The holidays can be a wonderful time of making memories and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest. It can also be an especially fraught time – emotions are heightened, the pressure is on and expectations don’t always square with reality. For those of us with loved ones that are struggling with addiction, the holidays can often seem overwhelming.

We spoke with Laura Demoe, VP of clinical Services at Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres, to find out how to navigate the tricky terrain that comes when a loved one is struggling with a mental illness and/or addiction.

Educate yourself on addiction and mental illness: “Understand the specific issue your loved one is facing. If they struggle with depression and opt out of certain family events – rather than taking this personally, you can understand that as a symptom of depression, a person may isolate themselves.”

Learn your boundaries: “Just because someone is suffering from an addiction, it doesn’t mean that your needs and boundaries aren’t important. Really know what your boundaries are before a situation escalates. Have a conversation prior to the event and set limits. For example, ‘If you become intoxicated and raise your voice/become aggressive, I’m going to ask you to leave.’ Make clear guidelines and actions for what will happen if boundaries are crossed.”

Ask your loved one what form of support would be most helpful to them, while knowing your own boundaries: “If a family member is struggling with addiction and makes unreasonable demands on you as a family, it’s critical to know what your limits are and what you can offer to support.”

Implement effective communication skills: “These include active listening as well as choosing an ideal time to talk with the person – not while they’re under the influence of substances or in an escalated state of mind.”

Emphasize that you care for the person: “Avoid labelling the individual and judging them. Express that you care for their well-being, and try to have an open-ended conversation.”

Continue taking care of yourself and the rest of your family: “If your loved one is struggling with addiction, it takes a physical and mental toll on the rest of the family. It’s important for you and your family to still be able to enjoy the holiday celebration.”

If the individual is new into recovery, limit availability of alcohol: “Environmental cues are a huge trigger for relapse, so if you can go without [alcohol], that’s great. Or make more of an emphasis on food and family time, rather than the alcohol aspect.”

If your loved one is in denial, express concern: “Emphasize that you’re worried about them and that you care for their well-being. If you feel that the person’s life is in jeopardy, or they may lose everything that they have, that’s when I would recommend calling a professional interventionist.”

Don’t get lost in judging yourself: “A lot of family members try to maintain a perfect image and struggle with opening up with others about their loved ones having an addiction issue. The greatest gift you can give yourself is to be self-compassionate.”

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres offers a free family support group on Monday evenings from 7pm to 8:30pm (excluding stat holidays) at 124 Merton St, Suite 305. They’re open to any individual who has a family member struggling with addiction.