How Alcohol Use Affects Family Members

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Addiction is a chronic, brain-based disorder that involves brain chemistry, the environment, life experiences, and genetics. People who have an addiction to alcohol continue to engage in compulsive behaviors despite negative consequences. Many of these negative consequences affect the individual's health and well-being, but family, friends, and other loved ones are also often affected as well.

If you are a friend or family member of a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you might be searching for ways to better understand your loved one's behaviors. It can be challenging not to internalize their hurtful actions, but the reality is that people with an alcohol problem may not fully understand the impact that their actions have on friends and family.

It can often be helpful for family members to learn more about alcohol use disorders and explore ways to improve their responses during interactions with someone who has a drinking problem. This may mean setting ground rules and joining a support group such as Al-Anon, designed specifically to meet the needs of families of people with alcohol use issues.

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

While it's understandable that loved ones of alcoholics increasingly feel less empathy for them, it's also important to understand how alcohol affects the brain.

Alcohol can impair an individual's cognitive abilities. While alcohol impairs motor and cognitive abilities while a person is drinking, it can also create longer-term impairments that persist even after a person is no longer intoxicated.

Chronic, heavy alcohol consumption can cause reductions in both white and gray brain matter, leading to brain shrinkage. This can lead to problems with:

Heavy alcohol consumption can also cause malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies which can further contribute to alcohol's detrimental effects on the brain. In some cases, people may develop alcohol-related dementia or a cognitive disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

How Alcohol Affects Families

Alcohol use can have a serious negative effect on close relationships. As the problem becomes more serious, people with the condition may withdraw from loved ones or lash out at those who try to help.

Increase Family Problems

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also notes that consuming alcohol increases the risk of family problems and violence. Some of the ways that alcohol may impact families include:

  • Defensiveness: People with an alcohol use disorder may come to see their partner or other family members as a threat. This can create a mindset where a person who is in denial about their alcohol issues may feel attacked or defensive by attempts to get help for the individual or the family unit.
  • Financial problems: It is not uncommon for people to experience financial hardships resulting from their alcohol use. This might be caused by poor choices, job loss, or spending excessive amounts of money on alcohol. Such problems affect the individual with the problem, but also create hardships for the entire family.
  • Legal troubles: Alcohol use may also play a role in legal difficulties relating to things like arguments, driving while under the influence, or domestic violence.
  • Negative emotions: Family members may often experience a variety of negative emotions in response to a loved one's drinking, including feelings of sadness, frustration, and fear.

Impact on Children

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that families that are affected by alcohol problems have high levels of confusion and stress. This can make children who grow up in such environments more susceptible to substance use and other mental health problems. 

Children who have a parent with an alcohol problem may also experience a wide range of negative effects and emotions. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that these feelings may include:

  • Anger 
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Embarrassment
  • Trouble forming close relationships

Kids may also exhibit behaviors such as social withdrawal, risk-taking, and academic problems.

How Families Can Cope

Encouraging your loved one to get treatment is important, but there are also other steps that can help you protect your well-being.

  • Learn about alcohol use disorders: Educating yourself about addictions can be helpful. In addition to learning more about how addiction affects the brain, knowing how treatment works can help give you the tools and resources to support your loved one during their recovery.
  • Setting boundaries: Being supportive is important, but it is also essential to clearly establish boundaries when it comes to your loved one's actions. For example, make it clear that you will not accept drinking in your home and then follow through on the consequences if those boundaries are crossed.
  • Take care of yourself: Caring for a loved one with an alcohol problem can sometimes cause people to neglect their own needs and well-being. Make sure that you are giving yourself the things that you need to feel well. That includes eating healthy meals, getting regular physical activity, interacting with friends, getting enough sleep, and pursuing hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Talk to a professional: Seeing a therapist on your own can also help you make sense of your experiences. Your therapist can help you learn new ways of coping with your loved one's behaviors and practice new strategies to help cope with feelings of stress.

It is also important to manage your expectations. Recovery from alcohol addiction is a process that takes time and may involve setbacks.

Support Groups for Family Members

When a loved one is receiving treatment for an alcohol use disorder, family members can also benefit from educational and support programs such as Alateen and Al-Anon. 

There are a number of important benefits of participating in support groups:

  • They may help reduce the risk of kids developing alcohol or substance use problems.
  • Such programs may help identify kids that are in need of additional treatment for problems such as anxiety and depression.
  • These educational and supportive resources can help kids and other family members understand that they are not responsible for their loved one's problems with alcohol.
  • They can help family members feel less isolated and understand that there are other people out there who have also been affected by alcohol misuse.

These support groups can serve as a source of stability, resources, and advice for people who have loved ones who are struggling with alcohol addiction. In addition to finding people who have had experiences similar to your own, you can learn more about how to care for your own health and well-being.

Getting Help

If you have an alcohol use problem and are concerned about the impact it might be having on your family and friends, talk to your doctor. Effective treatments are available and your doctor can offer advice on what your next steps should be. Your doctor can prescribe medications that can help people stop drinking and help with symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Your doctor can also recommend treatment programs that can help with detox and recovery.

Unfortunately, many people are not aware that there are medications available to help treat alcohol use disorder. According to one 2019 survey, only around 1.6% of adults with an AUD reported using medications during treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, 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

Alcohol misuse can have a serious detrimental impact on the health and well-being of individuals as well as their families. Getting treatment is essential and can help people begin to recover their normal functioning and improve relationships with their partners, children, and other loved ones. 

Support from family and friends is essential, but people who make up the individual's support system also need to be sure that they are caring for themselves. Reaching out to support groups, seeking educational resources, and talking to a mental health professional can all be beneficial if you have a loved one who has an alcohol use problem.

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Article Sources
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