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Navigating the Holidays with Addiction in the Family

The holiday season can be extremely tough for many families, especially when there’s loss, trauma, unresolved issues and addiction in the picture. Not everyone’s holiday celebration looks like a Hallmark movie scene and navigating family chaos can require a lot of patience, planning and prioritizing your own needs above family expectations. 

I know this all too well, as my family has endured some extremely difficult situations, and I have family members who suffer from alcoholism. If you or a loved one struggle with addiction, these situations can make it incredibly hard to resist the urge to fall back into substance use to deal with the pain. However, there are some strategies you can use to get through the holiday chaos without a backward slide. 

  1. Don’t go. There’s no reason to force yourself to attend a family gathering if it leaves you feeling hurt, traumatized, angry or at risk of using again. You are an adult, and you can make the choice not to go. And, remember that “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Simply politely decline.
  2. Make sobriety your top priority. This takes a lot of courage but make it clear to family members that sobriety is your new normal, and it’s non-negotiable. You’re not giving something up, you’re actually gaining something — a new life, better health, etc. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, ask your family to skip the libations in solidarity with you. If they choose not to, decide in advance how you will deal with that dynamic, including leaving if that’s most comfortable.
  3. Identify triggers and talk it through with a confidant. Take an inventory — literally write it down — of the people, situations, events, etc. that trigger a tornado of emotions. Identifying these triggers in advance makes it easier to avoid them or find a way to cope. Once you’ve identified the triggers, call your sponsor, a friend or an understanding family member to discuss how you might deal with triggering situations if they do come up. Simply talking through potential challenges can help you process them and come up with ways to diffuse situations.
  4. Have an attitude of gratitude. It’s hard to be sad, angry or anxious when you’re focused on being grateful. We often focus too much on the things we don’t have and what we want, and not enough on what we do have. Take time to jot down things to be thankful for: being alive, having shelter, even dirty dishes in the sink because it means you have food to nourish your body.
  5. Nurture yourself. Especially during holidays, we’re always so rushed and many of us feel the need to meet unrealistic expectations for what a holiday celebration “should” look like. Suddenly, even the non-people-pleasers become worried about making everyone happy! Just stop. Be still. Take a walk or a hot bath. Do yoga, read or meditate. Have a cup of tea. Make it a point — actually schedule it into your day — to do one thing that calms your soul and makes your heart smile.
  6. Pay attention to the positive. While it might feel like we have the worst luck, the most intolerable family or the most awful, traumatic past, remember that everyone has crappy things happen in life. Instead of focusing on those, look at the positives so you don’t get sucked up into the tornado of negative emotions. Stop, breathe and find the positive. 

From the other side of the coin, if someone you love is dealing with addiction, there are a few things you can do to help them navigate this tricky time of year. 

  • Go to a support group with them. Learning more about addiction and what your loved one is going through helps you to understand the challenges they may be facing and empathize with their needs.  
  • Be on the lookout for signs of trouble. Nonverbal communication can you tell a lot about how someone is feeling. Do they seem agitated or irritated? Are they eyeing that drink on the table? Ask them: “Are you ok? You seem edgy, can we talk?”
  • Create an environment where they can disengage. If it’s a large gathering, allow them to escape to another room where they can take some deep breaths and regroup. This can help anyone cope with tense family moments.

Dealing with the stress of the holiday season takes a great deal of patience, and giving ourselves permission to NOT be miserable, feel triggered or tempted to revert to unhealthy habits is crucial. There’s no reason to sacrifice your health and your sobriety just to please others during the holiday season.

Navigating the Holidays with Addiction in the Family

Tanya Brown

Tanya Brown is the admissions coordinator at Laguna Treatment Hospital, an American Addiction Centers facility. She holds a master’s in counseling psychology and is a certified life coach, state certified domestic violence counselor and a certified court advocate. She specializes in domestic violence in the workplace and suicide awareness.

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APA Reference
Brown, T. (2019). Navigating the Holidays with Addiction in the Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Dec 2019 (Originally: 17 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Dec 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.