How Do I Tell My Parents I Might Have a Drinking Problem?
By Peg Rosen
It’s hard to share not-great news with your parents or caregivers, whether it’s bad grades, denting the car, or having a scrape with the law. You worry they’ll be furious, they’ll punish you, or that you’ll disappoint them.
Telling your parents or caregivers you might have a drinking problem can bring up similar feelings, but it’s different in one big way: By telling them, you are not just sharing bad news—you are asking for their help. Most parents and caregivers will rise to the occasion, even if it takes them a beat to get over their own worries and fears.
If you regularly interact with your family, chances are they already suspected something was up. They may not know it’s alcohol, but they may have noticed changes in your behavior and mood. They may have even confronted you already, but you weren’t ready to hear them or talk to them. They may even be relieved that you have decided to confront what’s going on.
No matter whether that is the case, these general pointers can help make the conversation easier and more productive.
Think about why you are telling your caregivers and what you hope to get out of the conversation. Are you telling them because you want emotional support? Do you need their help finding and paying for treatment? Are you telling them because you have run into trouble related to your drinking, such as a DUI or disciplinary action at school? Writing down your reasons and goals—or just being aware of them—can help you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Identify what (if anything) is making you hesitant, afraid, or worried about talking to them. If you think your parents will tell you how disappointed they are, think about how you’ll handle that. It can help to role-play with a friend, school counselor, or someone else you trust.
If you’re afraid your parents will get angry or verbally abusive, know that you do not have to stay in the conversation. You have every right to say, “I have to stop now. I need space.” Tell them in a place you can leave (not, for instance, on a long car ride or family vacation). It may be difficult to discuss your drinking due to the shame associated with it, but avoiding the conversation can make you want to drink more and get in the way of your goal of drinking less.
Consider what you are ready to share. Telling your caregivers everything that’s going on can feel overwhelming. It may even keep you from wanting to talk to them. Focus on what’s most important for them to know right now, and start with that.
If they ask questions you aren’t prepared to answer, you can tell them you’re not ready to talk about that now or you’d like to work on that with a counselor. Also remember that this is the first—and possibly the hardest—step for you and your parents. By opening the door and having this conversation, you will likely have other chances to talk that will feel easier.
Choose how, when, and where you want to tell them. A lot can be missed or misinterpreted when you can’t see each other’s body language and facial expressions. If it’s possible and reasonable, talking in person is a good way to go. Let them know you have something important to talk to them about and pick a time when you have privacy and no one has to rush off. At home, during or after dinner on a weeknight can be good, and so can a weekend morning.
If your parents drink alcohol, find a time when they aren’t or haven’t been drinking. If talking in person is too much for you to handle or you fear things could become abusive, try a phone call or write an email or note to start the exchange.
Be honest. This is not the time to sugarcoat things. You should also be completely sober. Tell your caregivers what the problem is and why you are telling them. A good starter might be, “I’ve realized my relationship with alcohol might be a problem. I’m telling you because I think it’s important for you to know what’s going on with me, and I might need your help and support.” Even if you are not asking for help with treatment, you can tell them you hope they can support you as you work on it.
Stand by your truth. Many caregivers can hear difficult things from their children and rise to the occasion, but that’s not always the case. Some may simply not want to believe their baby has a drinking problem that needs treatment. Others may have a drinking problem themselves and discount their child’s issues because they can’t face their own.
You could hear phrases like, “Just cut back. It’s fine. Don’t be dramatic.” Or, “That’s what everyone does in college. You should have seen me!” As tempting as it is to take their word for it, don’t give into their—or anyone’s—denial. If you think you have a drinking issue and want help, you should find it. If your parents can’t or won’t support you on that journey, get support from someone who will.
Telling your parents or caregivers you have signs of problem drinking is a positive and important step. In most—but not all—cases, they are the people who are best positioned to help you find treatment and work through your recovery.
If they want to learn more about alcohol use disorder and how it’s treated, there are tons of resources for them and you. And remember: Your parents are human. They may not be able to control their initial reaction, whether it’s sadness, fear, or anger, but chances are that they will come around and be there for you as best they can.