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Knowledge, Support & Boundaries: How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Alcoholism

Dr. Shawn Foltz Emmons
Apr 28, 2020

Having a loved one struggling with alcohol can be a chaotic, unpredictable, and lonely experience. Emotions can run the gamut — from anger to shame to sadness and a conflicted love. Knowing how to support a loved one while they are in the midst of the hurricane of alcohol use can be confusing. Here are a few tips which may be helpful in supporting someone struggling with alcohol while tending to your own mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Educate Yourself About Addiction

Arm yourself with as much information as possible about the facts on alcohol use/abuse and enabling. Addictions can be a beast and being informed can help in understanding the many emotions and behaviors that co-occur with an addiction. Get informed about enabling and co-dependence — become empowered about the most effective means to stay connected to a loved one, if possible, with appropriate boundaries so not to inadvertently encourage the addiction.

Learn About AA and Smart Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a nationwide organization that provides support, education, and resources to assist in any stage of addiction. In general, AA believes that addiction is a disease and an individual is powerless to overcome it on their own without assistance from a higher power. Smart Recovery appears to have an opposite philosophy — their website states “SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. The SMART approach is secular and science-based, using cognitive behavioral therapy and non-confrontational motivation methods.”

Whichever method works for you to obtain support, evidence-based knowledge, and an understanding of how best to support a loved one in the throes of alcohol use/abuse may be helpful in feeling strong and empowered.

Lean in

Lean in to your loved one. The meaning of 'lean in' in how I describe it is a combination of providing love and support while maintaining strong boundaries. Boundaries are rules of interaction, so after gathering evidence-based information and doing a self-inventory, ask yourself 'what is important to me throughout this process of having a loved one struggling with alcohol?' After you figure out what is important to you, compare that to what the evidence reports is needed for helping a loved one struggling with alcohol.

Whatever overlaps is most likely where boundaries begin to develop. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is a process, and may be very different than how you previously interacted with a loved one, yet it important to establish them and keep them. Therefore, from my perspective, lean in means be present, be loving and at the same time do what is best for your loved one and yourself no matter how difficult it may be.


Self-care is vital. It is not selfish — it is essential to helping your loved one and yourself. Part of self-care is giving yourself permission to be sad, angry, relived — whatever the feeling is — identify it and process it. Movement is important — get your body exercising. In this new normal of COVID-19, how we go about exercising may take on a different flavor so access your creativity. YouTube is a resource and has a variety of videos on how to exercise during this quarantine period. Connect with your support systems via zoom, text, and/or call. Make sure to eat healthy and regularly and drink plenty of water. Get adequate sleep. Make an appointment with a therapist versed in addictions. Know that regardless of what storm you may walk through on this journey to recovery with your loved one, taking care of yourself is vital.

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