How to talk to family and friends about changing your drinking habits
If you’ve made the choice to change the way you drink, or give up alcohol completely, you may struggle with how to navigate certain social situations. These go-to responses will help you feel confident in your decision.
One in four Aussies exceed the alcohol guidelines (no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four standard drinks on any one day), and alcohol is the fifth-highest risk factor contributing to the burden of disease in Australia.
Cutting down or cutting out alcohol offers a host of benefits, including a boost in mental wellbeing, an improvement in sleep quality, increased energy levels, improved fertility, and protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.
If you’ve been thinking about exchanging cocktails for mocktails, your first mental hurdle might be: how will people react?
To help you handle social situations confidently, we’ve turned to the experts for advice on what to say. Dominque Robert-Hendren, chief clinical psychologist and head of clinical innovation and digital health at Hello Sunday Morning, an Australian not-for-profit organisation helping people change their relationship with alcohol, and Faye Lawrence, founder of Untoxicated, an alcohol-free social and peer-support community, share their thoughts on what to say in seven common scenarios.
Scenario #1: You're going to a family Christmas party and you want to stay sober, without seeming like you’re spoiling the fun.
Try saying this: “I’m on a health kick, so I’m going to bring my favourite mocktail/kombucha, which everyone’s welcome to try.” Or “I’ve just done Sober October and I feel so much better, so I’m going to keep going.”
Faye says: “If it’s a small gathering of close family, I’d tell them in advance that you won’t be drinking and give whatever reason you’re comfortable with, which hopefully takes it off the table.” Or, you can be completely honest and upfront. “You could say, ‘Actually I’ve been worried that I’m drinking too much, so I’m having a bit of a break,” says Faye. You can elaborate on how it’s been impacting you (for instance, affecting your sleep, mood, ability to focus at work or your finances), which will give context to your choice, and in turn hopefully encourage their support.
If it’s a bigger gathering, opt for a simple, brief refusal on the day. “It’s OK to tell a white lie if you think people might give you a tough time,” says Faye. “You could say, ‘I’m on medication so I’ve brought my own drinks’, or ‘Alcohol’s been giving me migraines’. Don’t make a big deal out of it; just keep your refusal short and simple.”
Scenario #2: Your mate shouts a round of beers at the pub and you're the only one to decline. They even ignore your initial ‘no’ and buy you a drink anyway.
Try saying this: “Thanks for the drink but I’m not drinking alcohol tonight as I’ve got an early morning start and need to be on the ball. I’m going to say no to this one.”
Dominique says: “It can take some time for your friends to accept that you’ve changed your drinking habits. Be prepared for their reactions. Having a script before going into a social event where you know alcohol will be served is a good idea. And remind yourself there’s a reason why you’ve made the decision to quit or cut back on alcohol.” You may have decided that your health and your relationships are your top priorities and that means your relationship with alcohol has to change. Plus, she says, remind yourself of the health benefits, like better quality sleep, clearer thinking and a potential boost in your mood.
Scenario #3: Friends come over to visit and bring a case of beer for you to crack open together. You are normally ‘drinking buddies’, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Try saying this: “I wanted to let you know I’ve decided to give up drinking because…
I just really don’t like the person I am when I’m drinking and it’s impacting my relationships/friendships/kids/self-esteem.
I’ve come to realise I don’t have much of an off button. I find I’m always drinking a lot more than I want to and it’s gotten worse over time, so I want to nip it in the bud now.
It’s really impacting my mental health and so I’ve decided the time has come to make a choice and put my mental health first.
It’s become a problem for me.”
Faye says: “An honest, authentic conversation like this can feel daunting, but it can often bring you closer to the other person or people.” Plus, she says, it has the added benefit of keeping you accountable.
Scenario #4: You're at a party where the topic of you not drinking comes up, and that one (annoying) person starts heckling you about being 'boring', or insisting, “Come on, it’s just one drink.”
Try saying this: “I can still have fun without drinking; besides I’m really enjoying the health benefits to my body and mind. I’m looking forward to waking up full of energy tomorrow morning.”
