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How to Help Your Loved One During the Holidays

December 17, 2019
Carrie Wilkens, PhD
Carrie Wilkens, PhD

While the holidays can be a special time full of warm, happy, reflective moments, they can also be  fraught with stress, exposure to family dynamics, and high social demands. If your loved one is trying to change their relationship with substances, the holiday season can be an especially difficult time as they have to navigate heavy drinking social events as well as potential emotional triggers, like family conflict or demands.  

As you try to help, remember that people use substances because they are rewarding in some way. For example, your loved one may drink in response to stress, or smoke pot in an effort to manage social anxiety. If this is the case, the holidays will be a time full of temptation and the pull to use their substance of choice. The rewards your loved one gets from substances can be physical, emotional, and social, and the pull of these rewards can be quite powerful during the holidays. Knowing what’s true for your loved one in this regard can help you be proactive in a more effective way. 

Here are 5 tips to help you help your loved one abstain from substances or maintain a moderation goal:

1. First, talk to your loved one and ask how you can be supportive.

It is easy to make assumptions and in the process be over or under supportive. Ask if your loved one has thought about the holiday weeks and if you can be supportive of their goals in any way. For example, if they want to abstain but also really want to go to the holiday work event, ask if it would help if you came along as a sober sidekick. If you are planning family events, ask if they want the party to be alcohol free, or if they have people they would like to invite who would be supportive of their goals. More generally, ask if there are things you can do together that would reduce stress or keep them motivated.

2. Examine traditions and holiday expectations and see if things need to change in order for your loved one to succeed in reaching their goals.

Consider swapping large rowdy holiday parties for mellow, intimate get-togethers with people who support your loved one. Be open to skipping some events and work together to replace them with activities that are rewarding in another way. Think about creating new traditions! For example, instead of going over to aunt Rita’s house where everyone over-drinks, arrange for the family to meet at the ice skating rink to learn something new and to catch the holiday spirit in another way.  

3. Model the behavior you hope to see.

It is not uncommon for family members to want their loved one to stay sober or maintain a moderation goal, only to overindulge themselves. Be willing to look at your own substance use patterns. As you try to help your loved one, be mindful of your own use and demonstrate ways to enjoy the holidays without substances playing a major role. For example, if you are hosting an event, provide fun mocktails. It can be hard to be the person walking around with a glass of seltzer water when everyone else is sipping champagne or drinking a fun special cocktail. Ask your loved one what kind of mocktail they would enjoy and have it on hand.

4. Work to support (and possibly even create) pleasurable non-using experiences.

These activities should be experienced as rewarding, ideally for your loved one and you! If you know your loved one needs to manage their stress level in order to be successful, offer to do a chore for them or cook them a nice meal. If you know they are struggling with social anxiety as they approach holiday parties, make an effort to help them navigate it by bring them into conversations about topics they enjoy discussing. And don’t forget the value of a compliment or an expression of affection. Squeezing your loved ones hand and telling them you appreciate what they are trying to do can go a long ways towards helping them sustain their motivation. 

5. And if all of this sounds unrealistic because you are too scared, angry, nervous, or depleted, remember that taking care of yourself is really important too!

Identify what decreases your stress level or makes you feel joyous about the good things and make realistic plans to savor them. Communicating and acting from a place of compassion takes less effort when you’ve done a good job of filling up your own tank of energy reserves.

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