It was a confession of sorts when 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.
Enabling refers to anything you do that reinforces substance-using behavior, or, in the words of Dr. Jeffrey Foote, enabling means “doing positive things (or something nice) that will end up supporting continued negative behavior (e.g., using drugs/alcohol).” Examples of true enabling include:
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.
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Parents “protect” their child from feeling the effects of negative behaviors for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to avoid an argument. Other times, it’s out of fear that losing a job would mean they can’t pay the bills, or feeling frustrated that it’s easier to do the chores rather than nag to get them done. There may also be times when letting the natural consequences of your child’s actions play out is more than you can tolerate.
Take, for example, a parent who knows that her young adult son 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 the one hand, she is enabling him if she continues to pick him up from the train station; 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 may worry that if her son has a felony record, he will not be able to get a worthwhile job. She thus decides to hire a high-priced attorney rather than let him work with a public defender. 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 consequences they can tolerate. 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 will 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.
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 likely would have encouraged his continued treatment. 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 sober, texts you that he will be late coming home or pays back the money he owes you. Take the time to notice the things they do that move in the direction of healthy behaviors. Maybe this 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 or sending a card. Noticing positive actions and acknowledging them is helpful, not enabling.
Letting natural consequences play out and using positive reinforcement together have a synergistic effect: the combination of these two strategies is more powerful than using either one alone. This approach allows your child to recognize that they are 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.