How Family Holidays Can Impact Recovery and Create Opportunities for Change

How to have a safe and fun holiday with a family member in recovery.
Dominic Nicosia

Written By

Dominic Nicosia

Families can play a crucial role in the addiction recovery process.  The goal for families is to think of ways their relationships with one another have been affected by addiction, validate feelings and find ways to repair disconnections as a result of compulsive substance use.  The person in recovery has their own set of goals they need to work on independent of the family.  However, people in recovery benefit deeply from repairing the damage their disease of addiction has had on the people who love them. Holidays during a pandemic are a new challenge that affect our ability to gather in person and feel connected.

The healing power of relationships, trust, love and connection is one of the most important tools for families.  Damage to trust and connection is often at the root of traumatic events that lead to disruptions in the brain’s ability to self-regulate physiologically and emotionally. Trauma can be the loss of connection to one’s self as well as well as the loss of critical psychological connectedness between humans.  It is intensely painful to be disconnected from the ones we love, and reconnecting in relationships has the power to transform recovery and the resiliency needed for sustained sobriety. Disrupted connections with others changes the ways we view ourselves and our world. Strong connections create safety and resiliency which is fundamentally needed as a part of recovery.

The Disconnection Connection: Holiday Disruption, Families and Addiction Recovery

Whether you are gathering in person or virtually, your holiday traditions and routines may be facing major disruption.  Routines keep our lives predictable, safe, and regulated.  Holiday routine changes can challenge our skills of self-regulation and disrupt recovery support systems like attending meetings and treatment. Staying connected to sober routines can help manage these adjustments, and those in early recovery in particular may need that added structure to help them stay balanced and lower risk of relapse.  Holiday expectations may be significantly affected during the pandemic and create a sense of loss.  The increased presence of alcohol, parties, and memories of family in combination with missing the holiday routine can increase risk of relapse.  Finding creative ways to keep family routines intact or socially distant may help all family members maintain self-care and a sense of attachment to others.

Families of people in addiction recovery may need help to engage with the problems in relationships, because it can feel difficult to express or acknowledge painful feelings.  Denial and avoidance of the pain of addiction can relate to shame and guilt.  Reframing ways the family members can use their love and hopes for each other can help to restructure the focus towards shared goals.  It isn’t always easy to find a non-judgmental position, but the payoff is re-establishing hope and connection over guilt, shame or hopelessness.  Shame drives people to feel that they do not belong, or they are not worthy of being loved.  Guilt is when people think they did something bad, but shame is when people think “they are bad.” It can be easier to find ways to do restitution for an act, but much harder to feel that our entire self needs to be changed.

Holidays are traditionally a time of family gathering, and as a result they can become a source of stress as well as healing.  Families are much more than the common definition of “a group of two people or more related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” They are a complex, emotionally connected group of people who play important roles in each other’s lives.  People in recovery, as well as their families, may need extra support at holiday times as the contrast between imagined holidays and reality can differ widely.  Holidays are nostalgic times, and we may envision what would be the “perfect holiday.”  Social media can intensify expectations of holidays and amplify losses and memories. Seeing other people post their holiday pictures invites comparisons that breed shame, blame and loss.

Using the Holidays to Recover from Addiction as a Family

At the most basic level, the person in recovery is the primary focus of treatment.  On a broader level, the family of the person in recovery has directly and indirectly been affected by addiction and may share all of the desperation with none of the control.  As individuals begin the process of recovery, they pass through multiple stages of recognizing needs and making changes in their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, patterns of self-care and healing.  It is never a one-size-fits-all process, but more often than not, family members provide links for rebuilding their loves one’s lives.  The family unit, which can be uniquely defined for each person, also passes through a process of addiction recovery.  Families have a dual purpose in helping their loved ones in their recovery to overcome shame, guilt, depression and disconnection, and in maintaining accountability and responsibility for their actions.

Families develop their own dysfunctional coping mechanisms when a family member struggles with addiction. They may:  

  • Ignore the Problem
  • Stay away from the Person
  • Enable the Person in Order to “Keep the Peace”
  • Try to Control the Person
  • Use Substances with the Person

Recovery changes family dynamics as each family member learns about the disease of addiction and their own need for support.

In a traditional holiday season of family connection and giving, it may feel like emotional whiplash for some to welcome a family member home while also needing to find ways to set limits and keep them accountable.  Accountability plays a key role in recovery as individuals have to change physical and emotional patterns.  Facing the past creates motivation to change and lead a sober life, and this is an extremely uncomfortable process at times.  A good rule of thumb for families is to communicate, set boundaries, and recognize the different needs of those in early or long-term recovery. Whether this is the first holiday with a loved one in recovery, or one of many holidays shared in recovery, the best celebration for all will come with mindful planning to meet multiple needs.

When families are engaged in the process of recovery, the outcomes improve significantly.  When all members of the family readjust and reconnect in healthy ways, the odds of the loved one in recovery maintaining gains will improve.  Family members share loyalty, common experiences, love and genuine care.  When one member of the system is suffering from a disease, it can affect everyone in the family.  The disease of addiction can damage trust, disrupt communication, and create hopelessness, fear and confusion for the family members.  Individuals who develop substance use disorders are more likely to have previously struggled with depression, trauma, anxiety, grief and disruptions to their own abilities to develop healthy ways to manage these mental health issues.  Addiction is complex, as unique as the individual, and more often than not, traumatic for families in terms of the horrific loss of control while you see a loved one suffer. Recovery is a parallel process that is not linear – relapse is often part of recovery, and gains made can be eclipsed in the process.

Managing Families’ Holiday Expectations during Recovery

After a loved one starts treatment, there can be relief and renewed hope, but expectations may need to be grounded as changes don’t happen overnight.  All members of the family may have the same idealized wish to recover the trust and lives that existed prior to the escalation of addictive behaviors.  Instead, there can be increased anxiety and fear of “going backwards instead of forwards.”  A healthy dose of compassion and empathy may be needed to tolerate the focus on what needs to change, create better boundaries and set limits around how to rebuild relationships and new ways of communicating.

For some families, their loved one has entered treatment at a time when family members are exhausted, hopeless, angry, scared, or embarrassed, and they need time to recover personally from the emotional drain of worry, guilt, shame and fear that their loved one may die.

The stigma of addiction may have isolated family members from seeking help.  Family members may be taking care of their loved one’s financial debt, unmet childcare needs, depression, and shock from legal involvement.  When the family is already overwhelmed, the idea of investing MORE support may feel difficult to embrace.   Treatment takes time, and the realities of hardships while a loved one recovers from physical, financial, and emotional consequences require endurance.  It will take time, and there are a number of ways families can stay supportive and involved while also taking care of themselves.

Things to Think about When Planning for Family Holiday Gatherings with a Family Member in Recovery

You are not responsible for your family member’s recovery during the holidays or ever, but you can ask them what you can do to help them. They may say they do not need anything, and that is OK.  You can also decline a request from your loved one if you don’t feel comfortable, “I love you, and I can’t do that” is a legitimate answer. Ideally the holiday plans you make meet the needs of everyone as much as possible. Getting creative and increasing healthy patterns of communication is way to show you love them.

Are You and Your Family Really Ready?

Are there current unresolved conflicts or resentments among family members that create a real obstacle to bringing people together?  Does the family have an understanding of addiction and the process of recovery so they can support their own emotions as well as the needs of a loved one in recovery?  It is best to avoid the proverbial “elephant in the room” approach, which is a metaphor to describe how families may try to ignore something obvious to all and not directly acknowledge it in efforts to cope.  Explore creative ways to have a gathering that acknowledges the loves one’s recovery and minimizes denial and the risk that any one present feels they are invisible or has to act in a way that is not authentic and safe.

Consider if there are people who need permission to not be present, including the loved one in recovery.  Recovery comes first, so it might help to say: “It’s OK for you to miss this celebration in person.”  Holidays during a pandemic can naturally include remote connections by phone or video.  It might be better for someone to miss a gathering, or some parts of holiday events so that next year they are in a place where they can participate.

Strong Boundaries Can Create Safety

Holidays may encourage people to over-indulge at a celebration.  For those in early recovery, holidays can create anxiety that may override new skills to manage cravings or urges.  Healthy boundaries are physical and emotional limits that people set for themselves to safeguard their wellbeing.  Unhealthy boundaries are thoughts and behaviors that can lead to manipulative and controlling relationships.  The goal is to personalize your family’s boundaries so that they are not “too strict” or “too loose.” Seek a balance between reconnection with others and respect for the needs of everyone present.

Simple ways to plan ahead include agreeing that no drugs or alcohol are allowed in the house; to agree that no one will lend or borrow money for any reason; and to limit the use of a cell phone for contacting people.  Setting boundaries with a loved one can be very difficult at the holidays when you want to make sure everyone has the best possible celebration.  Addictive behaviors include pushing boundaries and breaking rules, and your loved one is likely to know how to manipulate you.  However, if they are successful at breaking the rules, they will never experience the negative consequences of their addiction.  Instead, stay firm, set boundaries and follow through.

Educate Yourself about Addiction

Individuals need support from their families, and families need support and self-compassion to help them understand how their loved one’s addiction affects them.  No matter how the family members were affected, they may need healing as well.  Learning about addiction is empowering and helps get everyone involved.  Talk to treatment providers, ask about family programming, read about the recovery process, find encouragement, find ways to share experiences, decrease shame and blame, and recognize that you cannot control another person’s recovery.  Look into local meetings and support groups and find ways to support the family in the process of understanding addiction as a disease, and in learning that no situation is too difficult to overcome.

