What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem

Afraid they’ll get mad if you say anything? Worried they’ll dismiss it as not having eaten dinner or another rotten day at work? Have you had the same “conversation” so many times, you’re sick of it all and have just about had it?

So what do you say to someone with a drinking problem?

Confirm for Yourself Whether Their Drinking “Really” is a Problem

This is often what keeps a person from talking to someone about their drinking – they’re not really sure whether it is a “problem” and don’t want to get sideways with that person by suggesting it is. One of my favorite resources for answering this question is the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)’s website, “Rethinking Drinking,” and specifically this page on the site, “How Much is Too Much?” To give you a sneak preview, here is what is considered “normal” or “low-risk” drinking:

For women: no more than 7 standard drinks per week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day.

For men: no more than 14 standard drinks per week, with no more than 4 of the 17 on any one day.

A standard drink is defined as: 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor.

Thus, if the person you’re conceded about drinks more that these limits, you’re right to be concerned.

The World Health Organization offers an assessment that can easily and anonymously be completed, as well. It’s called the Alcohol Use Disorders Test (AUDIT). Click here for the pdf download. The assessment is on page 17, and in America, Question 3 should be 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women and 5 or more for men (because drink sizes in America are larger than the world average standard drink size). Interpreting and scoring the AUDIT is found on pages 19-21. Please note – the AUDIT is designed and intended as a screening tool to be used by a medical practitioner, so for the layperson – it should be considered information only.

The Majority of People with a Drinking Problem are not Alcoholics

This is often a surprise to people. It’s also a relief. In fact, according to NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website (you’ll get these results yourself if you anonymously answer the “What’s Your Pattern?” Qs), the majority of American adults don’t drink at all or always stay within low risk limits and of those who exceed these limits, the majority are considered alcohol abusers vs alcoholics. Here’s a reprint of NIAAA’s graphic:

What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem

Notice I differentiated between alcohol abusers and alcoholics. The reason for this distinction is that “stopping” is different depending on which one it is. For the alcoholic, they have the brain disease of addiction and must stop drinking all together for it is the alcohol that triggers their brain disease. For the alcohol abuser, it is possible they can can learn to “re-drink” – to bring their drinking pattern within “low-risk” limits. And that’s because they have not crossed the line from alcohol abuse to alcoholism. Check out this 10-minute video, “Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.” This post may also help as it sheds light on the “process” – how a person develops the brain disease of addiction (of which alcoholism is but one), “Want to Prevent Addiction? Assess Your Risk Factors.”

Get Solid on Your Beliefs about the Problem

One of the ways we get tripped up when we try to have a conversations with someone about their drinking is we don’t have the come-backs to the many retorts they throw at us, such as:

  • I hadn’t eaten all day!
  • Having a couple of drinks a night is no big deal.
  • I only drink on the week-ends, and have I ever missed a day of work? No!
  • You drink! So what’s the big deal?

I’ve written a short eBook, Crossing the Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence (aka Alcoholism), to provide the answers that debunk the common myths and misperceptions about a variety of topics related to a person’s drinking. The link I provided is for Amazon’s Kindle version, but the eBook is available in just about every eReader format so check our yours. You may also wish to use this free app that will allow you to read the Kindle version on any device.

And, now…

What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem

Sometimes knowing what to say to someone with a drinking problem is as much as knowing what NOT to say.

Sometimes knowing what to say to someone with a drinking problem is as much about knowing what NOT to say.

Here’s where it’s helpful to start with WHAT NOT TO SAY:

  • You’re a drunk!
  • Do you know how stupid you sounded last night!
  • Once again, you broke your promise. You broke YOUR PROMISE!!
  • If you loved me you’d stop!

Although these kinds of statements are totally normal, they generally stem from not understanding that when a person drinks more than their liver can process (rid the body of), the alcohol continues to change brain function, which is why the person behaves the way they do. It’s not “them,” it’s alcohol changing brain function. Check out “Why BAC Can Keep Rising After a Person Stops Drinking” and “Understand Brain Maps | Change a Habit | Change Your Life.”

Not only this, but these kinds of statements are of the blaming and shaming type and while they make you feel better (believe me, I know from my own experiences), they don’t help the situation because the person with the drinking problem already feels ashamed and filled with self-loathing for why they can’t stop at one or two.

Instead, try these possible entry statements to the conversation BUT ONLY when they are sober and you’ve asked to talk with them:

  • I don’t know if you’re aware how much your behaviors change when you drink, but last night, for example ____________.
  • I’ve been doing some googling trying to figure out if I should say anything about how you behave when you drink too much and found this great website, Rethinking Drinking. I’d really like you to do the anonymous assessment and take a look at the other information on the site.
  • I think you have alcoholism – I say this so boldly because I’d never understood what alcoholism was before, but now I’ve been doing some research, and it appears you may have it. I’d really like you to take this anonymous assessment created by the World Health Organization as a starter.
  • I’ve finally found a name for what happens to me when you behave the way you do while drinking – it’s called secondhand drinking. I’m going to be learning a great deal more about this, but I wanted you to know that your drinking behaviors – the way you act when you drink too much – are causing real problems for me. I’m not sure what to do about them, but I’m also understanding that my old ways of talking about this don’t work, either.

Know it doesn’t have to all be done at once

We tend to want to get it ALL out there and then have a solution – an action plan – by the end of the conversation. But with these kinds of conversations, rarely is this possible. The better approach is to calmly state your concern and then ask if you can talk about some of your other observations and research findings in a day or two – and then be sure to set a date/time to talk. They may want to keep going, but likely they won’t. And if they get defensive at any point, remind them you are doing this out of love and concern. You’d be doing the same thing if you were concerned about some other aspect of their health and wellbeing.

Remember – they are a person, first, and then a person with a drinking problem

It’s so easy to see them as their problem because their drinking problem is causing drinking behaviors that in turn cause you problems. You’ll want to be clear in your own mind that you are taking a stand against their drinking behaviors – against secondhand drinking (the negative impacts of their drinking behaviors on you and the quality of your life) – and not against them as a person.

And if it’s a teen, don’t wait

According to Medline Plus (a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health) in their article, “Talking to your teen about drinking:”

About 1 in 5 teens are considered problem drinkers. This means they:
• Get drunk
• Have accidents related to drinking
Get into trouble with the law, their family, friends, school, or dates because of their drinking

So I urge you to read the reminder of their article for what to say and do if you are concerned about a teen’s drinking.

© 2014 Lisa Frederiksen


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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  1. All good to know, Lisa. I surely remember the, “what not to say” list being said to me in my active addiction. And frankly, the first thing that came to mind is that I couldn’t wait until it was time to have another drink…crazy, but true.

    The resources for understanding good communication in these matters with young people is great. And the totally transparent suggestions for people in general, terrific. As a recovering person I can say, yes! those declarative, informative and blameless statements would have struck me a whole different way.

    Thank you.

    • I remember when I was in the thick of it with secondhand drinking and not understanding the science behind alcohol abuse, alcoholism and secondhand drinking — the things I said as I lashed out at all of it – I shudder to recall. Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your own experience and how this information would have helped.

  2. Great piece, Lisa! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all have simple, direct conversations with our loved ones concerning their use, abuse or dependence? Ah yes . . .

    I particularly appreciated your inclusion of remembering that a person with the disease of alcoholism is a person first. Sometimes, they simply don’t want to quit because steady alcohol use has been a constant in life for many, many decades. That’s where a great deal of respect for their decisions comes in–along with a respect for my own response to the abuse, secondhand drinking, as you say. That concept is a new one for me to wrap my head around but if you’ll keep writing about it, I’ll continue to learn.

    Thanks for your work!!

    • Thank you, Beth! Yes it would be wonderful if we could have simple, direct conversations — it tends to get way to heated and then both parties go off on side issues, often getting downright mean.

      The use of the term secondhand drinking (SHD) is to help reframe the terms codependency or enabler, as examples. It’s also to help us see the far bigger picture, namely that a person’s drinking behaviors affect not only the close and extended family members, friends, co-workers and fellow students, but often through them, it affects others within those individuals’ sphere, as well as society as a whole. This latter point includes NIDA’s $235 billion3 annual cost estimates of the negative consequences of alcohol misuse (in other words, SHD), including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, as well as the staggering breadth of the associated public health and safety implications of alcohol misuse, “such as family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse,” [NIDA].

      This post shares some additional information on SHD, as well as additional links http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/2013/02/23/secondhand-drinking-prevention/

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. Thanks for this Lisa, so straight forward and so helpful – as most of us don’t have a clue how to begin a conversation like this. How incredibly nerve wracking to even attempt it! I love it all, but especially the part about – if it’s a teen, don’t wait!! Yes, ma’am, that’s for sure….

  4. Hi Lisa,

    You make some great points here about what to say and what not to say. “Instead, try these possible entry statements to the conversation BUT ONLY when they are sober and you’ve asked to talk with them” can be really helpful and I particularly like your point about talking to your loved one only when they are sober.

    Another tactic is to leave the room or remove yourself from the intoxicated person, so that you are not interacting with them at all when they are under the influence, even letting them know that you are choosing not be around them when they are abusing alcohol. Not having dinner waiting is another example of something that a person can do to remind the loved one that they are not willing to support their alcohol abuse. Great post here – thanks!

  5. Dang, this is so strong, Lisa. You introduce a common social/familial dilemma and provide a “manual-based” approach to addressing it. And tons of resources, as usual. Am I an alcoholic, or what!? When I was reading the part about alcohol abuser v. alcoholic, and you mentioned the abuser may be able to learn to “re-drink,” my initial reaction was, “You mean I can…” But, of course, I can’t – and I know it. Curious inner-dynamic. Your work always makes me think, Lisa. And I’m glad for that (and it’s just one of the reasons I come back). Thanks, and take care…

    • LOL on your reaction, “You mean I can…”. Hopefully understanding this distinction will help those who can make that choice and not keep going to “prove” they’re not an alcoholic. I always appreciate you stopping by and adding your insights, Bill! Take care.

  6. Thank you for this, Lisa. Oh, how I wish I’d read this (and all about the CRAFT approach) about 10 years ago. I would have saved my alcoholic loved ones and me a lot of unpleasant conversations. I’m excited to read your book – one that should be published and available in bookstores and libraries. Publishers, take note of Lisa.

    • Thanks so much for the shout out, Jody! And boy, I’m with you on wishing this information had been available years ago – when I think back to my side of the hundreds of “conversations” I had with various alcoholic / alcohol abusing loved ones and friends, I cringe!

  7. Hi, Lisa. I just wanted to say thank you for this information and guidance. I have been trying to figure out how to talk to a very close family member about his drinking, and I never really know what to say because he gets so defensive and he never lets me get a word in. Do you think it would be a good idea to write him a letter? I’m definitely going to look more into the links you’ve provided and get more insight about the mental and physical aspects of this condition. I want to be fully informed before I say anything. This information will get my family and I on the right path.

  8. Great post Lisa! This is an excellent guide on how to tactfully confront someone about the perils of alcoholism in a non-confrontational way. Dealing with someone who has an addiction requires a very soft and delicate manner. Often we sabotage our efforts before even getting started on an intervention. Once we successfully treat an addiction then relapse prevention becomes our next hurdle to cross. For a helpful guide to drug relapse prevention plans and other relapse prevention strategies please feel free to navigate the link below for some useful tips.



  9. One other determinant on whether or not someone has a drinking problem: do they have blackouts? Those who have blackouts may not fit into those standard boxes, but blackouts are very dangerous. They’re friendship-killers, relationship killers and can also have disastrous physical consequences.

    I know some will disagree with me, but those who have alcoholic blackouts and find out what they did only when someone tells them the next day have alcohol problems, and really should stop drinking. Cold turkey.

  10. Hi Lisa,
    I’m reading this now as I’m considering to hide my loved ones alcohol. I know I shouldn’t. Where I live, nobody can come out and help… especially if he doesn’t want it. We’ve been through ALOT this past six months. Job lost and so on. This is when he started drinking more and more to the point of dependency. He got a job again and all went okay, until holidays and I was sooo afraid of it. He should have been back to work this week, instead he’s drinking and passing out. There is no sober time. He drinks the WHOLE time, I mean through the night especially. it’s 10am now and he’s past out. He’s depressed and from yesterday and today he is serious about suicide. I’ve been last year to the police, hospital, called around alot of numbers for help, no one can help unless he wants to or he actually tries suicide and fail! Can you believe that!? His brain seems bi-polar, did alot of research, and I know it’s the brain chemicals. His family ain’t the type to understand and will only put him in a further rage when confronted. I’ve hidden his wallet and car keys… I’m quite afraid of what the reaction will be, but I truely just want him to sober up. He thinks normal then. Through alcohol his mind ain’t rational at all and his personality is sooo different. What should I do?

  11. Thank you, and thanks for truely wanting to give support. You’re pages are very informative. I did hide the wallet at first and like his brain is altered, he did go off in a rage, blaming me and the whole nasty works you get along with it, until I gave up and gave it back, crying. Like second hand drinking syndrome I wanted to control and just help… “but an alcoholic always wins”. BUT… after I gave up the wallet, he sat a while, and I can see the battle inside him whether he should go or not… He didn’t, yes got even angrier later and the name calling, but I still know it ain’t him, it’s literally the alcohol altering the brain. He stopped drinking at lunch time and at night got terrible withdrawal effects. We’ve been through it once, I try to encourage him he’s strong and he gotten this far. I took him today to the hospital, and they booked him in for detox. He’s quite stressed, but he doesn’t fight it. I’m sooo glad and proud of him. through all the sickness, he tries and realizes the situation. I was totally scared yesterday, but today I’m at peace he gets the right help… *Never give up!* (Just a quick note, my husband is a wonderful loving caring man. This is just an illness and we will get through this. All the negativities comes from the alcohol, not him. love him to bits)

  12. I keep finding vodka bottles in the house, I know my other swigs outt the bottle and then tries to hide it. Bizarre thing is he thinks I cannot tell his been drinking as he gets more argumentative and tries to mask the vodka smell which I can detect so easily. I get excuses, it’s the weekend, I needed it to sleep, haven’t gotta get up late. im fully aware he drinks n drives, he said it’s only a couple and assumes I’m stupid that I believe him. But I don’t. I think my boyfriend is a secret alcoholic but when confronting him he just gets angry and spins excuses making me feel like I’m the one with the problem.

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  15. Very good advice
    However in my case my wife is not approachable in any and I have no idea what to do.. I’ve even spoken to my step daughter and she thinks it’s all funny..
    In the past weeks my wife has drank so much that she actually had a blackout..
    I’m thinking of speaking with our doctor to bring him up to date on what’s going on..
    My wife at times has even mentioned suicide

  16. You’ve got some great tips for talking to someone with a drinking problem. I agree that saying things that blame or shame the person would not help. I’ve got a brother with a pretty serious alcohol problem, so I’ll show his wife this. Maybe he’ll get professional help.