When Addicts Come Home for the Holidays, a Guide for Families

February 3, 2022

In the eyes of a child, the holiday season brings excitement, expectations, and joy. Santa is coming, there are plates full of cookies everywhere you look, and distant relatives come visiting with arms full of gifts. What isn’t there to love about the holidays?

But, for people struggling with addiction, the holidays might not bring the innocent joy it once did. For the families of addicts, this time of year is equally as challenging.

For families with loved ones in active addiction or recovery, December can be extremely stressful. Especially for addicts working through alcohol abuse, the holidays are a tough period to navigate while sober. Booze is everywhere, people are constantly celebrating, and there is a building pressure to join in.

How can families support their loved ones with addiction when they come home for the holidays? It’s not just about hiding the beer and setting strict rules around family interactions, it’s also about love, support, and creating a safe haven.

Red wine glasses at the decorated dinner table

Setting the Bar Too High With Unrealistic Expectations

Children might not notice the heightened levels of stress around the holidays, but adults often do. Even when mental health issues aren’t involved, Christmas is expensive, bills are due, and there are extended family members to content with. 

This situation is stressful, no matter which way you look at it. For families opening their homes to an addict in recovery, or one in active addiction, the stress levels can hit overload.

It’s valuable to take an in-depth look at the stated and unstated expectations during this time, to mitigate these heightened levels of stress. The expectation that the holidays need to go perfectly is real. It places unnecessary anxieties on the family member with the addiction, as well as those around them. 

There is a reason why Social Work Today calls Christmas and New Years, the “Season of Stress. ” As they explain in their article on the subject, “For many families, the holidays can be a time of great anguish, strife, and overindulgent behavior that is later regretted.” 

In this piece for their holiday issue from 2011, they detail how challenging it can be for families, “the thought of managing substance abuse issues while maintaining peace and unity can be overwhelming—and mishandling these issues can lead to further estrangement from the addict or relapse for the recovering person.” 

Unrealistic expectations around the holidays heighten anxieties for those with addictions, making their sobriety that much more challenging. As a family, come together to work on realistic expectations for how the holidays are going to unwind. Is it realistic to attend every family-event? Is it wise to bring your sober loved one around Great Uncle Sam, who may have a drinking problem of their own? 

To alleviate the pressure of perfection, be sure to make space for mistakes and imperfect moments. Maybe the holidays don’t go exactly as planned – but that is absolutely okay. Aim for the best outcome, but accept the blunders.

How to Make the Holidays Easier for Someone with an Active Addiction

Cheers to this great Thanksgiving dinner!

There are many stages of addiction and recovery, each requiring a unique approach over the holidays. For those families opening their home to a loved one in active addiction, the dynamic can be one of the more challenging ones. 

An active addict is one who is actively in drug or alcohol-seeking behavior. While it is hard to accept, their behavior is 100 percent focused on a single goal and may not fit into the traditional holiday expectations. Many of their words and actions, while hurtful, are directly linked to the addiction, not their true intentions.

An addict who has not yet entered into rehabilitation or recovery will work extremely hard to hide their addictions from the family. Successful or not, it always increases the stress and anxiety of the person with the addiction. 

Your loved one may exhibit strange behavior, irritability, anger, introversion, and other uncommon tendencies. Know these are normal for those in active stages of addiction as they are faced with some very challenging triggers when heading home for the holidays.

By no means should family members make it easier for the addict to seek out drugs or alcohol, but it is possible to mitigate challenging situations before they occur. Create a strategic calendar of events over the holidays, cutting out overwhelming or triggering situations in favor of more familiar ones.

Does this mean you leave them alone? Isolating and excluding loved ones with active addictions can be counterproductive and may lead to increased stress and problematic behavior. Yet, there may be other holiday environments where it may not be safe for others. 

Remember, families can often be a source of stress and a trigger for addicts. It does require a careful balance to make the space supportive for the one going through the addiction as well as for others. Try to work out a healthy balance for your family member, but continue to balance the needs of the extended family.

How to Support a Loved One in Recovery During the Holidays

For those in the later stages of recovery, families need to approach the situation from a slightly different angle. The family member returning home over the holidays will be confronted with many challenging memories and complicated relationships. It also is hard for the family to get over the constant fear of relapse.

