Someone you care about appears to be negatively impacted by alcohol

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about appears to be drinking a lot.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about appears to be drinking a lot of alcohol. Maybe you notice their mood changes significantly throughout the day or that they’re more irritable at times. Maybe you notice:

  • They’ve become more socially withdrawn
  • They’re drinking alone
  • They’re choosing to drink over other obligations and life duties
  • They seem to be functioning normally, but you’re still concerned

What do you need to understand?

Drinking alcohol is a cultural pastime that, if not well understood or managed, can negatively impact our life. People generally choose to drink for personal or social reasons. The personal reasons include coping with life or unpleasant emotions. People drink socially to be with others and have a good time. Drinking alcohol becomes a problem when it negatively impacts our ability to function in daily life or interferes with relationships. Because of the way media and cultural views present alcohol, people often don’t see their drinking as a problem.

What do you need to consider?

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, consider if their alcohol use has changed. In the past, did they drink socially, but now drink alone? Consider if their life circumstances have changed and if they’re trying to navigate additional responsibilities or stresses. Maybe they used to have the occasional drink, but now appear to be drinking most days. Overall, consider how they’re using alcohol, for what reason and if the alcohol is negatively impacting their regular functioning and relationships. Sometimes you may not be asking directly about the alcohol use, but about what might have changed for them in their life to influence their alcohol use.

Engaging in a supportive conversation

Have the right mindset 

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your own hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Here’s an examples of a “noticing” conversation starter:

  • “I notice you’re not joining us for family events as much as you used to and I’m concerned. How are you feeling?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they're behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they do feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re experiencing.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they're finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “You mentioned feeling tired and unmotivated to engage in your regular activities, and that sometimes drinking helps to escape those feelings. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Examples of “calling out strengths” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m so glad you decided to share this with me. Taking a moment to reflect on what has changed for you and what isn’t working anymore takes courage.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified feeling unmotivated and too tired to engage in regular activities and that drinking may be a concern for you. I know you had some ideas about how to start moving forward, so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can support, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do at this time to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address to create some change in your life. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets  your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: