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Content warning: Alcoholism, physical and psychological violence.


My cousin just called me in tears. Again. She shared her fears with me about her parents drinking too much, even when they have to drive. She wanted to know what she could do to prevent her parents from driving when they're drunk (which is basically everyday).

Her mom (Elizabeth) and dad (Jack) have three daughters: her (19y.o.) and 11-years old twins. They've had to struggle with alcoholism for as long as I can remember. Their couple has been a mess for five years now, and they drink heavily every day to forget about their pain. After my grandfather died at the beginning of 2018, Elizabeth wanted to get sober and to get a divorce but was discouraged by my grandma, who told her "one does not divorce, no matter what you're going through, once you're married it's for life". So she gave up on both ideas.

Not only my cousins have to deal with their parents calling names and getting verbally and physically violent at each other, but they're in danger every time my aunt and uncle drive them somewhere, as they're basically drunk all day. I fear for their lives, not because of the violence (they wouldn't physically hurt their daughters), but I'm afraid I get a call someday telling me that they died in a car accident.

I've been wanting to talk to Elizabeth about that (I'm not close enough with Jack). To show her she can confide in me (I'm old enough now not to be hurt by what she could tell me), and to help her realize that she and Jack are putting their whole family in danger. The thing is, we're from a family where one doesn't talk about their feelings (she never mentioned her marriage troubles to anyone, we only know because we see how they behave with each other and their daughters, and because my cousin calls me at least once a month because of it). I've broke the implicit "no-feeling-talk" and extensively talked about the situation with my grandma and my mother (Elizabeth's sister) and told them I'm worried, but they won't talk to Elizabeth unless she mentions it first.

TL;DR

My aunt and uncle are miserable in their marriage and have been extensively drinking to forget about their pain. Their drinking habit puts my cousins in danger on a daily basis and I'm afraid they get hurt and/or lose custody should they have an alcohol-induced car accident.

How to talk with Elizabeth about their drinking problem and help them realize that they're putting their daughters in danger when they drive drunk? I can see she's in deep pain but we were both taught not to talk about our feelings so I don't know how to bring the topic up without making her feel like a terrible mother.

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    Sounds like an intervention needs to happen. Is there a rehab facility or mental health center nearby (or near enough if not in your town)? They may be more equipped on staging an intervention and could give you the tools needed to do so more effectively. – Lux Claridge Oct 30 '19 at 13:15
  • @Lux not that I'm aware of, sadly. I advised my oldest cousin to talk about it to the family GP but unfortunately they don't have the same one anymore :/ – avazula Oct 30 '19 at 13:28
  • I agree with @LuxClaridge- an intervention is probably going to be an important step. A rehab clinic or mental health facility will have resources that can help, but they aren't necessary for staging an intervention (there are lower-intensity sources, like addiction counselors and therapists, which can provide similar resources for planning an intervention). But more broadly, do you know if anyone has spoken to your aunt and uncle about their problematic drinking, in any capacity? And finally, what is your major goal: telling your aunt, or removing the risk to your cousins? – Upper_Case Oct 30 '19 at 15:52
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    Since your cousin is 19, could she take over driving? Is anyone willing to get authorities involved or physically prevent them from driving? I understand the ideal case is to get them to stop voluntarily, but that might not be possible. – Kat Nov 1 '19 at 20:58
  • @Kat my cousin isn't allowed to drive yet (she still hasn't got her licence), but it wouldn't change anything as she's living away. – avazula Nov 2 '19 at 16:26
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Alcoholics are not rational discussion partners

This is a frame challenge answer. I do not believe the chances are high of the outcome you want if you confront the parents.

Be careful what you expect as outcome of such a discussion. People are usually very defensive about their children and their relationship to them. Being a bad parent is probably the worst offense you can accuse someone of (that is a parent) - and it is very easy to interpret criticism as that accusation. While I have no experience talking to alcoholics, just talking to parents can be a minefield of it's own. I have trod carefully through a couple of those.

Getting that admission from someone rational is hard enough - it requires close to inhuman levels of self reflection and willingness to accept and evaluate such injury. Then consider someone under the influence of a debilitating, chronic situation like alcoholism which - not to mention the effects on health alone - also causes a strong tendency to irrational thought and specific mental deficiencies and illness. Few alcoholics can admit to the problem, they are "just going through a rough patch". Other mental deficiencies such as paranoia and delusions are common effects of alcoholism - which furthers the probability they will consider you an enemy. Someone that is out to steal or deny them something they have. (Husband, children, their drink). I think the best outcome of your proposed strategy is that they simply withdraw from the discussion and deflect your concerns.