Dominique says: “Be ready for those awkward social situations. Unfortunately, not everyone will support your decision to quit drinking and that might mean you’ll have to plan ahead. The best place to start is to be upfront with your social group if you’re comfortable. Otherwise confide in one or two close friends about your intention to quit or to take a break from drinking alcohol.” She says if you don’t feel supported, think about joining new social groups where alcohol isn’t central to having a good time.
Scenario #5: You're chatting to a new acquaintance at a work social event. They ask if they can buy you a wine and you don't want to seem unfriendly by refusing.
Try saying this: “Thanks for the offer, but I might stick to a water for now. It’s going to be a busy week for me and I just need to make sure I’m pacing myself.” Or “I prefer not to drink at work events, but I’ll come with you and grab a water."
Dominique says: “If you feel worried you might be perceived as being unfriendly, you can offer to grab the drinks or suggest you go together to order your drinks and then stick to your selection for the evening, even if it’s water. Make it special and ask for water with a slice of lime.”
It’s important to be proud of your decision to change your relationship with alcohol, says Dominique. Most people can appreciate the commitment it requires to say ‘no’ to drinking.
Scenario #6: A friend asks if you want to catch up for drinks at your favourite bar, which typically involves a few bottles of wine.
Try saying this: “Actually, I’m on a bit of a health kick at the moment, do you fancy going for a bush walk/brunch/other activity with me on Saturday morning instead?”
Faye says: “If it's one-on-one where the focus of your social catch-up is booze, I’d suggest doing something else entirely.” If the friend is close enough and you feel comfortable, you could open up about your real reason for not drinking, for instance, “I’ve been a bit worried about my drinking, so I’m knocking it on the head for a bit.”
“You’d be amazed how many people come out of the woodwork in your own circles,” says Faye.
Scenario #7: You're going to a picnic at the beach with friends, and everybody will be drinking. You show up without your usual esky of beer, and know your friends will comment.
Try saying this: “Actually I’ve been worried that I’m drinking too much, so I’m having a bit of a break.”
Faye says: “Be completely honest and upfront, if you feel ready to.” You can elaborate on how it’s been impacting you (for instance, affecting your sleep, mood, ability to focus at work, or your finances), which will hopefully inspire their support.
Be prepared for possible push-back, in that someone might say, "You’re fine, you’re not a problem drinker."
“I would respond with something like, ‘Thanks but I’ve been thinking this over for quite a while and I feel it’s becoming a problem for me, so that’s what I’ve decided. I really appreciate your support’.” Giving them an opportunity to ask questions or think of practical ways they could support you can help get them on board.
Changing your relationship with alcohol
Hello Sunday Morning has a mission to change the world’s relationship with alcohol. Its flagship program, Daybreak, is a digital service that people can access through an app. It gives you an anonymous and supportive environment to set alcohol behaviour-change goals and the chance to work with health coaches to achieve them. HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support*.
Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:
If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Words by Bonnie Bayley
Published December 2022
DANGERS OF THE ALCOHOL REWARD SYSTEM
For many of us, drinking is seen as a well-earned reward after a tough day. But how can you replace that daily reward with a healthier gratification?
HOW TO STOP THE DRINKING HABIT
Find yourself pouring a drink without giving it a moment’s thought? It might be time to knock that alcohol habit on the head.
ALCOHOL FACTS FOR WOMEN
Everything women need to know about having a healthy relationship with alcohol.
ARE YOU DRINKING TOO MUCH?
Whether you’re having a cocktail with friends or winding down with a cold beer at home, alcohol often feels like a normal part of life. But are some of us drinking too much?
* This service is not affiliated or associated with HCF in any way. You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use.
This communication contains information which is copyright to The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF). It should not be copied, disclosed or distributed without the authority of HCF. Except as required by law, HCF does not represent, warrant and/or guarantee that this communication is free from errors, virus, interception or interference. All reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure the accuracy of material contained on this website. It’s not intended that this website be comprehensive or render advice. HCF members should rely on authoritative advice they seek from qualified practitioners in the health and medical fields as the information provided on this website is general information only and may not be suitable to individual circumstances or health needs. Please check with your health professional before making any dietary, medical or other health decisions as a result of reading this website.