How To Support a Family Member’s Recovery During the Holidays

With the holidays just around the corner, many of us are looking forward to festive parties and time shared with family and friends. For those with a history of substance and alcohol abuse, however, this season can be filled with triggers that can easily cause a relapse. To help your loved ones remain sober this holiday season, there are plenty of ways to show that you are mindful of their struggle and supportive of their journey to recovery.  A bit of empathy as well as a thoughtful strategy developed along with your family members can alleviate anxiety and protect your loved ones from relapsing as they work to overcome their addictions.

selective focus photography of several people cheering wine glasses

Identify Triggers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) calls them “the winter blues,” and you don’t need to be in recovery to experience the depressive effects of shorter days.[1] The holidays can also bring up social and financial stressors and painful reminders of lost or distant loved ones.

Consider your recovering family member’s situation, and if you do not already know what triggers his or her desire to succumb, try to learn. While the discussion may be difficult, it’s important to identify triggers before you see them. Being mindful of the thoughts and surroundings that can provoke a recurrence allow you and your family member to be proactive about holiday situations in order to sustain recovery.

Make a Plan

Once you’ve figured out the things, people, or situations that stress your family member, discuss ways that you can defuse these tensions. For a newly recovering alcohol abuser, Christmas dinner with wine or New Years Eve with champagne may be difficult to resist. If you’re hosting and can offer non-alcoholic alternatives like sparkling cider, do so. And if you have a loved one recovering from substance abuse, keep prescriptions out of the way.

For situations outside of your immediate control, like office parties, discuss alternative plans of action with your loved one. These NIH worksheets provide a list of common triggers and several plans to avoid these situations[2].  In addition, the worksheets pose several thought-provoking questions to help your family member successfully process the holiday season and sidestep temptations to relapse.

Be Available

Clearly tell your loved one that you’ll do whatever you can to offer support during this season and along the road to recovery. Your interest and support can go a long way. Not being able to handle these and other situations led your loved one to a point of loneliness and despair that provoked previous substance abuse. Knowing they’re not alone may be enough to inspire that second thought before a potential relapse.

Encourage your family member to check in and offer to hold them accountable. If there’s an upcoming event that may prove to be a trigger, offer to stay in touch before and after. With the expectation of reporting back, your family member is more likely to stay on the wagon.

Do Something Different

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most successful treatments for addiction. The goal of CBT is to change an individual’s thought patterns and encourage healthy coping mechanisms, which is evident in all of the recovery assisting strategies that we’ve discussed so far.

One of the best places to start changing thinking patterns is to help your family member redefine fun[3]. Creating new patterns of behavior—like new traditions—can be valuable tools for your loved one to cope with during the holidays. They turn your loved one’s focus to the present and can help to reframe future coping mechanisms. By encouraging your family member to participate in new experiences and create new memories, you are helping to shape a new concept of fun for them, one that doesn’t include an addictive substance.

These new experiences can be fun for the sake of fun, like a family gingerbread baking contest. Or they can be activities that promote community or self-care, like volunteering together. The new normal that you create together is an essential foundation for continued recovery.

making gingerbread cookies


Whatever you do, go out of your way to include your family member in the strategies you use to assist in their recovery. Feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and despair are at the root of every addiction. A sense of belonging and constant support are vital to your family member’s successful rehabilitation.

Use this opportunity to learn and grow as you shape a healthy and mindful future together. Create a plan to avoid pitfalls. Identify triggers and discuss solutions. Do what you can to help by checking in or changing the menu. Finally, help your family member to develop positive associations with the holiday season by trying something new. You can help rewrite the narrative of addiction during the holiday season together.