I Hate the Word ‘Enable’: Getting Blamed & Shamed When You Have a Child with an Addiction

blame and shame over addiction

I hate the word enable.

“He wouldn’t be in so much trouble if his parents didn’t enable him.”

“She’s an enabler.”

“I feel sorry for that family – they’re constantly enabling her.”

They are harsh words, often spoken with a slight hint of scorn. They are words of blame, words that carry a heavy load of shame. Too often we use words without thinking much about their implications, so let’s take a closer look at using the word enable.

Enable means to allow, facilitate, permit, make possible. Allow means to let, to permit, agree to, consent to, tolerate. Facilitate means to make easy, make possible, smooth the progress of, help, aid, assist. Permit means to authorize, sanction, give your blessing to.

Enough already.

I am here to speak for parents of kids who are struggling with drugs – as well as for the wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles of people who have substance use disorders. They may not all agree with what I have to say, but I suspect most will.

We do not “consent” to the pain and misery, the shame and fear, the destruction and despair of addiction. We do not seek to “aid” or “assist” addiction in its efforts to destroy our loved ones. We do not “make possible” this disease nor do we “tolerate” its horrors.

We do not authorize addiction to walk into our homes, we do not sanction it, nor do we give it our blessing.

We simply do not know – not in the beginning – how to fight back.

Addiction enters our lives with stealth and cunning. It disguises itself, talking back to us in ways that make our heads spin. It tortures our emotions so that we begin to believe that we are the ones at fault, causing us to doubt ourselves, encouraging us to cover up, to protect and defend, to run screaming with our hair on fire to the hills.

Addiction takes our hearts and twists them.
It takes our thoughts and contorts them.
It takes our souls and fills them with dread, shame, guilt, and burning fear.

The word “enable” only adds to our guilt and shame and makes us hide in fear and self-loathing from the very people who might be able to help us.

We see the people we love in trouble. At home. At school. In the office. With the law.

Because we love them, because it is our job to protect the people we love, we try to help them. We don’t know, not at first, that they are suffering from a chronic, progressive, deadly disease, and once we suspect it, we cringe from the very thought.

Because addiction is not like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or asthma. Addiction, like the word “enable,” is whispered.

When our family members are sick with a substance use disorder, friends don’t bring us home-cooked meals or fresh-baked cookies. We don’t open our mailboxes to find heartfelt sympathy cards. No one sends us flowers. Other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends sometimes hint oh-so-subtly that our family’s “problem” stems from ineffective or even abusive parenting. Insurance companies inform us that they don’t cover addiction treatment – or if they do, they often dictate the terms of treatment or “cap” the amount. Counselors and health care professionals often tell us we are “overreacting.” Doctors prescribe pills to help us calm down, relieve stress, get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes the people we turn to for help look at us sideways, barely able to hide their contempt.

Perhaps contempt is too harsh a word. But that’s what it feels like. Disapproval. Condescension. Disdain.

So what are we, exactly? What words should be used to describe those of us who struggle to do battle with this disease? Flawed. Imperfect. Struggling. In need.

In need of what? Help. Hope. Understanding. Compassion.

The irony, I suppose, is that we have compassion aplenty. We remember the old days, when we thought this could never happen to us, the days when we, too, wondered what was wrong with those families whose kids smoked marijuana, snorted coke, or injected heroin. Those days when our children were young and fresh and innocent.

Once upon a time, we, too, thought that we were immune.

Now we know better.

Talk to Another Parent Who Gets It

When you seem to be receiving blame and shame from every angle, it would be a welcome respite to talk to another parent who has been there. Our Parent Coaching program pairs a parent with another who has struggled with their child’s substance use, too.

Talk - Have a Conversation

Katherine Ketcham has co-authored 17 books, 10 on the subject of addiction and recovery, including the New York Times bestseller “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” with William Cope Moyers. Her latest book is “The Only Life I Could Save: A Memoir.”

Ketcham has led treatment and recovery efforts at the Walla Walla Juvenile Justice Center in Washington State, and in 2009, she founded Trilogy Recovery Community.

15 Responses

Leave your Response
    User Picture

    Sour Grapes

    March 16, 2019 at 7:19 AM

    Being the parent who stood through the storm, and watched the mental health practitioners, the politicians, and the former husband, all use the same drugs, together. Watching, the children, come to the table, to try to save the adults, and then to see the children, get killed, murdered, by the very adults, who succumbed. This will take us 100 years–just like the Opiod Wars in China. We will need to work through this, carefully….Yet we must.