I advice strongly to contact authorities

...such as Police and/or Social Services. If there is a local sheriffs office, they should have the necessary experience and tact to device a way to end this gracefully.

I would also investigate and ask someone with experience - is there an AA chapter near you? Ask someone who volunteers there for their opinions.

I would consider it a moral imperative for myself to contact the police and social services. I am not walking in your shoes, I will not moralize for you. (Please believe me when I say I am not questioning your sense of morality)

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  • This is about as realistic of an answer as you are going to get. I'd add that the alcoholics I know all decided to quit drinking when they realized they had hit rock bottom - they had friends, family, employers all say that "your drinking is a problem" but they just said "no, it's not" and that defense couldn't be broken down. – baldPrussian Aug 29 at 14:10
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I have struggled a long time with this answer. But I am thinking it is important to answer this.

I am the child of a (now dry) alcoholic. So I will try to answer this in a practical, not legal context.

Your aunt and your uncle drink. Your cousins are frightened to drive with them. You know, that at some point in the past, your aunt tried to change the situation.

Practical help for the daughters: You could help them to find alternatives to the drives with aunt and uncle. Encourage them to ride a bicycle or if they do not own one, help to find a cheap, used one to buy. Inform about bus/train/tram and maybe help with some money for the tickets.

General help for the daughters would be you as another person who they could trust in. As they call you if they are in trouble, I assume you are such a person even now. You could offer them to come to you after school, or (if it is too far away) to find a good alternative place to avoid beeing near their parents, when they do not like to. This place could reach from an after school activity until a close friend, which parents are maybe informed about the special circumstances.

I could not forecast the reaction of your aunt and uncle. But as you wrote about your aunt like to change something, there is hope, that she may not act against it. I assume that she may agree with you, if you focus on the safety issue for the children.

How to talk with Elizabeth about their drinking problem and help them realize that they're putting their daughters in danger when they drive drunk?

First, you need to catch the aunt when she is not (or nearly not) drunken. Any other moment would not work for real important content.

Additionally, you should have in mind, that your aunt knows that it is a risk to let her children sit in a car with a drunken driver. But alcoholics try to hide their problem (even from theirself). So if she thinks about drunken drivers, she "let the problem become real". And this is the real opposite of the aim "drink to avoid problems".

Next you need to avoid to blame her. For your mind you could treat the alcoholism like an illness. (I do not negotise any responsibility, but to bring this up would not help the outcome.) Try to accept the problem as given. To solve the alcoholic-issue is not your aim this time.

Try to focus on things you have observed. Avoid knowledge you have got from other people than your aunt or uncle. Try to avoid bring in the daughters as source of information. This could lead to pressure from aunt or uncle against the daughters. Instead focus on your own observation (signs of drunken behavior) to bring up the issue.

You should be aware that you may be misinterpreted (on purpose or not). Alcoholics tend to assume the worst meaning and to overreact. But it depends on the general character and the status of the alcoholic issue. Stay patient and calm. Getting emotional won't help to reach your aim.

It would help your aunt to talk about her problems, if she feels safe. You know better than I how you could reach this. I assume better without than with the uncle, not in an open space where others could overhear your talk.

For example: "I saw you [last time] and it seems to me, that you are not well. At some occasions I saw you drink a lot and I ask myself if you may have some sorrows I could help you with." Or "...saw you drink some more and ask myself, if you had safe transportation to your home."

The best for you would be, if she takes the chance to talk about her problems. And if she notices the risk for her daughters to sit in a car with a drunken driver herself. But if she does not, you could only mention it. You could not force her, if she denies the risk or the problem. If you have really seen her or the uncle driving drunken, then you could speak about this theme directly.

If she does not like to act with you, then you only could help the daughters with straighten their position like I wrote above.

To introduce police and other official powers depends on where you are from strongly. In Germany, I would try first to speak with the mother, and if she does in no case like to help her daughters I would inform her about the next steps I need to do to save the children's health, like inform the public authorities.

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  • My significant other has parent relatives with similar problems and I think the practical help advised there is pretty good. I'm not sure any good is to be expected from authorities, it's a sure way to cut contact with relatives, abandoning hope for further practical help – Arthur Hv Aug 31 at 9:07

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