Plan Ahead for Possible Triggers

Increasing awareness of potential social or environmental triggers can help communication and planning.  Loved ones in recovery learn that triggers are “people, places or things” that are linked to their patterns of use.  Exposure or access to drugs or alcohol that were previously used can ignite urges and cravings.  Stress can intensify the need to self-medicate and escape from painful emotional states.  It may help to ask a loved one how they will feel if others are drinking alcohol and explore ways to have an alcohol-free event.  If a loved one says they don’t feel comfortable coming to a gathering with alcohol, that can be honored.

Non-Alcoholic Beverages vs. “Mocktails”

Having a selection of beverages that are non-alcoholic is good planning.  Beverages that are “mocktails” look like festive alcoholic drinks, but without alcohol.  For some, this may be a fun option, but it can be triggering for others.  Loved ones in early recovery are working on new habits and lifestyle changes.  Despite best intentions, a drink that creates a desire for alcohol or its effects might inadvertently reinforce beliefs that alcohol is needed in order to enjoy oneself.

At the same time, a loved one may feel out of place at a table where everyone has a glass of wine.  For some, a “mocktail” might make them feel like part of the gathering, but for others it could become an invitation for binge drinking.  People in long term recovery may be able to make the best choices for themselves, but those in early recovery may not have the internalized strengths to manage urges to over-indulge.  Even non-alcoholic beers can have small amounts of alcohol in them, so for those in early recovery a beverage that is not traditionally alcoholic may be a better option. If your loved one tells you they don’t want any special steps taken to accommodate them, and both you and they are comfortable with them taking part this time, then simply go ahead.

The Risks of Families Enabling in Recovery during the Holidays

Enabling is when family members prevent others from experiencing the full extent of the consequences of their addiction and allow them to continue to their self-destructive behavior.  Enablers can begin with good intentions to help their loved ones, but their actions may make the addiction worse.  If there are no negative consequences, it is less likely that a behavior will stop.  The holidays create a strong pull for enabling; “if I keep them home, I can monitor how much they drink”; “at least they won’t be driving to go get drugs/alcohol.”  Unfortunately, this is the kind of wishful thinking that leads to enabling. Here are some tips to avoid enabling:

Gift Mindfully – A good option to avoid enabling is to not give gifts.  Gifts and gift cards can be converted easily into money to buy drugs or alcohol.  It may seem harsh to not exchange gifts over the holidays but putting money into a savings account they cannot access or planning future trips may be a better way to think of gifts.

Stop Covering Up – Enabling is also when family members try to hide their loved ones’ substance use problems from others.  Chances are, other members of the family or close friends are already very aware of the problems, and efforts to cover things up won’t be successful.  Addiction is a disease and treating it like a secret or acting embarrassed about it may delay recovery or make things worse.

Accept that You Cannot Control Them or Their Recovery – Even with the best plans and intentions, people relapse. Even when family members are in your home over the holidays, that doesn’t mean their drug and alcohol use is within your control.  If your family member is in active addiction, they will probably continue to use during the holiday regardless of your presence or wishes.  What you are in control of, however, is how you handle it.  Just because it is the holiday season, doesn’t mean it is OK to use substances in any amount.  When you stop enabling over the holidays, you could be setting your family up for years of happier and healthier holidays ahead.

Holiday Planning for Family Members in Recovery

Here are some additional tips for celebrating the holidays with a family member in recovery.

Make a “Recovery Kit” – Contact numbers, sponsor check in, Big Book, affirmations, list of local AA/NA/SMART recovery, bring your own beverages, have an escape plan.  Make a schedule of available support meetings (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery).  Know when to make a call or get some fresh air.

  • Have a plan for the holiday, including mutual aid meetings and calls to those central to your recovery.
  • Identify risk factors that should be avoided and know how you will respond if they’re encountered.
  • Know your signs of potential relapse and take steps to address them
  • Stay in touch with your key supports, such as counselors, sponsors, mentors, or recovering peers.
  • Keep it all in perspective: Nothing that happens, no matter how painful or unpleasant, is worth giving up one’s recovery.
  • Register for online meetings: To participate in the online Family & Friends meetings, registration is required at the SMART Recovery Online website:

If you or family relapses in recovery this holiday, Recovery Unplugged is waiting to help them and your loved ones get back on track.

We take our music-focused treatment for addiction very seriously, so we are going to hold our content to the same precision standards. Recovery Unplugged’s editorial process involves our editing safeguard and our ideals. Read our Editorial Process.

Dominic Nicosia

Dominic, a seasoned content writer at Recovery Unplugged, brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the realm of healthcare writing, particularly in the addiction and recovery field.

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