How to Support Loved Ones in Recovery During the Holidays

supporting loved ones in recovery

During the holidays, many families will feel especially grateful for the sobriety and recovery of a loved one. However, it’s important for families to keep in mind that those in recovery may be struggling this time of year. While this season is usually synonymous with holiday cheer, it can also be overwhelming for those who have battled (or are battling) substance addiction.

Let’s think about it for a moment. The holidays are typically filled with festivities, celebrations, and – as a result – excess. Excessive food. Excessive drinking. Excessive emotions. For those in recovery, this can all trigger bigger cravings and temptations. And this is just the beginning.

Being around alcohol is not the only relapse trigger at peak this time of year. With everyone home for the holidays, those in recovery are also more likely to encounter people they used to hang out (i.e. use drugs) with, or people who cause them stress (e.g. an ex-girlfriend, or peer-pressuring cousin).

Couple this with hectic schedules, chaotic family gatherings, unavoidably tough conversations, and anxiety-prompting “small talk,” and you can begin to understand why staying sober during the holidays is often so challenging.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stress cues (such as people, places, things, and moods), and contact with drugs are the most common triggers for relapse.

Fortunately, the support of family and friends is one of the most impactful and meaningful resources one can have during their recovery. In fact, family support can inspire higher engagement in their program, and higher rates of sobriety and success. If you have a loved one in treatment or in recovery, know that your support matters – especially this holiday season. Here’s how you can show it.

Tips for Supporting Your Loved One in Recovery During the Holidays

  1. Ask how you can help.

Ask your loved one how you can ease the stresses of the holiday season. They may wish that you don’t serve alcohol at the family party, that you don’t drink in their presence, or that you don’t invite a certain someone that will create stress. At the same time, they may be afraid to ask these things of you. Be proactive and ask what you can do to lessen the stress. You may lend a listening ear, agree to press a pause on drinking, or even offer to act as a buffer during difficult situations/conversations.

  1. Reduce holiday pressures.

Everyone experiences some stress during the holidays, but for those in recovery, the holidays can be especially daunting. If you can sense that your loved one is feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable, reassure them that it is okay to decline an invitation, forego a certain activity, or leave a party early. If they do participate in the festivities, be sure to have an escape plan in place. Let your loved one know – ahead of time – that you will always be there to help them out of a difficult or triggering situation. This may involve offering a ride, calling them an Uber, or staying on the phone with them until they get home safe.

  1. Prepare family members.

Another way you can help alleviate their stress is to talk with other family members and friends ahead of time. The reality is, not everyone knows how to interact with someone in recovery. They may not know what to say (or, what not to say). Help them understand the more delicate topics and behaviors that could trigger a relapse. In addition, help them understand the nature of addiction. For those that aren’t in recovery, it’s easy to assume that “one glass of wine” or “one champagne toast” won’t hurt. But for those in recovery, these seemingly little drinks can be a major relapse trigger.

  1. Remind them it’s normal to feel…

Stress, anxious, depressed. These are all normal feelings to experience, with all the added stress and emotion that holidays can bring. Organizing parties, shopping for gifts, preparing food, chatting with family, coping with cravings, grieving a loss – these all bring about their own unique stresses this time of year. Your loved one may be feeling guilty about being down during such a “joyous” time of year. Remind them it’s okay to feel these things, and that you’re there for support.

  1. Surround your loved one with support.

If at any point your loved one feels down, be sure to lend a listening ear. You can also encourage them to connect with other members of their support system, be it a sponsor, mentor, or friend from their treatment program. Let them know you are always there, and always encourage them to reach out. You may also suggest they attend some extra meetings over the holidays, and offer to attend a meeting with them. Even if they decline your offer, they will still appreciate the fact you’re willing to be there.

Ultimately, as a friend or family member, the best thing you can do is to stand by your loved one, not over your loved one, as they take on this holiday season. Do not monitor their every move. Do not demand they act or present themselves a certain way. Rather, just be there and be supportive. Let them know you are there to listen. Encourage them to stay on their sober path. Offer to have a sober holiday yourself (it has many benefits!). Be respectful of their decisions to stay low. Steer clear of uncomfortable topics, and be the buffer or distraction when they come up. You can also help them design a holiday relapse prevention plan, to help navigate and prepare for the weeks ahead.

If you are concerned about your loved one in recovery, or if you notice any signs of relapse, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a young adult treatment center with programs for young men and women battling co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.