The price of enabling your child


 “Enabling an addict can be a difficult habit to break. For the addict to realize the consequences of their behavior, their loved ones must stop enabling drug abuse. Thus, addiction is a family disease. This is sometimes the only way an addict will ever truly recover”

What is enabling?

You can hardly be involved with an alcoholic/addict these days without hearing the term ‘enabling’.  What is enabling then and What does this mean?  Simply that those who live with and/or work with addicted people tend to adapt in such a way that they make it easier for them – indeed enable them – to continue their substance abuse.  Spouses and caretakers take over the responsibilities of the sick person, make allowances, forgive unforgiveable behaviour and continue trying to be loving and caring in the face of constant abuse.  What is enabling and why do people enable?  Not, oddly enough, for the benefit of the sick person – enabling harms the alcoholic/addict.  They enable in order to meet their own needs.  It’s an attempt to re-stabilise the relationship, to counter growing alienation, to lure the alcoholic/addict back into the relationship and life by providing a counterforce to the alcohol and drugs that seem to be tugging the other away. Although this tactic may work very effectively to draw an alienated but non-addicted family member back into the fold, it’s ineffective and actually counterproductive when used with victims of alcoholism/addiction. Enabling is a poor quality glue! It not only doesn’t succeed at keeping the marriage, family or friendship together, it allows the disease to progress to a more serious stage and severely worsens the prognosis for a good recovery.

Am I part of the problem? What is enabling addiction.

No one who has a loved one with a substance abuse problem wants them to suffer. So what is enabling then, when it looks so much like love? No one wants a person they care about to be in pain, to descend into the dysfunction of addiction, to lose their livelihood, their family, their life…or their opportunities in the future of having these things. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would do anything to help them”?…In treatment we often find that this is not true. It is often the carer or parent, or spouse  that allows the behaviour to continue. They pay for it, keep secrets about it, commit crimes, even buy or pay for drugs and pretend that they have no part in it! Just like the addict themselves. We protect, we cover, we shelter, we defend and we do so in the name of loving and caring. We may engage in a lot of behaviors that we think are helpful, or that we are told are necessary but if you start to dig deeper into what that action is all about you find it perpetuating or masking the problem – not solving it! The problem is that the very things we are doing to help someone, may be things that are enabling the addiction and keeping them from getting well. These may also be things that we are doing because it is more comfortable for us than dealing with the hard facts of the situation – and if we truly want someone to get well, and to recover, sometimes, as family or carers, we have to get well first!

Now, to answer the question of what is enabling with an example from a popular television series about obesity, LOOK HERE: Watch this clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqgZLO_9Rf0

It may seem like pouring out the alcohol, hiding the car keys, or throwing away the pills is the best way to keep your loved one from using. It will certainly force them to get more creative about where they keep their substance of choice and what lies they have to craft to hide their behavior. What it won’t do is cure them of their addiction, or convince them that what they are doing is wrong or harmful. Addiction is like a cancer it is in their every thought, every rationalization and every response they give you when in active addiction. Nothing is more important, and oftentimes we allow ourselves to be manipulated again and again, as the addict uses again and again. Sound familiar? If their behavior is going to create a dangerous situation for you then you have to make the choice to keep yourself safe, interfering with how they engage in their addiction just provides opportunities for them to get smarter about how they use and you are teaching them how to be a better addict!

Hiding and lying Do you cover up for your partner or child for example? Do you make excuses for their behavior? Are you doing this for you or for them? Maybe you tell yourself I have to cover for them at work otherwise they will lose their job, then we will lose our house, etc. But deep inside, the true motivation may be fear of change….or fear itself!

Compensating for the behavior Money, food, computers, cars, cigarettes – do you give these to someone with a substance abuse problem? You may need help as an enabler if you become aware of yourself saying things like “they will buy drugs anyway”….”I don’t know what else to do”….”if I don’t they will get angry”….”How many times do you give someone a computer because they have to have a computer to find a job, and they have to have a job to get sober, but they keep relapsing, selling the computer for drugs and staying in the cycle? How many times do you buy a new car for someone who keeps crashing under the influence? How much money do you give knowing that it won’t be used for rent, or pursuing job applications? None of us want the people we love to be homeless, to be hungry. We don’t want them to suffer, but when we protect them from experiencing the suffering they are in we take away the opportunity for them to make a decision about changing! If the drugs or alcohol go with the food, the car, the cigarette money….then it all has to go, or all has to stay.

Enabling is really about preventing someone from having to take responsibility for themselves, and whether it is done with good or bad intentions it doesn’t matter. If it prevents the other person from fully living their own life, it will become harmful not helpful. Moving out of enabling behaviors and into a relationship where you let someone experience the natural consequences of their choices isn’t easy, and often it can make it seem like things are much worse. But only if someone experiences for themselves the desire to do something different will there ever be a change, and the experience can’t come if we prevent our loved ones from having it!

