The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone! And they can be especially challenging for family members who love someone in early recovery, in long-term recovery, or who are currently struggling with substance use.

The information below may help you to navigating these uncertain waters. If you have other suggestions, or would like to share what has worked for you and your family, feel free to post a comment at the bottom of this page!

Helpful Information

Navigating the Holidays When Your Loved One is Struggling with Substance Use

How do our families cope during the holidays? For many of us who have a member who struggles with drugs or alcohol, the holidays can be an extremely stressful time. Not only is this a difficult time for the user themselves, it’s hard for families to watch them make poor choices or even struggle not to give in during the holidays.

Many people associate the holidays with dreamy, happy scenes of ease. For families of addicts, however, the reality is something extremely different. In fact, the holidays can be a time of tensions, sadness, and overindulgent behavior that is later regretted. Managing the stress of substance abuse issues while trying to maintain peace and promote family unity can seem impossible. Also, not handling the issues correctly can lead to the addict feeling further isolated and having a possible relapse.

Social Work Today recently contacted several behavioral health and addictions specialists who shared their thoughts on the most pressing issues these families must navigate to make the holidays as enjoyable as possible. They indicated that “Communication within families about these issues is really important, and families need to talk about them. Addiction doesn’t need to be a secret.”

Experts recommend that families manage expectations.

Most experts agree that one of the most important steps families with substance abuse issues can take is to explore their expectations for the holidays. Far too often, families have expectations that don’t reflect reality but instead are rooted in Norman Rockwell paintings.

Sometimes there are false expectations such as thinking an addict in recovery may be happy and outgoing when really they might be struggling with withdrawal or living without their drug of choice.

Also, if you include actively using family members in your holiday activities, you have to set clear boundaries for everyone’s safety. However, completely excluding them may increase feelings of shame or isolation in the addict. That, in turn, may drive the addict deeper into substance abuse. Finding a healthy balance can be difficult.

It’s good to show support to a family member struggling with addiction. Some families have success in confronting drug abuse issue when families are together for the holidays. But, if families are going to attempt to intervene or discuss the addiction, they must have a clear plan and do so with patience and understanding. Otherwise, it’s easy for good intentions to backfire into arguing and shaming.

Sometimes families get impatient when they watch a loved one relapse over and over again. It’s important to know also that family members can only do so much to help the recovering addict. But ultimately, the addict must take charge of their own recovery. Sometimes they have to hit a significant low in order to gain motivation to take care of their addiction. It’s good to realize that families cannot hold themselves accountable for the addict’s behavior. It’s not the families’ responsibility to keep the addict sober during the holidays; it’s the addict’s responsibility.


Home for the Holidays

As you and your loved one with a substance use disorder approach the holiday season, it is likely that you may be invited to a holiday gathering or you may be hosting one. Here are some general thoughts to keep in mind:

• Accept that this holiday, and perhaps many in the future, will be different – and that’s okay.

• Consider a non-alcoholic holiday – or if necessary – consider not attending your traditional holiday festivities. If this is not a reasonable option, then make sure there will be plenty of alternative beverages available (e.g. sparkling cider, water, juices, punches, etc.) [Generally, most recovering alcoholics prefer beverages that don’t look or taste like the real thing.] You can bring your own beverages.

• Own “your holiday” and let others own theirs. Now this might come as a shock; you actually have a choice. You can choose to attend, or not attend. You can choose to invite, or not invite. And yes, it’s not always an easy choice – especially with close family.

• Manage expectations – yours and the addict/alcoholics. Really – let go of your expectations. Things will not be like a Norman Rockwell painting or a “White Christmas” movie. Many expect those in recovery to be joyous and outgoing because they are sober. The reality is they may feel crappy, stressed, and in despair.

• Prepare the addict/alcoholic – have them get clarity with their sponsor exactly what to expect, how to behave and manage the situation.

• It’s important not to bring up old examples of how they let you down in the past. (It will just lead to arguments.)

• Remember – if someone is in active use and they won’t quit to save their job, their relationships, their own life, they are not going to stop because it’s the holiday and because you and others want them to you.

• Relapse prevention should start before the holidays. Establish boundaries specific to the holidays. Ask the addict/alcoholic what can be done to make them feel more comfortable during this season.

• Recovering addicts/alcoholics should assemble a “Recovery Kit.” At a minimum, the kit should contain contact info for their sponsor and a back-up; include reading material (e.g. AA Big Book, Daily Meditations, etc.): and a list of meetings in the area you are visiting.

• Prepare host or guests in advance – get it out on the table – awareness is important. (If you are not comfortable having that conversation, then have another family member or person spread the word on your behalf.)

• Consider celebrating sobriety – talk openly about it. Explain the challenges of rehab and the challenges with sobriety – it prevents everyone from walking on eggshells.

