My Family Gets Drunk During The Holidays. Now What?

By Mark Zauss, BC-TMC, NCC, CCMHC, LMHC, and therapist on the Monument platform
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Drinking excessively is all too common during the holidays and for many of us, it can be our family’s drinking we struggle with the most. Whether we are working to maintain sobriety ourselves, or are otherwise affected by our loved ones’ drinking, navigating familial alcohol consumption can add a great deal of stress to the holidays. There are two questions I encourage you to ask yourself:

  1. What can I do for my family members if they drink too much?
  2. What can I do for myself?

With empowering strategies and firm boundaries, you will be able to celebrate the holidays on your own terms. 

You have options

If you’re hosting, limit the amount of alcohol you serve. If you’re a guest, bring the sparkling apple cider.  

Let me be clear: putting a cap on the alcohol in your house does not make you a bad host. Limiting access to alcohol sets a boundary for everyone. This reduces the risk of one-on-one confrontation and having to single out anyone who might be struggling to manage their drinking. Instead, offer inspired non-alcoholic drinks and delicious food. Not to mention that water, protein, and carbohydrates can help dilute the effects of alcohol if people are drinking around you.

thanksgiving table

Have a time limit. 

Building a nighttime routine is a highly effective way to boost your mental wellness. And if you’ve been on a roll, your nightly rituals don’t have to waver because it’s a holiday. If your family is sharing a holiday meal, be transparent about the time commitment. Plan on wrapping up soon after dinner, or commit to leaving at a certain time. Again, you’re not being a poor host or a rude guest. In fact, you’re establishing loving boundaries for not just yourself, but your home and your family. If you’re sober or moderating, maintaining that commitment is far more important than staying a couple hours longer after dessert. You are your top priority.

Extra important: Be aware of how everyone’s getting home. 

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the holiday season accounted for roughly one-third of the yearly driving fatalities in 2018. If you or someone you love is unable to drive themselves home, arrange alternative transportation. 

Oftentimes, we cannot control how much our loved ones’ drink. What we can control is how much we drink, and how we support those around us.  

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You don’t have to be “on.” 

You don’t owe any explanation if you need space from others. I hear frequently from my patients that folks feel obligated to be “on” during the holiday season beyond their bandwidth. There is nothing wrong with opting out of a dinner or a Zoom call. It can be particularly difficult to be surrounded by heavy holiday drinking when we are working to change our relationship with alcohol. Instead, join a Monument alcohol support group (2 are taking place on Thanksgiving!), write into your Community, watch a ho

liday-flick, or order take-out for one. Your mental health and, if applicable, sobriety or moderation is paramount to any familial obligation. And if you need some support to get started, check out our tips for psychologically distancing yourself from people … and alcohol. Both might apply here! 

Holiday Group: Getting Through Today Without Drinking

The holidays can be filled with joy, loneliness, pressure to drink, and more. Your feelings are valid. Join us for an encouraging conversation about how to get through today without alcohol.
Check out the Schedule

And it might not just be about the holidays.

 Understand where we are.

Understanding where you are mentally and emotionally can be challenging. It takes check-ins, self-reflection, and most importantly: compassion. If you’re struggling to maintain self-compassion as you navigate challenging relationships and alcohol use over the holidays, I recommend thinking of where you are as one stop in a series of stages. Enter: The Transtheoretical model of change. When we become aware of where we fall on our path toward actualizing the changes we’d like to make, we can better understand what we need, what we’re not getting, and review what we have. This model can also help your family members understand their own journey, especially in changing their relationship with alcohol. 

The Transtheoretical model of change

What stage do you see yourself in? Allow yourself to be where you are in your process, reflect on what you need in this moment, and continue on your path toward change. You can also use this model to reflect on where your family members may be. This will help you to establish your boundaries (and expectations) this holiday season. 

Give and receive support

While you cannot force anyone into getting treatment, you can be ready with resources if they are interested or willing. Monument believes in making this support accessible, with physician-prescribed medication to stop drinking or cut back, specialized alcohol therapy, and free, therapist-moderated support groups. Bring ideas and resources to the table, and let your loved one know that you are always there to help them in getting care. 

You don’t have to do this alone. 

This has been an extraordinarily challenging year. According to research from The Journal of the American Medical Association, there has been a significant increase in alcohol consumption since the pandemic started. These are unprecedented circumstances, and undeniably trying. If you’re concerned about your own drinking habits or a loved one’s drinking, know that you are not alone. I encourage you to attend a support group about managing your own drinking, or “Caring for yourself while caring for someone in recovery.” Join with your camera on or off, to listen, share, and discover community. And, know that we are here for you every step of the way. 

And finally, I encourage you to claim your health as a priority. The holidays can generate high levels of stress, and family drinking can be difficult to navigate, especially while sober. Remember what you can control and offer your help to those you love. Sometimes a boundary or personal space can be the best gift you can give yourself (and others). Remember that your needs are also at the table. 

If you believe you might be experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal, please contact your healthcare  provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Mark ZaussMark is a licensed mental health counselor in Florida with over 12 years of experience. He is a board-certified clinical mental health counselor by the NBCC — (National Board for Certified Counselors), a nationally certified counselor by the NBCC as well as a Board Certified Telehealth provider for online counseling. Mark is also a qualified supervisor. He graduated with honors from Rollins College which is recognized as one of the highest-rated colleges in the U.S. for mental health counseling. His specialties include treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, fear of being in a public place, social anxiety, relationship issues, career problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance abuse and addiction issues. Mark also specializes in helping others cope with new and difficult situations while having to adjust to a new way of life-related to the pandemic.
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