So What is enabling then? Enabling, is fixing problems for others and doing so in a way that interferes with growth and responsibility. Do you create an enabling dynamic for your adult child, or partner? An enabler rushes in and removes the consequence, giving the adult child no reason or opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. Life gives lessons. There is no way around it. We need suffering to grow. We need the desire for comfort, for a car, for autonomy to drive us to wake up and build a career every day.

So let’s be clear, the data shows that adult children with addiction issues who remain overly dependent on their parents often are allowed to get into this situation because their parents enable them, as discussed above. Perhaps this relationship dynamic stems from parents who want to be needed, who want the best for their child, even when the child doesn’t want the best for themselves.

“We rescue people from their responsibilities. We take care of people’s responsibilities for them. Later we get mad at them for what we’ve done. Then we feel used and sorry for ourselves. That is the pattern, the triangle.”  ― Melody Beattie.

addiction treatment

Some parents may also feel guilty about their child’s addiction. Addicts are master manipulators and will play the blame card daily if allowed to do so. Blaming and denial are two very serious enabling tools for addicts. Often, those with past substance abuse issues may feel that they have passed on their problem to their child, holding themselves responsible. In addition to nature, they look to nurture: they blame themselves for not being a better parent. They see their children as a testament to their upbringing, and any failure in the child is a failure in the parent. From an outside perspective, it’s easier to see that they can’t possibly hold themselves responsible for their child’s mistakes.


While it may feel good for parents for example to ‘help’ the person continue life without being in an institution, a prison or a morgue…the implicit (or even explicit) message to the child is, “You’re not competent to make it on your own.” Parents in this situation can help themselves to be mindful of enabling their child by being carefully considering the following, what is enabling, questions:

  • Does your child now act entitled to, and demand, things you once enjoyed giving—car privileges, gifts, perks at home, or rent money?
  • Does it feel like you are living from crisis to crisis with your adult child in a drama triangle?
  • Are you afraid of hurting your child? Are you feeling burdened, used, resentful, or burnt out?

If these things do happen, try not to be adversarial as you encourage your child to become more independent. The goal is to be supportive and understanding with a collaborative mind-set. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanour as you express these guiding expectations below to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:

  1. Encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board. Be non-negotiable on taking some rental. The legal system often says that rent is the first payment to be made out of one’s salary and there are no excuses for not at least paying that debt. A roof over your head in turn allows all the other elements to be in place for keeping clean and in recovery, and holding down a job.
  2. Don’t indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence. You should never give money to an addict, if you do you will be buying their drug of choice and supporting the addictive cycle. Open all food’s like coffee, juices etc. so that they can’t take them back to the store to be exchanged. Remove labels from clothing. Keep it to the minimum and keep it simple. We are beings that move towards our desire for pleasure rather than pain. An empty stomach has been a superb teacher for a million years. It teaches one to hunt, to gather and to move.
  3. Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. Agree that you won’t give an answer for certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least for 24 hours. “I will think about that….I will look into it….I am unsure if I can help, let me consider it”. For example, the next time you get an urgent call that says, “I need money,” respond by saying, “I’ll have to talk it over with your father (or, if you are single, “I’ll have to think it over”) and we’ll get back to you tomorrow.” This will allow you time to consider it, consider if it is helping or harming, and give you a chance to think and talk about it beforehand. Don’t keep secrets.
  4. Agree on a time limit on how long children can remain at home.
  5. If you can afford it, offer to help pay starting costs of rent on an apartment. However if you’re going to supply any extra money that they can buy drugs or alcohol with, think again. Also consider, making an agreement for decreasing contributions to rent until the child is fully responsible. Remember that you always have the right to say, “NO, I changed my mind” about a previous promise.
  6. Set limits on how much time you spend helping your child resolve crises. Encourage the child to problem-solve by asking, “What are your ideas?”
  7. Remember you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. He or she will most likely come around later.
  8. Attend support groups such as Al-anon. Only give living money to an adult child consistently involved in treatment. Only do so when you have no alternative. Giving money to an addict is more often than not frivolous. Be committed!

Unfortunately, many parents have difficulty fighting their instinct to protect their child and, consciously or not, end up enabling the addictive behavior. If you believe a loved one is enabling their offspring’s substance abuse problem, this guide is for you. It speaks to parents of children at any age — both teens and adult children. It will help identify the signs of an enabler, illuminate why parents enable and why it’s ultimately destructive, and how to address the issue in a productive way. It’s not easy for a parent to let go of a child, so remember that your compassion will be a key element to helping them see that it’s for the best.

What is enabling? Identifying enabling behavior and thoughts Enabling means eliminating someone’s sense of personal responsibility: by taking care of the addict’s problems for them, they never see the natural consequences of their actions. This behavior might include:

Giving money for rent or food

Letting the child spend time with friends known to use drugs or alcohol

Giving rides, bus or Uber cash, to/from work or school after a suspended license

Lying for the child — calling in sick to work or school, making excuses for missed appointments or events

Offering a place to stay after a night of using drugs

To a parent, these actions are nurturing. For an addict, however, these actions are behavior-affirming. The parent is reinforcing negative behavior by never punishing their child, or in the case of adult children, never letting their choices catch up with them. The addict abuses drugs freely and doesn’t have to deal with losing their home, getting in trouble at work, or finding shelter for the night because they know their parent will always come through. Attitude is an important part of enabling, as well. Parents tend to always see only the best in their child, to give them the benefit of the doubt no matter what.

These kinds of behaviors we have listed above can arise in a parent who is truly in denial of their child’s substance abuse problem, or who refuses to accept the child’s need for professional treatment. Some parents may write off signs of trouble as a teen learning to cope with the pressures of high school or an adult child struggling to bounce back after losing their job. Once or twice…fine. But this more often than not becomes repetitive and pathological. Unfortunately, their efforts to cut the child some slack often exacerbate the problem and can send conflicting messages. With a parent constantly there to clean up messes and never impede the substance abuse, children may learn that they simply aren’t capable of dealing with problems on their own.

So why do people enable? Simply put, and although there are many reasons, they often can’t help themselves. It presents a particularly complex situation for parents, whose first instinct is to protect their child from harm. They may not be able to stop the child from abusing substances, but they can offer a warm place to stay on a cold night….this escalates into maladaptive behaviour in the parent that harms instead of helps! A parent can’t take away withdrawal symptoms in the morning, but they can bring food and water to ease the process along. To a parent, rejecting a child in need is practically betrayal. Facing consequences is a vital part of recovery.

It is not punishment! People don’t change when they don’t have to and addicts don’t get well unless they face what it means to be unwell. Some parents may also feel guilty about their child’s addiction. Addicts are master manipulators and will play the blame card daily if allowed to do so. Blaming and denial are two very serious enabling tools for addicts. Often, those with past substance abuse issues may feel that they have passed on their problem to their child, holding themselves responsible. In addition to nature, they look to nurture: they blame themselves for not being a better parent. They see their children as a testament to their upbringing, and any failure in the child is a failure in the parent. From an outside perspective, it’s easier to see that they can’t possibly hold themselves responsible for their child’s mistakes. But when it comes to a child you’ve loved and watched grow since infanthood — potentially even carried in your body for nine months — it isn’t as easy to find that line.  In the case of adult children, parents may worry that without their help, something terrible will happen. They could lose their job, their family, or their home. When a problem has gotten really out of control, there’s even the fear of looming death. To an outsider, a parent may be blatantly giving the child money for drugs; to a parent, they’re offering money for rent or food in the hopes the child will use it wisely. The child might show up begging for help, perhaps even manipulating by talking about how long it’s been since they’ve had a meal. You need to learn to recognize your own part, and your own pathology in the addiction cycle. Addiction is a family disease. There are also parents who enable because they have a fear of conflict. They may know on some level that there’s an addiction issue, but are so afraid to upset their child by bringing it up that they hide from it. They might worry their child will become angry, or that it could cause problems with a co-parent. This can make it difficult to stand up to a child who may outright lie or manipulate in order to get what he or she wants.

This isn’t to say that no parent will ever be able to put their enabling feelings or behaviors aside. In order to have a productive conversation with your loved one, however, it’s important that you understand where they are coming from. Most enabling parents are truly trying to help their child and don’t completely realize that their behavior is actually hurting the situation. You must have compassion and help them see the things that truly will help their child.



(from the book “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie)

I am responsible for myself.

I am responsible for leading or not living my life.

I am responsible for tending to my spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial well-being.

I am responsible for identifying and meeting my needs.

I am responsible for solving my problems or learning to live with those I cannot solve.

I am responsible for my choices.

I am responsible for what I give and receive.

I am responsible for setting and achieving my goals.

I am responsible for how much I enjoy life.

I am responsible for how much pleasure I find in daily activities.

I am responsible for whom I love and how I choose to express this love.

I am responsible for what I do to others and for what I allow others to do to me.

I am responsible for my wants and desires.

All of me, every aspect of my being, is important. I count for something. I matter. My feelings can be trusted. My thinking is appropriate. I value my wants and needs. I do not deserve and will not tolerate abuse or constant mistreatment. I have rights, and it is my responsibility to assert these rights. The decisions I make and the way I conduct myself will reflect my high self-esteem. My decisions will take into account my responsibilities to myself.

Form more help answering the question of what is enabling, contact Pathways Plett Depression and addiction rehab centre. 0445330330. We help our clients and their families with a unique person centered in-depth approach to long term recovery. 

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