If you’re concerned that your sister may be struggling with alcohol or you think she may be developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD), seeking help for her early on can help lower the risk of several potentially adverse drinking-related consequences such as worsening mental and physical health, interpersonal relationship issues, injury, or financial troubles.
Learn about how to understand problem drinking vs. alcoholism, the benefits of addressing alcohol abuse early, how to approach a conversation with your sister, what treatment may entail to help her work toward recovery and what resources are available for you and your family to better support her.
Benefits of Early Action
Taking action early can be helpful in many ways, especially if you can get your sister to receive help before her drinking gets more severe or turns into addiction.1 Addressing her alcohol use as early as possible may help stop it from getting worse and can be highly effective in helping her minimize the effects of alcohol abuse. 1,2,3
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that can’t be cured but can be successfully managed with treatment and ongoing recovery efforts.4,5 Catching alcohol abuse early can also allow your sister to avoid major negative consequences associated with alcoholism, such as damage to health and relationships, issues with employment or the legal system, or even exposure to trauma.1,3,6 Early intervention services may also cost relatively less, don’t last as long, and involve less of a disruption to daily life than treatment for alcoholism.1,3
Steps to Help an Alcoholic Sister
If you feel your sister may have a drinking problem and you aren’t sure where to begin with helping her get treatment, here are some steps that you can take to start the conversation.
- Learn about addiction.2,7Educating yourself about alcoholism and how it affects people like your sister can make you more understanding of what she is experiencing. Remember, alcoholism is a disease and stopping may be out of her control—it isn’t simply her lack of willpower that is keeping her from sobriety. For many, recovery from alcoholism requires professional treatment and ongoing recovery efforts to manage long-term.
- Find a facility that your sister can attend.1 There are many options when it comes to facilities offering treatment for addiction and researching both local and out-of-state options can make it easier to have a discussion with your sister about her options if you’ve already done the initial research. This also allows you to seek out centers that accept her insurance and offer amenities that are important to her, as well as addressing any struggles that she may have as well as drinking, such as physical or mental health issues.
- Talk to a professional.1 A medical doctor or addiction specialist can help you learn more about problem drinking, alcoholism, and treatment. They can also guide you on the best way to discuss your concerns with your sister and make referrals to treatment as needed.
- Practice self-care.8 You may be focusing a lot of time and energy on your sister and her drinking, but it is important to take care of yourself as well. This means asking for help and support from your family and friends and setting aside time to relax and care for your own physical and mental health. You can’t help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first.
When is Drinking a Problem?
In part because alcohol is so widely used and socially acceptable in American society, it can be difficult to fully understand whether someone’s drinking habits are problematic or may be leading toward something more serious such as addiction.9
While not everyone who drinks alcohol will become addicted to it, knowing how it can become a problem may be beneficial in keeping you or a loved one from developing an alcohol use disorder in the future. Drinking becomes a problem when it starts to negatively impact other areas of your life, for example, causing issues with your relationships, health, or employment. 2,7,10
Standard Drinking Levels Defined
Being aware of different levels of drinking can also be helpful in understanding whether someone’s drinking habits have crossed over into potentially problematic territory. When it comes to “moderate” drinking, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 states that drinking in moderation is considered 2 standard drinks or less for men and 1 standard drink or less for women in a day.11
Further, you may be surprised to learn what is actually considered a standard drink. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a standard drink consists of 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer, which contain an equivalent amount of alcohol.10,12
NIAAA goes on to further explain that binge drinking is when a woman drinks 4 or more drinks or a man drinks 5 or more drinks in approximately 2 hours at least once within the last month.10,11,13 Heavy drinking means having more than 3 or 4 drinks daily for women and more than 5 or 6 drinks daily for men, or binge drinking at least 5 times within the last month.11
Warning Signs of Problematic Drinking
Regardless of how much or how often a person drinks, there are a few warning signs that may help indicate whether a person’s drinking has become problematic or has gone from abuse to dependence.2 If you think that your loved might have a problem with alcohol but aren’t sure, some signs to watch for include: 1,7,10,13
- Being secretive or defensive about their drinking.
- Drinking in the morning.
- Experiencing frequent injuries, such as falls, when intoxicated.
- Getting in trouble, or having difficulty completing tasks at home, school, or work as a result of drinking.
- Having blackouts.
- Legal troubles related to drinking.
- Problems in social or family relationships because of alcohol.
What Defines Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a disease that affects a person’s thoughts and behaviors; the types of problematic drinking that make the development of an AUD more likely may also be accompanied by certain lasting changes in the brain that themselves perpetuate cycles of compulsive use, making sobriety even more difficult to sustain.14,15 Alcoholism is marked by a loss of control over alcohol use, strong cravings for alcohol, and an inability to stop even after experiencing negative effects as a result of alcohol use.10,15
Although problem drinking and alcoholism do share some characteristics, they are not the same thing. The broader concept of problem drinking may be used to describe any unhealthy pattern of alcohol consumption, such as those that include heavy drinking and/or binge drinking—either of which can increase the risk of developing alcoholism at some point.11,14,15,16 Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of people who binge drink don’t meet the criteria for severe alcohol use disorder.17
If your sister is showing some of the following signs though, she may have a problem with alcoholism: 2,7,10
- Drinking and driving or doing other dangerous activities while drinking.
- Drinking more to get intoxicated or displaying a high tolerance.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (shakes, nausea, sweating) if alcohol use is suddenly stopped.
- Not being able to stop drinking, even if it has caused or exacerbated physical or mental health problems or issues in relationships.
- Promising not to drink, but not following through.
- Skipping appointments or activities because of alcohol or sneaking alcohol into places where it isn’t available.
- Struggling to control how much she drinks.
See the full list of alcoholism warning signs here.
How to Talk to Your Sister About Alcoholism
It can be uncomfortable and difficult to talk to your sister about alcoholism. She may not be ready to accept that she has a problem, and it could take several conversations before she is willing to seek treatment.2,7
But this is common; don’t get discouraged if the outcome of your first conversation isn’t what you were expecting. Be patient and consider speaking to an addiction treatment professional to give you some ideas on how to approach your sister most effectively while also providing support for you.7
Here are some things to do and to avoid when choosing to talk with your sister about her drinking habits: 1,2,7,8,18
- Do speak to her when you’re both sober.
- Don’t threaten, confront, or lecture her.
- Do talk to her in an honest, concerned, and supportive manner.
- Don’t make critical statements or insult her.
- Do talk about how drinking has affected her life and yours.
- Don’t expect her to change right away.
- Do talk about how you’re willing to help her, such as having regular talks, attending self-help meetings with her, scheduling appointments, or even attending appointments with her.
- Don’t try to manipulate her to stop drinking.
- Do set healthy boundaries with her.
- Don’t enable her.
Remember, your sister may no longer be in control of her drinking and may not be ready to admit she has a problem. This can be an extremely difficult or scary conversation for her to have with you as much as it is for you to have with her. But take heart that when she is ready to seek treatment, these conversations will be worth it in the end.
If she does decide to get help, it can be helpful to contact a treatment facility together so that she feels supported and not alone.1 You can also attend an appointment at a facility or attend a support group meeting together, allowing you to gain more information on what is needed for recovery.1
Admitting Your Sister Into Treatment
Alcoholism treatment can be different for everyone, but it often starts with detox, where staff monitor patients and can provide medication to keep people safe while easing the withdrawal process from alcohol.1,13,14 Once she has successfully completed detox, she may enter into a formal treatment program to further work toward recovery.
Whether your sister attends an inpatient or outpatient facility, effective treatment for alcoholism typically involves behavioral therapy to help her learn the skills avoid triggers and cravings in the future, improve family relationships, cope with stressors, and develop sober supports. 5,13,14 Programs may also incorporate medication to further discourage or otherwise decrease drinking behavior and reduce the risk of relapse.5,14
Treatment length can vary, depending on the person’s needs, the severity of alcohol use, and the type of treatment they receive. Detox commonly lasts about a week, inpatient programs may last up to 3 months, and outpatient care can continue for several months, if needed.3,5,13 Family support is also an important part of treatment.5 Each program may have different regulations, but many programs offer family counseling and encourage supportive contact between families.3,5 Although alcoholism can’t be cured, treatment can be effective at helping people stop drinking and stay sober once treatment ends.5
Resources for Family Members of Alcoholics
Alcoholism affects the entire family, not just the person who is drinking.2,5,19 When you have a family member who struggles with alcoholism, you may experience a wide range of emotions and high levels of stress.5 Finding healthy outlets for your emotions can help you be a better support to your sister. There are various resources available, which include: 1,2,3,5,8,19
- Self-help groups that are geared towards family members of alcoholics. Al-Anon is a 12-step group for friends and family of alcoholics, while SMART Recovery is a science-based program. These meetings are free and give you the chance to build your own peer support group.
- Private therapy is a good way to help you learn how to cope with your own emotions and stressors more effectively.
- Education classes to learn more about alcoholism. Treatment facilities may offer more information to family members, or you can contact local substance abuse agencies to learn more.
- Family therapy can be a great way to help all family members communicate better and learn to change as a group while supporting your sister in her efforts towards sobriety.
Discuss Treatment Options for Your Sister
If and when your sister is ready to discuss treatment, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help with making arrangements to begin an addiction rehabilitation program. Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of AAC, a nationwide provider of addiction treatment centers. We believe that alcoholism is a disease that, with treatment and ongoing care, can be successfully managed.
And one of the hardest parts of recovery can be admitting that you or your loved one has a problem with alcohol abuse. But you sister is not alone; our admissions navigators have worked with thousands of individuals who’ve sought freedom from addiction and have successfully helped them get into treatment. They know how scary this process can be and will work with her every step of the way to ensure that she feels comfortable and safe taking these brave first steps.
Our hotline is available 24/7 to discuss treatment options and our admissions navigators are ready to answer any questions you may have regarding our facilities, our approach to addiction and how to pay for treatment. Call us at 1-888-685-5770 ; all calls our 100% confidential and there is no obligation to make any decisions today.
. Partnership to End Addiction. (2014). Helping an adult family member or friend with a drug or alcohol addiction.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Helping a loved one with a drinking problem.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Facing addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Treatment and Recovery. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Preventing excessive alcohol use.
. Mental Health First Aid Australia. (2013). Helping someone with alcohol use problems.
. National Institute on Aging. (2017). How to help someone you know with a drinking problem.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance abuse and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
. American Psychological Association. (2012). Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking levels defined.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What is a Standard Drink?
. Enoch, M-A. & Goldman, D. (2002). Problem drinking and alcoholism: Diagnosis and treatment. American Family Physician, 65(3), 441-449.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding alcohol use disorder.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2011). Alcohol Alert number 83: Preventing alcohol abuse and alcoholism—An update.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
. Health Service Executive. (2019). How to talk to someone about their problem drinking.
. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2004) Substance abuse treatment and family therapy. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39.