First and foremost, it is absolutely and unequivocally necessary to sit down as a family with the one in recovery to have an open and frank discussion. How can you best support them in their recovery? What are their triggers? Do they want all alcohol removed from the home, or will that make them feel guilty about taking that away from others?

Asking the hard questions before they come up unexpectedly can help you develop a safe and supportive plan of action.

In “Families and Addiction — Surviving the Season of Stress,” Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, clarified, “You have to be able to respect the needs of the person in recovery, but that doesn’t mean you need to take all of the alcohol out of the house. Walking around on eggshells wanting to make things perfect for them just creates a lot of tension.”

How to Find Support as a Family

Just like people turn to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) for support during their recovery, friends and family members also have options. Most cities and towns in North America have support groups for friends and family members going through addictions.

One of the most famous examples is Al-Anon Family Group, which gives, “Family members have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others who have faced similar problems.”

During the holiday season, you may find it valuable to hear the stories of others who are experiencing similar situations. How have other families managed over the holidays? How can you reach out to for support if something unexpected should occur? As a family, you are not alone as you try to balance support for someone with an addiction against the pressures of the holiday season.

5 Tips for Families Managing Addiction Over the Holidays

Keep in mind there are many stages of addiction, and each will require slightly different tactics. What might be needed for a family member in a non-acknowledged active addiction will be drastically different from what is required for someone already in recovery. 

  1. Make the Home Safe and Welcoming: While the specifics of this will largely depend on the stage of addiction, in every step, you must make your home a safe and welcoming space for someone going through addiction. Addiction, at its core, is incredibly isolating, which can become extremely challenging over the holiday season. Creating a supportive space may feel like a bit of a balancing act — because it is. On the one hand, you want to help the addict, and on the other, you have to keep the rest of the family safe. Work with a family counselor, or Al-Anon to develop a plan that balances each side of the equation in a manner that suits your family dynamics.
  2. Make a Plan for Each Day: Part of recovery is asking yourself, “How can I stay sober today?” The question is no different for families: “How can we help our loved one stay sober?” Tackle each day in advance and consider every party, celebration, family gathering, or other triggers that may come up. For those already in recovery, keep open channels of communication to find out what they feel comfortable with and what feels safe. 
  3. Offer Alternatives: Because alcohol is such a central aspect of many holiday celebrations, it’s beneficial to have several delicious alternatives on hand. Think about having other bubbly non-alcoholic drinks around for new years, or a non-alcoholic hot apple cider available over Christmas dinner. The more delicious the alternative, the easier the decision. Alternatives might also mean alternative plans. There could very well be specific situations or family members who are incredibly uncomfortable for the one with the addiction. Is there another option on the table? While not every event warrants a complete change of plans, there may be specific experiences that make sobriety more difficult than others. Consider how you can support your loved one during the most taxing triggers.
  4. Talk About Triggers, and Work Together to Avoid Them: Speaking of triggers, did you know family environments can be one of the most significant triggers for an addict? No family is perfect, and for an addict, it can be a minefield of uncomfortable situations and frustrating relationships. Talk to your family member about their specific triggers. How can you work to reduce anxiety, and avoid unnecessary (or unexpected) triggers during the holidays? Work together on a strategic plan. 
  5. How to Talk About the Addiction: Inevitably, someone will ask an awkward question about the addiction. What is the best way to respond? Is your loved one ready to openly share their experiences, or would they prefer deflection? It all comes back to honest discussions with the person in recovery to find out exactly how they want these problematic conversations to go.

A Safe and Supporting Holiday Season for Everyone in Your Family

No matter the family dynamics, the holidays can be a stressful time of year. It’s easy to reach your breaking point when everyone is bottled together under the same roof, chock full of sugar, and sometimes already inebriated. Adding an addiction into the equation is an added level of stress, but one which doesn’t mean disaster.

If you are welcoming someone with addiction into your home this holiday season, keep your expectations realistic. Set boundaries to protect yourself, but try to keep your home safe and welcoming for the family member in recovery. Remember, recovery is challenging, and even more so home Christmas and New Year. 

The most important way to get through this sometimes tricky season is through open and frank communication. Tackle challenging situations with a plan of action and set realistic expectations. While a person’s sobriety ultimately comes down to their own decision, it doesn’t mean it can’t be made easier by the family they surround themselves with.

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