Enabling an Addict is Hurting Them

Enabling an Addict is Hurting them

Enabling an Addict is Hurting Them

Parents hurt their children unknowingly when they enable their behavior as it relates to substance abuse. Enabling an addict is actually hurting them, but it’s important to get an understanding of exactly what enabling looks like. Enabling is any behavior that keeps the addiction going.

At 28, Bill’s parents still allow him to live in the family home due to his longtime crack addiction and apparent inability to hold a job. They don’t set clear and appropriate boundaries about what is expected of him, so he brings sketchy people and illegal drugs into their home. Bill is often high while there, and he doesn’t contribute in any positive way, at times becoming quite abusive with his parents both verbally and physically. His parents don’t feel they can ask him to leave — “What if we kick him out and he’s on the street?” “What if he can’t get a job?” “What if he dies?”

When a parent enables on a repeated basis they: lose their self-esteem and self-respect, become easily frustrated and angry, lose sleep, don’t feel safe in their own home, neglect other children and potentially put them in harms way – etc. The problem is that when parents take care of the addict, he or she has no reason to change, why should they? Their needs are being met so the dysfunctional behaviors continue and everyone is on the crazy-making merry-go-round.

Do You Feel Guilty?


Many parents feel guilty for a child’s addiction because they mistakenly believe they caused it. Maybe they struggled with an addiction problem of their own and feel they passed it on? Maybe they got divorced? Made a move and their child had to start over at a new school with new friends in a new town? Life is filled with challenges but these are not reasons for a child to become addicted. It is true that parents might be contributing to the problem continuing but – parents didn’t cause it! However, they are responsible to change how they approach a child’s addiction and implement new, healthy behaviors, while subtracting the old enabling ones.

Are You Afraid of Conflict?


Co-dependent parents – yes, enabling is being co-dependent – are terrified of conflict and will do anything to avoid it. They do this to the point that they neglect their own needs at the expense of the addict, even when it means they lose their own self-respect in the process. The basic drive for a people-pleasing parent is to make sure there are no fights or disagreements. This is hugely problematic, as they have never developed a healthy way to deal with other people’s anger, frustration or disappointment, especially when they are the targets of the attacking behavior.

When codependent parents repeatedly attempt to manage and control their addict child it becomes an addictive behavior for them. Now get this bit: if a parent gives in to the addict they love so dearly and do not set effective boundaries, they are in reality meeting their own needs and not the needs of the addict! An addict does NOT need to be allowed to get away with dangerous and disrespectful behavior. What an addict truly needs is firm, healthy boundaries with appropriate, self-respecting consequences attached to them.

I urge parents who are behaving co-dependently and enabling their addicted children to learn how to handle another person feeling anger or disappointment with them and they will gain emotional freedom which is a much healthier way to live!

Run Towards the Tiger


“Run towards the tiger” is an old adage that means to face what you are afraid of and in this situation it means: dare to be uncomfortable! Addicts need their parents and loved ones to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to remain in their active addiction – and this will be uncomfortable for parents! This is the most loving thing parents can do for him or her, because it holds them to a higher standard and encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. The more parents behave as caretakers for people who can – and should – be taking care of themselves, the less faith the addict will have in their own inner strength and capabilities. The addiction will go on and on, usually becoming increasingly deep rooted over time because addiction is a progressive disease that needs to be stopped.

The bottom line is that parents need to stop enabling and co-signing their addict children’s unhealthy life choices in order to see any meaningful change happen. And if your addict is abusing mind-altering substances, this needs to happen immediately, before he or she dies out there.

Addictive behaviors are used to keep us feeling comfortable and when a parent changes the addictive behavior of enabling, they are bound to feel uncomfortable, just like someone facing a wild tiger would. Setting new boundaries, not allowing certain behaviors without rescuing is new and is out of a co-dependents comfort zone – however this is where life begins.

Parents need to put a stop to allowing their addict children to hold them hostage and use phrases such as: “I care about you so much that I’m not willing to support you in your active addiction anymore. I love you so much that it’s tearing me apart to watch you continue to hurt yourself like this – so if you really need to keep doing that, you’ll have to do it somewhere else. When you’re ready to be in some sort of active recovery, I’ll be happy to support you in that.”

Not only is this a loving act toward the addict, it is also the most self-respectful stance a parent can take, no longer allowing anyone to treat them abusively. Parents find that when they implement these new ways of relating to their addicted children, the “tiger” isn’t so scary after all.

Love Your Addict Enough to Do What’s Necessary


Eventually, when parents let their addicted children know that they are loved so much that they are willing to hold the hard line and not be swayed by their behavior, the kids will understand that no one is trying to punish them. It’s acceptable and appropriate for parents to raise the bar and require more of children – just as we’re requiring more of ourselves. It’s called “appropriate parental supervision!”

This is definitely the best way parents can love the addict in their lives and it will create healthier relationships all around. If you know a parent who is enabling an addicted child, ask them to consider changing some of their dysfunctional behaviors so that they are helping – not hurting.


  • Debbie O-A
    Posted at 15:53h, 27 January Reply

    Bravo Martha! As I read your article, I was filled with a flood of memories of a life pre Al-Anon. The guilt, the enabling, the fear, the worry. There was little joy because there was no room or time for it. It all changed as I began to change. It was so hard for me to distinguish between helping and enabling that an Al-Anon friend told me, “keep it simple. Unless he is reaching out for sobriety, just remember that every time you help him, you hurt him.” It worked wonders for me…and ultimately my son reached his bottom and has over 2-1/2 yrs of sobriety. I do still help my son every now and again, but it’s always on my terms, I do so lovingly, willingly and joyfully. I finally know the difference between helping and enabling!

    • Martha
      Posted at 08:14h, 30 January Reply

      Debbie – thanks for sharing your experience, strength and hope with us!

  • Patti J
    Posted at 19:04h, 27 January Reply

    thank you for this clear and constructive advice. We were made to feel guilty by friends, family and peers when we set healthy boundaries. It was the most loving thing we could do for our addicted son.

    • Martha
      Posted at 08:13h, 30 January Reply

      Patty, thanks for taking the time to reply. I feels very foreign to draw healthy boundaries but works out far better after all is said and done!

Post A Comment