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How Alcohol Misuse Affects Family Members

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Addiction is a chronic, brain-based disorder that involves brain chemistry, the environment, life experiences, and genetics. People with an alcohol addiction continue to engage in compulsive behaviors despite adverse 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.

If you are a friend or family member of a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you might be searching for ways to understand your loved one's behaviors better. It can be challenging not to internalize their hurtful actions. Still, 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 with a drinking problem. This may mean setting ground rules and joining a support group, such as Al-Anon, explicitly designed to meet the needs of families of people with alcohol use issues.

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Loved ones of people with alcohol use disorder may feel less empathy for them and become more frustrated with them as time passes. This is understandable, but it may help to learn about how alcohol affects the brain.

Alcohol can impair an individual's motor and cognitive abilities. This occurs 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:

  • Attention

  • Impulsivity

  • Learning

  • Memory

  • Problem-solving

  • Processing speed

  • Spatial processing

  • Verbal fluency

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

How Alcohol Affects Families

Alcohol use can have a severe 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.

Increased Family Problems

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 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 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 arguments, driving while under the influence, or domestic violence.

  • Negative emotions: Family members may often experience various negative emotions in response to a loved one's drinking, including sadness, frustration, and fear.

Impact on Children

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that families affected by alcohol problems have high confusion and stress levels. This can make children 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 adverse 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 social withdrawal, risk-taking, and academic problems.

How Families Can Cope

Encouraging your loved one to get treatment is essential, but other steps 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.

  • Set boundaries: Being supportive is important, but it is also essential to establish boundaries regarding 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 needs and well-being. Ensure you are giving yourself the things you need to feel well. That includes eating healthy meals, regular physical activity, interacting with friends, getting enough sleep, and pursuing hobbies you enjoy.

  • Talk to a professional: Seeing a therapist alone 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 essential 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 receives treatment for an alcohol use disorder, family members can also benefit from educational and support programs such as Alateen and Al-Anon. There are several significant benefits of participating in support groups:

  • They may help reduce kids' risk of alcohol or substance use problems.

  • Such programs may help identify kids needing additional treatment for 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 other people out there have also been affected by alcohol misuse.

These support groups can provide stability, resources, and advice for people who have loved ones who are struggling with alcohol addiction. In addition to finding people who have had similar experiences, you can learn more about caring for your 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 advise on your next steps. Your doctor can also recommend treatment programs to help detox and recover.

Alcohol misuse can have a severe detrimental impact on the health and well-being of individuals as well as their families. Treatment is essential and can help people 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 they care 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 with an alcohol use problem.

Call Us. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or addiction and need help, our non-profit offers free Clinical Evaluations and Case Management services to individuals and families needing them.

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Another Solution-The Missing Link to Long-term Sobriety

Data Resource: Buddy T

Fact checked by: Aaron Johnson

Buddy T is a founding Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee member.

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