“Enabling” vs. Positive Reinforcement

    If you are a parent of someone struggling with substance use problems, you’ve probably heard about “enabling” — possibly many, many times. You’ve probably heard this word described as central to your interactions in helping your loved one. Mostly, you have heard, “DON’T DO IT!” and, if you are like most concerned family members, you feel vaguely guilty for doing something you’re not even sure you are doing.

    “Enabling” means doing positive things that will end up supporting continued negative behavior, such as providing your child with money so they won’t “go hungry” during the day, knowing they use it to buy marijuana. Other examples include going to talk to your child’s teacher to make sure they don’t get a bad grade even though their bad test score was due to drinking, or calling your husband’s work to explain he’s sick today, when he’s actually hungover.

    These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that may actually increase the frequency of the negative behavior, not decrease it. The logic: if they display negative behavior and nothing happens, or if they display negative behavior and something good happens, this behavior is encouraged — even if what you are doing is “nice.” This is enabling, and this is not helpful in changing behavior in a positive direction.

    However, not all nice gestures are considered enabling! Staying connected and rewarding positive behaviors with positivity, care, and love: these things are critical to positive change.
    So, what’s the difference? Positive reinforcement is doing “nice” things in response to positive behavior. Simple as that. When your loved one wakes up on time in the morning, when he takes his sister to school, when she texts you tell you she’ll be late, when he doesn’t smoke marijuana on Friday night, when he helps you make dinner instead of going for a quick drink with the boys on the way home: these are positive actions, and acknowledging, rewarding, and being happy about them is a good thing, not enabling.

    Enabling is a meaningful concept — it has just been overused to the point that families often feel their love and care is the problem. It’s not! Caring about and connecting with someone dealing with substance use is not only helpful, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for change.

    To restate the slogan: attach with love — just love the positive actions and step away from the negative.

    Video still or concerned parents looking toward their daughter.

    Parenting toward recovery

    Community Reinforcement and Family Training, or CRAFT, is a scientifically proven approach to help parents change their child’s substance use by staying involved in a positive, ongoing way.

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