• Understand that triggers abound – not just people and places – but things – sounds, smells, tastes, emotions – memories of the holiday.

• Don’t hover around the addict/alcoholic – it can put everyone under stress (you, them, and the guest that may notice.)

• If alcohol is going to be present, remember “Alcoholism comes in a person; not in a bottle.” The recovering alcoholic will not necessarily relapse because alcohol is available. (It’s all the “other stuff” going on that could trigger a relapse.)

• Don’t “announce” that non-alcoholic beverages are available. “Announcing” makes the addict/alcoholic feel self-conscious and guilty.

• Always ask what each guest wants to drink – don’t assume – there could be others present that are silently struggling.

• Relapse most often occurs when the recovering addict/alcoholic is feeling highly emotional and stressed. Try your best to “Keep it Simple”

• Have the addict/alcoholic “buddy up” by spending the day with their sponsor or someone else in recovery – to provide support and run interference. (FYI – a parent may not always be the best person to do that.)

• Be aware that some people attending the party may have contributed to your child’s active use.

• Arrive early and leave early – before the effects of alcohol or drug use becomes apparent with some of the guests as the party wears on.

• Have an escape plan – a signal for the addict/alcoholic to give you an indication that temptation is becoming an issue and it is time to leave.

• Foods cooked with wine, brandy, or other spirits – if cooked long enough to destroy the alcoholic content – are technically okay. (But let the person in recovery know how it was prepared – so they can decide if they want to risk eating it.)

• Label foods and desserts that have alcohol content – fruit cake, rum cake, liqueur-filled chocolates, etc.

• Each holiday presents a uniquely different situation – different memories, expectation, dynamics, and triggers – plan each one accordingly.

Alternatives to Your Traditional Holiday Plans

Play in the Snow

If the weather permits, plan to spend some time outside enjoying the wintry wonderland. A snow-covered Pennsylvania leaves us with options to go skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, sledding, or even to get together with some friends for a game of snow football. Without the snow, you may still be able to go ice skating if you have your own skates and if the weather is cold enough. If you don’t have your own patch of ice nearby, you can search for local ponds and lakes – just be sure they are frozen and safe for skating – or even Allentown’s own synthetic ice rinks that are suitable no matter what the weather.

Get Your Sports Fix

The professional sports leagues certainly have their own traditions for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Take advantage of the televised sports on December 25 by tuning into the NBA’s Christmas Day scheduling. You can enjoy hours of basketball in a fun day of relaxation. If you start to feel the itch to play, try to get together with friends to throw together a backyard game of football, rugby, or another sport of your choice. You may also enjoy shooting some hoops or playing a little tennis at the local courts.

Catch up on Your To-Do List

As the end of the year approaches, most of us still feel as though we have things to do before the New Year arrives. If you aren’t celebrating in traditional style, you can use the day to get organized, plan for the future, evaluate your goals, or do any other number of productive activities. You might also find December 25 to be an excellent day to jump-start your New Year’s resolutions a little early. Who says you have to wait until January 1 to get cracking?

Spend Time with Loved Ones

Just because you aren’t celebrating the holiday doesn’t mean you can’t be with the ones you love. December 25 is a great day to spend time with people your care about, even without focusing on the holiday. Most people have off from work no matter what day of the week Christmas falls on, so it’s an ideal time to schedule a little family time, even if it’s only for an hour or so over dessert.

Travel and Explore

December travel plans can be worth their weight in gold, especially if you’re ditching the cold for a warmer climate. You can also stay relatively local, visiting a nearby monument or landmark, which will likely be accessible even on Christmas Day. Even if you don’t go very far, you can still pamper yourself by booking a hotel and treating yourself to some room service and movie marathons.

Eat Out

Many restaurants and hotels are open on or around the holidays. You may decide to celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day that week by having dinner out, and just relax on your day off. Chinese restaurants are known to stay open on Christmas Day, making them a wonderful option for a hot and satisfying meal. Whether you choose takeout or prefer to dine in, you can make this delicious cuisine a part of your own annual tradition when this time of year approaches.

Catch a Flick

Movie theaters often remain open on Christmas, giving friends and family another option for a fun and memorable activity. Even if you go solo, seeing a good movie can be the perfect relaxing activity during the coldest months of the year.

Take a Walk

You don’t have to celebrate Christmas with all the bows and presents in order to appreciate the beauty of decorated homes, and city lights. Enjoy the lights, the decorations and the crowds of people all enjoying each other’s company in the spirit of the season. A simple walk through town, taking in the evening air can be the perfect way to wind down after a long and tiring year.


See if you can find a local soup kitchen or food bank in need of a little extra help on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. You can also inquire with area animal shelters ahead of time to see if they will be open on holidays, or if they are in need of someone to come and help with care and compassion for the animals.

Kim Porter, CFRS
0 0 vote
Rate This Page