Help for friends who drink too much

Originally Published: April 21, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 6, 2015
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Dear Alice,

I have two friends who I think are drinking too much. I don't know what to do. They are very defensive should anyone say anything to them about their excessive habit, and a lot of our friends are giving up on them. This has become a daily thing and their schoolwork and friendships are all suffering. They are both twenty-one; one recently broke up with his girlfriend of several years and the other has been single for a while and he hates it. I know that has a lot to do with it. Please suggest some non-intrusive ways to help them. I'm really at a loss.

Thank you, A concerned friend

Dear A concerned friend,

It sounds like you really care about your friends and that you have their best interests at heart. It's not unusual for people to get defensive when friends approach them about excessive drinking, but it can feel less daunting if you come prepared. There are a number of different techniques that can be helpful. First, you may want to think about what's comfortable for you, how well you know your friends, and what you know has (or hasn't) been successful in the past. Here are a few ideas to consider:

As you prepare for the conversation:

  • Approach each of your friends separately. Although it might seem like their situations are similar, they may appreciate being treated as unique individuals.
  • Arrange to talk in a quiet, private environment when they are sober. Scouting out a time and location that affords some privacy may help you and your friends to feel less self-conscious. That way, you can get down to the heart of the matter. No one likes to have these things pointed out to them in front of others. It’s also a good idea to consider whether this is a time or place in which your friend(s) would be less inclined to drink.
  • Research resources. Find out if the counseling service at your school has drop-in hours or a substance abuse prevention specialist. You might also investigate whether there are any support groups on or near your campus. These services may be helpful to your friends, and they might offer help as you prepare for your conversation. You might also consider practicing your conversation with a counselor, supportive friend, or family member ahead of time.

Tips on having a discussion:

  • Be specific. Tell your friends what you've noticed about their behavior and what concerns you – also try using “I” statements. For example, you could say, "I've noticed that lately you've been drinking a lot. I'm worried because it seems like it's having an effect on your schoolwork." 
  • Identify their behavior, rather than criticizing their character. Say, "Your drinking seems to be getting in the way of our friendship," rather than, "You're a drunk and a real loser." They may not realize their behavior has an impact on others. Tell your friends how their excessive drinking has made you feel, how it's affecting your day-to-day life and your friendship — "I don't feel comfortable with the way you've been drinking lately. I find it hard to spend time with you because when you're drunk, you act like a different person." 
  • Explore some of the underlying causes for their drinking. People sometimes turn to substances when faced with extra stress, heartache, or fear. Your friends may need to find other ways of coping. Talking with you about their worries may be a first step. You could start the conversation with, "Hey, I know you've been under a lot of stress lately. What's going on?” or, "How have you been feeling since you and _________ broke up?" 
  • Challenge your friends to think about their behavior. They may be drinking out of habit. Or, maybe they're so overwhelmed with their troubles that they don't know what else to do. They may not have thought about why they are drinking so much until you ask.
  • Present options. Your friends might not be ready to talk right away. But, if you've opened up the door, they might be more likely to look to you when they are ready to talk. You can offer specific assistance, or simply make an open-ended offer:
    • "I would be happy to go with you to a counselor. We could even call together now to make an appointment."
    • "Well, just know that I'm thinking of you. If you need anything, let me know, okay?"
    • "I've heard that there's an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting right here on campus. Maybe you could go check it out — and I could come if that would be helpful."
    • "There's this really cool web site that has loads of information about ways to drink in a healthy way. Feel free to check it out on my computer."

You can be supportive and offer suggestions, but they have to be motivated from within, too. Remember; be sensitive to your own needs. You may want to set limits as to how much time and energy you are going to put into trying to help your friends. This may prevent you from becoming tired, resentful, or overwhelmed (you will also be modeling some healthy self-care behavior).

For some more information about how to identify healthy and unhealthy drinking behaviors, see Trouble controlling my drinking in the Go Ask Alice! archive. Other related Q&As such as How can I help my alcoholic family member?, Friend of an alcohol abuser, and Bothered by boyfriend's steroid use offer more suggestions for talking with friends or family about concerns with their drinking or drug habits.

Best of luck,

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Columbia Health's BASICS program (Morningside)

AI:MS (CUMC)