Even in the most stable families, tensions can run high during the holidays. This time of year is often stressful enough with busy schedules, but old hurts or miscommunication might complicate things even more. So what do you do when a loved one’s addiction problem has caused drama in the past?
Keep Boundaries Intact
No one likes being reminded of the things they’ve done wrong, especially when they’re suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD). Defensiveness will be the primary reaction if a person feels attacked, ambushed, or backed into a corner—and we can all relate to that behavior, as we’ve probably responded the same way at one time or another.
However, if your parent, child, sibling, or another close relative with AUD or SUD has a history of making a scene during family functions, causing fights, or having a major crisis during the holiday, speak up now to find solutions.
Define the Boundaries
If you feel your loved one’s addictive behavior is going to result in conflict, clarify boundaries long before problems begin. For example:
“Joe, we really want you to come to Mom’s on Thanksgiving. It would be nice to have the family all together for a relaxed celebration. We’re not going to serve or drink alcohol, but there will be plenty of Dad’s smoked turkey! What side dish do you want to bring?”
“Mary, I’d like for us to share some quality time together as a family this Christmas. It’s important to everyone that you’re with us. What would help you enjoy the festivities more easily?”
“Bill, everyone is trying to be mindful of their budgets, so there won’t be any cash gifts or gift exchanges this year. I hope this is a relief to you as well if you feel money is a little tight right now. So what time do you want to come over next week for some football?”
Notice how there are no accusations, assignment of guilt, or shroud of shame. Instead, there’s a message of inclusion, purpose, and support.
Evaluate the Situation
Even though you fully understand that addiction is a brain disease, it’s sometimes challenging when you feel torn between the sadness of your loved one’s destructive behavior and how maddening it is to be caught in the web of it. So now’s a good time to arrange a series of coffee dates with them just to check in:
- Over a general conversation, you can get a better sense of how they’re feeling and how life is going. This consistent interest you show in their well-being now could defuse a potential bomb later.
- Long before any family drama can play out, offer support and resources that might be helpful. There’s no harm in mentioning that Alcoholics Anonymous meets at your church every Tuesday and Thursday, or providing the name of a physician who understands chronic pain but offers more holistic management options rather than opioid medication.
You’re not trying to change everything in one sitting but creating more of an alliance. If this casual approach doesn’t work, you might have to advance your plan.
Make Time for an Honest Conversation About Boundaries
For a more difficult conversation about drug or alcohol use, the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse (NIAA) states that first and foremost, you want your loved one to feel supported, not threatened, to ensure a better dialogue and focus on solutions. Here are some other recommendations from NIAA:
- Practice what you want to say ahead of time with another person to be more prepared.
- Pick a time prior to the holidays to have a calm conversation in a quiet place, preferably when they’re not using drugs or alcohol.
- Speak with a non-judgmental tone.
- Stick to the facts. You understand that their addiction isn’t due to a lack of willpower or total disregard for you and your family. It’s vital to remain compassionate but factual so points can be clearly presented.
“Joe, I love you and want you to be healthy. The family and I really want you to join us for Thanksgiving. If you choose to seek addiction treatment between now and then, I’ll help you research facilities. If you choose to keep abusing drugs or alcohol, I won’t accept the following behaviors….”
“Mary, you mean the world to me, and I want you to have the best life possible. If you’re ready for addiction treatment, you’ll have my full support. If you choose to continue to take opioids and as a result, there’s the potential for family conflict, we’ll have to make other arrangements to see each other one-on-one during the holidays.”
“Bill, you’re my brother, and I love you and believe in your ability to get well. I’ll go to 12-Step meetings with you if you want and, if you choose addiction treatment, I’ll help any way I can. Unfortunately, I’m not in the position to give you any more money, and neither is anyone else in the family, so please don’t ask us.”
Let Our Family Help Your Family
Without a doubt, all this might sound better in theory than in practice, as we’re only human. If you’re already frustrated and concerned about your loved one’s health and behavior, it might be essential to first reinforce your boundaries and perspective by talking with a counselor. Everyone deserves peace during holidays. You can do this.