quitting.

If you're able to, try supporting your relative in their efforts to control their drinking, without taking on sole responsibility for their behavior.

If you can't help them without having your boundaries overlooked or without your mental health suffering, you have the right to keep your distance from them.

You also can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you view the holidays and other celebrations with growing dread because of your relative's excessive drinking, you owe it to yourself to minimize the destructiveness of their behavior.

Decide how you're going to handle the situation, talk with them about your decisions, and stick to your plan. As difficult as it might be, you will be glad that you took steps to ensure a peaceful holiday season.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.