Am I Enabling Addiction by Helping My Child?

am i enabling my childs addiction

It was a confession of sorts as she said, “Yep, I’m an enabler and I’ve been doing it for years.

“Jake, he’s my older son. I can’t tell you how many times I woke him up so he wouldn’t miss football practice – he was the quarterback and had a scholarship on the line. Then I helped him write his college essays and hounded him about getting them in on time. I even picked out a suit for him to wear to his interviews. By the way, he’s now at Duke University pursuing a double major in economics and international relations.

“Then there’s my younger son, Nick. He’s struggling with substance use – mostly using pills, but sometimes he binge drinks. I’ve been told if I help him at all, I’m enabling. I just don’t get it. He has a life-threatening disease and people are telling me to detach, let him hit his bottom and stop enabling. If your kid had cancer, would you do that?

So many parents, and other family members for that matter, struggle with the concept of enabling. There certainly is a natural inclination on the part of parents to love, protect and nurture their children, but when does it cross a line that can be harmful rather than helpful? This discussion focuses on the definition of enabling and what to take into consideration when trying to motivate your child to engage in healthy behaviors.

What’s the Definition of ‘Enabling’?

Enabling refers to anything you do that reinforces substance-using behavior, or in the words of Dr. Jeffrey Foote, enabling actually means “doing positive things (or something nice) that will end up supporting continued negative behavior (e.g., using drugs/alcohol).” Examples of true enabling behavior include:

  • Calling in sick to school or work for your son who partied till the wee hours of the morning and won’t get up
  • Doing her household chores because she is out with the girls getting stoned and her bedroom floor is no longer visible due to the piles of dirty clothes
  • Allowing him to use the car when you know he’s likely going to take it to meet his dealer
  • Paying her cell phone bill because she’s short this month due to spending money on drugs
  • Bailing him out of jail and/or paying his fines
  • Nursing her hangover

These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that may increase the likelihood that they continue using substances. From a behavioral standpoint, “nice” things are reinforcing, meaning that they increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. In the examples above, the parent may inadvertently reinforce substance-using behaviors because nothing bad happens – there are no consequences for their behaviors because they have been “protected” from them by their parents’ actions.

Watch Master Addictions Counselor Mary Ann separate the idea of “enabling” from “motivating” >>

Not All Consequences Are Equally Tolerated

Parents “protect” their child from feeling the effects of negative behaviors for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to avoid an argument or out of fear that losing a job would mean he/she can’t pay the bills, or feeling frustrated that it’s easier to do the chores rather than nag to get them done. There also may be times when letting the natural consequences of your child’s actions play out is more than you can tolerate.

For example, a parent knows that her young adult is drinking on the train commuting home. If she allows him to drive home under the influence, he may get into an accident, hurting not only himself, but others as well. On one hand, she is enabling if she continues to pick him up from the train station, but on the other hand, her concerns for his safety and the safety of others is valid, so she decides to pick him up.

Another parent worries that if her son has a felony record, he will not be able to get a worthwhile job and decides to hire a legal ace rather than let him work with a pro-bono attorney. She knows this is “enabling,” but believes that in the long run, she wants him to be financially independent and self-sufficient, so she is willing to engage the lawyer.

Every parent has the right to assess a situation and decide what he or she can tolerate in terms of consequences. If the consequences can’t be tolerated, then do what you think is best, remembering that you are the expert on your loved one and family situation, and have to live with the outcome. If the consequences can be tolerated, let them play out, as the world is often a more powerful teacher than we can be.

Not All Things Nice Are ‘Enabling’

It’s important to note that not all things “nice” are enabling. For example, one parent was concerned that she shouldn’t send a card of encouragement to her son while he was at a treatment center because she feared she was “enabling” and needed to show “tough love” instead. In this context, her support would have encouraged his continued treatment and this is the kind of behavior parents want to reinforce.

Similarly, a young woman with a toddler asked her family if they could watch her child while she went to an AA meeting as she had committed to going to 90 meetings in 90 days. They refused, believing that anything they did to help her was enabling, despite the fact that she was trying to engage in a healthy activity.

Those “nice” things you do that promote healthy, non-substance using, pro-social behaviors are forms of positive reinforcement. When your loved one does something that you want them to do, think about ways to reinforce the positive behavior so that they do it again. In other words, “catch them being good.” Maybe your loved one shows up to a family dinner without being stoned, or texts you that he will be late coming home or pays back money he owes you. Take the time to notice what he or she does that moves in the direction of healthy behaviors. Maybe it means sending a quick text message of support, cooking a favorite meal, complimenting them for cleaning their room, giving them a hug, giving a shoulder massage, sending a card, etc. Noticing positive actions and acknowledging them is helpful, not enabling.

Use Natural Consequences and Positive Reinforcement Together

Letting natural consequences play out and using positive reinforcement together have a synergistic effect, meaning that the combination of these two strategies is more powerful than using either one alone. This approach allows your child to recognize that he or she is the architect of good things happening as a result of positive behaviors, while learning that consequences are levied for negative behaviors -– a powerful promoter of change.

Have Someone Who Has Been In Your Shoes Walk You Through It

It can be life-changing to talk with someone who has gone through what you’re going through. Parent Coaching can help you understand the differences between enabling your child’s substance use and encouraging them to get help.

comfort on the phone parent helpline coaching
    User Picture

    Timothy Harrington

    October 15, 2018 at 12:25 PM

    One of the ways I see stigma is that it’s like friction. A friction that keeps us separate and different. Stigma is a differentiator and it conspires to keep us apart. This is important when you consider that the antidote to our crisis in all likelihood is the connection with a person struggling with a disease. Man, I dislike the word enabler. Pure stigma. For me, labels are for bottles and cans, not people. I want to totally eradicate the notion that caring for a loved one with addiction/mental disorder is a pathology. Period. I want to end it, once and for all at the professional level. If you want to talk about it in peer-run meetings, etc., fine but not at the public or professional level.

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    Helene Guerra

    October 14, 2018 at 10:37 AM

    Read Toby Rice Drews book Getting Your Children Sober. In it she talks about enabling. Worth the read as she explains how the word promotes negative reactions

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