An introduction to coping strategies for families living with a loved one suffering from addiction

It’s not just the person with the drinking problem that needs help. Friends and family of alcoholics need support too.

When you live with or are close to someone with a drinking problem, you often end up thinking it’s your fault,” says Maria*, a representative from the National Office of Al-Anon Family Groups. The groups, which meet all over Australia and are anonymous and confidential, provide support for family and friends of alcoholics and those who abuse alcohol.

“Going to Al-Anon can help with getting emotional support and knowing that others have had similar problems,” Maria says. “I thought my husband drank because he didn’t care enough about me and the kids or anyone else. I thought he did it deliberately to upset me. But when you find out that alcoholism is a sickness or addiction, you realise the person is drinking because they don’t know how to stop.”

Maria explains that a family member might be so anxious about the drinker getting into money trouble, for example, that they pay all their bills for them.

“Sometimes problem drinkers deliberately make others angry, particularly partners, because then they have an excuse for what they’re doing. They have justification for the drinking they’ve just done, and the excuse to drink more”, she says. “Al-Anon helps you to see that all alcoholics do this, it’s not your particular husband, wife, child, mother, father, sister or best friend.

Coping strategies

“One of the main strategies you learn is not to take on the blame. You’re not responsible for someone who is sick. If they had cancer or diabetes, you wouldn’t think it was your fault,” says Maria.

Learning to accept that you can’t control someone else’s drinking is key, she says. “You learn to detach and not do things for the drinker that they should do themselves. If there’s violence involved, you learn to see the signs and to have a plan to go and stay with someone else. In my case, if my husband was violent I called the police. Sometimes that’s what has to happen.”

Geoff Munro, a spokesperson for the Australian Drug Foundation, says alcohol can also contribute to financial problems, work and school problems, issues with police and unsafe and unwanted sex. “The harms caused by alcohol misuse can be immense, yet Australian culture often tends to tolerate them,” he says. “If you don’t know where to start, make an appointment to see your GP. That should be your first stop. And then see about getting support for yourself.”

* Name withheld.

The NSW Department of health Checklist

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Know where to go for more help and support.
  • Remember that it’s okay to ask for help.
  • Support other family members.
  • Realise that you can’t fix your relative or friend and that they need to take steps to stop or cut down their use.
  • Know what to do in case of an emergency, such as an overdose.
  • Understand that recovery can be a long process and that relapse is common.
  • Know where to get more information about available treatment options.
  • Understand treatment options that are available, and what each one offers.
  • Understand the effects of alcohol and other drugs. If you need more information, ask a support worker.

Enlisting support

America’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that, based on clinical experience, many alcoholism treatment specialists recommend the following steps to help an alcoholic accept treatment:

    • Stop rescue missions.: It is important to stop rescue attempts (such as making excuses to others) so the alcoholic will fully experience the harmful effects of his or her drinking and therefore become more motivated to stop.
    • Time your intervention: Plan to talk with the drinker shortly after an alcohol-related problem has occurred. Choose a time when he or she is sober, when both of you are in a calm frame of mind, and when you can speak privately.
    • Be specific: Tell the person you are concerned about his or her drinking and want to be supportive in getting help. Back up your concern with examples of the ways in which his or her drinking has caused problems for both of you, including the most recent incident.

State the consequences: Tell the person that until he or she gets help, you will carry out consequences – not to punish them, but to protect yourself from the harmful effects of the drinking.

  • Be ready to help: Gather information in advance about local treatment options. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program and/or AA meeting.
  • Get support: Whether or not the alcoholic person seeks help, you may benefit from the encouragement and support of other people in your situation. Support groups offered in most communities include Al-Anon and Alateen. These groups help family members and friends understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic’s drinking and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of whether or not the alcoholic family member chooses to get help.


One of the main strategies you learn is not to take the blame. If they had cancer or diabetes, you wouldn’t think it was your fault.

Where to get help

  • Arrow Health Family First Step Program. Wednesday nights 7 pm – 9 pm
  • Your GP: Make an appointment with your GP. He or she will provide support as well as suggest where to go for further help.
  • Al-anon: Al-Anon is a group that offers support to families and friends of alcoholics, and is separate from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Similarly, Alateen provides support for teenagers affected by the problem drinking of a parent or other family member. The program of recovering is adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous and is based upon the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts of Service. The group is not affiliated with any other organisation or outside entity, and the meetings are anonymous and confidential. Visit
  • Salvation Army: The Salvation Army offers crisis and supported accommodation, youth support, recovery and dependency programs. Visit
  • Family drug support (FDS): FDS is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week information, help and referral service. Call 1300 368 186 or