Commentary: Why the Term “Enabling” Does More Harm Than Good

The term “enabling” is commonplace in the field of addiction. It is used within support group settings, in treatment programs and throughout the professional literature about addiction and the family. I consider it one of the most frequently misunderstood terms in our field. In fact, as my research about family caregivers of people with substance use disorders has evolved, I have come to loathe the term “enabling.” Here is why.

There is a great deal of misinterpretation about what qualifies as behavior that is “enabling.”

Webster’s  definition of the term includes: “a) to provide with the means or opportunity; and b) to make possible, practical or easy.” Wikipedia notes that enabling also is used “to signify dysfunctional approaches that are intended to help but in fact may perpetuate a problem….” Examples include taking responsibility, blaming others or making accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct, so that the person is shielded from the harm it may do and the pressure to change.

Using these definitions, doing your son’s laundry might be considered enabling, as it makes it easier for him and takes responsibility for the chore away from him. In actuality, it may or may not be enabling –depending on the context. If you do this chore to make things easier for your son because he attended a self-help meeting – you probably are supporting recovery – not enabling self-destructive behaviors. On the other hand, if you are doing your son’s laundry because he was drunk all weekend and will be embarrassed to go to school or work in unlaundered clothes, then you are enabling him to continue engaging in self-destructive behavior. You are helping him avoid the negative consequences of drinking.

I find family members often are confused over the issue of what constitutes enabling. Some have ardently been told that any support offered to a recovering child or spouse can be considered enabling. The philosophy seems to be that the person needs to learn to “fend for themselves” or “live life on life’s terms.” This is difficult to argue. We all need to learn the necessary skills to survive and thrive in our environments. Especially as parents, it is our responsibility to foster this in our children. But it does not mean that we cannot help our loved ones in productive ways.

Recovery, especially early recovery, is hard work. Offering to support the intense effort of this work can be helpful. For example – if a loved one does not have access to a car, it is supportive to offer to drive her to AA meetings, or soccer practice or any other recovery-supporting activity.

Some say that the addicted person must take responsibility for coordinating his or her own travel – and indeed – this can be a good goal. But offering to help at first or occasionally does not enable the person to escape the negative consequences of addiction – and it can help to support recovery.

It is loaded with negative and judgmental connotations that are misplaced.

Worse yet, enabling is sometimes described as “dysfunctional,” which can lead family members to the conclusion they are dysfunctional and have let their loved one down. The important distinction that is sometimes missed is that it is the behavior that is dysfunctional, not the person. The vast majority of parents that I have met have only done what most parents do; that is try their best to help their child. They engage in the same behaviors as other parents. It is just that they find themselves in a strange and difficult situation where behaviors that normally are helpful do not function that way.

I believe that the term enabling causes more harm than good. I would like to get rid of the term altogether.

Rather than labeling a family member’s behavior as “enabling,” focus on the consequences of the addicted person’s behavior. Ask yourself – by doing this, do I allow him or her to avoid a negative consequence of the drinking or drug use? If the answer is yes, resist the urge to intervene. It is important that the person experience the negative consequences that substance abuse renders. Also ask yourself – by doing this, am I encouraging  efforts he or she has made at recovery? If the answer is yes, go for it! It is helpful to recognize and show signs of support and appreciation for the hard work that an addict undertakes to sustain recovery.

We must remember that addiction is a disease and recovery requires ongoing maintenance. This is a lot of work – and supporting the WORK of recovery can be a loving thing to do.

Kimberly Kirby, PhD
Director of the Parent’s Translational Research Center; Senior Scientist
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    February 16, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    Flinching from the impact of the word “enabling” is understandable. Hearing it can be abrupt, disruptive, even harsh. Unfortunately it is also, all too frequently, accurate and appropriate.

    Your efforts to differentiate between enabling and helpful behavior are worthwhile. But shying away from the word can be as dysfunctional as the disease, itself. Sometimes enabling, with all the harsh connotation, is exactly what is happening, and the enabler needs to understand the negative consequences of THEIR actions in regards to the alcoholic.

    Al-anon teaches the friends and family members of addicts and alcoholics to face their role in the disease with brutal honesty. If you’re enabling the addict, your own behavior is where you should focus your energy. As harsh as admitting the truth can be, it’s the only path to understanding. And the stark truth of knowing your actions are actually perpetrating an alcoholics behavior – enabling, in other words, with all of the abrupt, disrptive, harsh feelings that come with the word – can be exactly the wake up call someone needs.

    Please, let’s not lose an important tool for recovery out of some politically correct fear of offending someone once in awhile. Sometimes the clearest description of a given behavior can be summed up by one word: enabling. And no matter how hard it is for you to hear – and do – you need to stop.

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    February 15, 2013 at 4:49 PM

    There is a number of other terms like “denial” that is also misused in substance use disorder treatment. I have been accussed on enabling addicts when I provide them with syrenges, and other suppies to keep them healthy. If that is so, let it be, I am enabling health, and best prcactice.

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    Liz Rehmer

    February 15, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    When a person is in recovery, true recovery, then the term “enabling” is not generally used. When a person is in the midst of their addiction and you continue to do things that take the responsibilty away from the addict then you are enabling them to continue to use. Anyone who thinks that you are enabling an addict by providing them “support” when they are trying to overcome thier addiction with a true heart, is not using common sense.

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