Skip to main content

Coping with problem drinking at Christmas

For families where there is a problem with alcohol, Christmas can be a time of uncertainty, worry and tension. Read some advice for partners, friends and family.

Published: 11 December 2019

For many of us, Christmas is a favourite time of the year – a special family time.

For families where there is a problem with alcohol, it can be a time of uncertainty, worry and tension.

Christmas celebrations and alcohol seem to go hand in hand. It’s somehow accepted or even expected that we drink to excess at Christmas, which can make problems worse in families where someone struggles to control their drinking.

 “I start worrying in November” - Mary’s story*

“Christmas is my nightmare. I start worrying in November. My husband’s drinking is always a problem, but when we are all stuck in the house at Christmas it’s much worse. Especially as I want it to be perfect for the kids, but instead it just shows up how bad things are.

I feel like crying thinking how his drinking dominates our family and ruins what should be special memories. We’re all walking on eggshells. And because it’s Christmas you can’t say anything to him because ‘it’s Christmas and that’s how you celebrate’.

My husband can go from being the life and soul of the party to being unreasonable and aggressive.

Last year was a disaster. He just lost it, starting shouting at me and my dad, calling me all the names under the sun in front of the kids. In the end I went to bed at 9.30, and the kids followed me up, trying to escape from it.”

*Name has been changed

If you live with a problem drinker

You have a right to a happy and peaceful Christmas. Put yourself and your children first, even if it means spending time away from the person drinking.

If you can talk about the problem, find a time when they are calm and try to explain the effect their drinking has on you and others.

See if you can talk about things beforehand and plan some ways to lessen the effect of their drinking. For example:

  • Ask them not to drink until later in the day.
  • Explain that if they are drinking, it may be best for you (and your children) to spend some time elsewhere without them, for example, a walk, a carol service or visiting friends or family.
  • Ask them to stay away from you and your children if they are drunk (for example, ask them to go to bed).
  • If you find it hard to talk about things, try writing down what you want to say and give it to them at a time when they are calm.
  • Get in contact with services to support you and your family, such as Al-anon or your local Family Support Network group. They can listen and support you, and you can share experiences and advice with other people in a similar situation. It's good to know you're not alone. If you need support over the Christmas period, see below for services available.

If you know someone affected by another person's drinking

  • Try to support them. Ask them how they’re coping and if there's anything you can do to help.
  • If they are not open about the problem, offer practical help, such as visiting, helping with preparations or inviting them to spend part of the day with you.
  •  Let them know about support services, and let them know you are there for them if they need to get away from the house.

If you know someone who is recovering from an alcohol problem

  • Ask them how they feel about Christmas and if they have any particular worries. Listen without judgement and see if you can find a way to support them.
  • Don’t expect too much from them. While it is great that they are tackling their problem, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be perfect. Recovery is hard, and they may be dealing with difficult emotions, for example, they may be feeling guilty if previous Christmases have been spoiled because of their drinking, or they may be getting used to spending time with friends and family without alcohol.
  • Avoid drinking occasions if it will be too hard for them. Don’t pressure them to go to family or social events. Arrange to meet people at other times and places, away from alcohol.
  • Be prepared to stay away from alcohol yourself if it helps them, or reduce the emphasis on drinking to celebrate Christmas – find other activities and traditions.
  •  Plan in advance how you will leave a social event if they are finding things difficult
  •  If you are going to another person’s house, talk to them about the problem and ask them to help you, if you feel comfortable doing so. For example, check that they will have non-alcoholic drinks available and ask them not to pressure your friend or loved one to have an alcoholic drink.

There's advice for people with an alcohol problem on staying sober over Christmas here.

If there is violence or a threat of violence

  • Have a plan if you feel at risk. Keep your phone with you. Ask a trusted friend to be on standby to collect you if you are concerned about your own safety or that of another person.
  • Know the support services that are available and use them if you feel at risk of violence.

Related topics

Talking to someone about their drinking

Support services for families

If you feel at risk of violence