    User Picture

    Charla C

    October 8, 2018 at 11:41 AM

    Kathy, I hate the word too. I think many of us parents struggle to find the cause of why our child is using; however, the word enable somehow points the finger right at us, the parent. I do not agree with Mr. Mann, it is not the parents fault… the word enabler is not appropriate unless- you bought the child drugs, drove them to the dealer, or did drugs along side them… if you watch Intervention you have seen what I’m talking about. Like Kathy I hate the word because it sounds like I did just that… did drugs with my child… or missed some magic signs. The words are not appropriate for 99% or more of the parents. Using the words only serve to isolate the majority of parents that are innocent victims in this storm.
    The bigger picture over all, getting caught up in figuring out why someone else’s child used drugs or even why your child did, wastes valuable time… time you don’t have. Instead, love others and offer support, even if you don’t agree with the parents… compassion and kindness go along way in our world over all….

    User Picture


    June 30, 2018 at 9:24 PM

    Rather than think of it as “enabling” think of it as you’ve become codependently addicted, and as such you’re thinking is diseased.

    The truth is, feeling guilty, feeling like you’re being blamed, and trying to shift the blame back to someone else…does nothing to help you or the addict. It just wastes time while things get worse.

    Rather than it be anyone’s fault, we need to just accept that it’s there and then find the way to deal with it.

    User Picture

    Tammy Hutchinson

    June 29, 2018 at 11:44 PM

    OK so I had come here to comment on ms.Ketchams article, but then I read Mr. Mann’s. I had come hear today to say how much I related to her. Well sir I still do.
    I became a single mother of 3, after their father passed away of HIV related pneumonia.
    I knew my children’s friends. And though most are in their late 20’s I am still in contact with the best friends of each. Throughout the US.
    But with my daughter I noticed a difference in her mood, and withdrawal from me.
    It took a time in a treatment center, because she was struggling from bulimia, to find out something tragic happened to her a year earlier.
    From that moment I knew, no matter what, I would never give up on her through anything. Several years later my daughter was addicted to meth. I never gave her money or supported this aweful addiction she was lost in , She stole from me , and hurt me with a lot of words but I was always there when her boyfriend beat the crap out of her and she was strung out.
    I did make it clear that that addiction was not allowed in my house, so she never tried doing it here.
    I know a lot of mother’s and can tell you now, there are many different types, I try not to judge those that don’t want anything to do with their kids or those that are there in name alone. But there are so many mothers out there like me, the ones that CANT give up on them. They are my children, God placed them with me to take care of .,(enough said on that) .

    If this is enabling then I’m guilty. But I can also say that because of this she was able to come to me and say she needed help.she had no one else left. I promise you if I would have said no, she would be dead right now.
    I’m not saying those parents that can say no to their children are wrong. I envy you. I wish it were possible.
    So to those families that just can’t give up, prayers with you,because you do struggle as much, if not more, then they do.

    User Picture

    Richard Mann

    June 29, 2018 at 1:12 AM

    With all due respect to Ms. Ketcham, enabling is precisely as she described it — to allow, permit, facilitate, etc. But as with any word, it must be understood within context. In this context, it means enabling behaviors indicative of substance use. Not how enabling hurts your feelings.

    The article mentions all the things that didn’t cause this disorder to emerge; but something had to. We live in a world of cause and effect. And I will bet my bottom dollar that of all the reasons one could possibly proffer, enabling is the #1 cause. Not poverty, not family discord, and not even addicted parents.

    Two statements in the article will hopefully illustrate my point, “We simply do not know … how to fight back,” and, “It simply enters our lives with stealth and cunning … causing us to doubt ourselves …”

    We should know our kids’ behaviors, more than any other aspect of their lives. And we need to know how to proceed if behaviors seem unusual. We should know their friends, especially the new ones. Knowing the red flags are like human smoke detectors, without which this disorder grows unnoticed.

    We should know. They’re our kids. We should be current on the events that could deleteriously affect them — if not now, maybe later. Knowledge is power, and both are necessary to fight back. This kind of power can bring early education into the schools — where it belongs. These are just a few of the strategies to fight back.

    The second statement has been lightly touched on. Substance use is caused by something. It doesn’t suddenly appear, unless, of course, no one’s seeing the red flags.

    It’s the second part of that paragraph, “…causing us to doubt ourselves,” that concerns me most, as it’s the real pit of the peach.

    Why? Because it makes enabling the villain of your feelings (people acting condescendingly, etc.) rather than the villain of kids like mine whose blood tested positive for HIV yesterday, who had a seizure, her head hitting concrete just 2 weeks ago from tainted heroin, and who technically died of a fentanyl OD on Thanksgiving were it not for 2 shots of Narcan given by 2 angels in blue. Eight years ago she was cum laude with a B.A. in psychology.

    This, in other words, is NOT about your feelings, It’s about the hundreds of those who vanish because their guardians were too preoccupied to see their kids digress, or too PC to confront them, or too this, or just too busy.

    If your feelings from this stigma are so overwhelming, please deal with it professionally. Misguiding those looking for truth about issues pertaining to drug-free kids is doing no one any good.

Leave a Comment

Please leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion. If you have a specific question, please contact a Parent Specialist, who will provide you with one-on-one help.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *