The Dangers of Enabling Addiction

Parents often have a million questions surrounding their child’s substance abuse problem once they learn about it. One of the more frequent topics in mind is where they may have gone wrong, and how they may have contributed to the addiction. Parents may be unaware they are actively enabling addiction. This presents a unique set of challenges for the individual struggling with addiction and their whole family.

When you have a loved one in your family who abuses alcohol or other drugs, it can be challenging to face the reality that your loved one is suffering from a disease. You still want to trust and believe in them, no matter what. However, showing love and support for your addicted loved one in the wrong ways can do more harm than good. When you enable your loved one, you, your family members, and the substance abuser are not getting the help they need.

What is Enabling?

By definition, to enable is to give someone the authority or means to do something. As it relates to addiction, enabling refers to habits, actions, and choices that effectively allow one’s son to continue their drug use unimpeded. Enabling an addiction can take many forms, but generally refers to any actions that maintain your loved one’s addiction. Some negative behaviors are obvious while others may seem like a normal pattern of your relationship with your child. Some parents and family members may not even realize they are engaging in an enabling behavior.

When enabling behaviors occur, it creates an environment in which the individual struggling with addiction sees that they can shift the playing field in favor of their drug abuse. Addicts will usually go to any lengths to satisfy their needs, and parents’ health usually ends up hurting because of it. But if you as a parent can set healthy boundaries for yourself, stick to them, and be aware of the intentions behind your child’s words and actions, you can cut enabling out of your life and help your grown child. Education can be the key to making significant changes in your family’s life and ending enabling relationships. Here are a few types of enabling behaviors:

Types of Enabling Behaviors


Denying that your child has an issue with substances or believing that they are “not like other” users is a form of enabling. In denial, you are subconsciously looking for ways that your child does not fit into your preconceived notion of what a person with substance use issues is like. 

For example, you may think “My child can’t be addicted, he’s clean-cut and lives in a nice house!” 

This is outright denying that your child has an issue because your idea of a person with an issue is dependent upon your child looking a certain way. It also ignores that the reason your child lives in a nice house is because you provide one for them. 

Denial can also look like the expectation that your child can be rational or quit using if they decide to make that choice. For example, your child may tell you that they would never drink and drive. This quiets your fears that they will get into a drunken car accident, which makes you feel that their problem cannot be as bad as you fear it might be, since they can seemingly set a limit.

Using with Your Child

Using substances with your child is an extremely obvious type of enabling. There are many reasons why this happens. You may use substances with your child because you also struggle with substance issues. You might feel that if you use with them or watch them use, you can protect them from overdose or limit them from bad outcomes. However, this still keeps the drugs in your child’s system, regardless of your intentions.

Providing Substances for Your Child

Providing for your child is another one of the more obvious ways that parents enable their addicted child. Some parents believe that they will be able to provide “healthier” options for their children and prevent overdoses. Other parents indirectly provide substances to their children, such as throwing house parties where alcohol is present when you know your child has an issue with alcohol. You may not hand the substance to your child, but you know that your child will likely give in to temptation. 

Covering Responsibilities

When you pick up your child’s slack, you keep them from meeting the natural consequences of their addiction. You might take over your son’s house chores because you share the home, but in doing this you reinforce the idea that your son doesn’t need to contribute to the house. Covering their responsibilities can also look like maintaining your child’s relationships with work, significant others, or their children. You shield them from seeing the strain that their addiction is causing their relationships.

Protecting His Image

Protecting your son’s image is an aspect of covering his responsibilities. It’s your child’s responsibility to have a solid reputation as a worker, friend, and family member. You protect his image when you deny to others that he has substance abuse issues, as well as when you take actions to keep others from knowing about it. 

For example, when you call your child out from work due to his hangover, you are protecting his image and covering his responsibilities. This keeps him from seeing that his alcoholism is making him a less efficient worker, which would lead to a displeased boss and poor work performance, which would then lead to your son’s removal from his job, a natural consequence of his alcoholism. 

Justification of the Problem

You may find yourself justifying your child’s problem through your lens, or accepting their justifications for their problem. If your son says that he needs his painkillers to make it through his factory shift, you might agree with him since there seems to be logic behind his reasoning. This is enabling the addiction since you’re choosing to see that.

Enduring Through It

Sometimes we accept that life will have difficulties and obstacles to overcome. We may believe that this may simply be our lot to deal with in life. This can be true, however, this belief may also be a type of enabling that you do not even realize what you’re doing. 

When you choose to endure through your child’s addiction, you choose to believe that you can simply wait it out. You hope that it will sort itself out over time, without any concerted effort on anyone’s end.

Controlling, Blaming, or Shaming

One of the less-considered types of enabling comes in making your child feel bad about himself and his problems. We often think of enabling behaviors as spoiling a child or shielding him from harm, but the opposite can also maintain the addiction. 

This is especially true of children who use substances to cope with difficult home life, mental health issues, and feelings of shame or low self-esteem. By taking away all of your son’s autonomy or bullying him about his addiction, you may feel that you’re making a considerable effort to stop his addiction. However, you’re only perpetuating the negative beliefs that keep your child in the mindset of seeking substances.

Not Following Through

Boundaries are important for every family, regardless of substance abuse. However, in families where addiction takes place, boundaries take on even greater importance. It is crucial to set boundaries and stick to them, despite the guilt you may feel in establishing them.

Boundaries give your child an expectation for how their behavior will be tolerated. If you tell your son that you won’t bail him out of jail, this tells him that he should make an effort to avoid getting arrested. However, if you show up to bail him out of jail, he learns that you were not serious about your first claim and that he doesn’t have to make an effort to stay out of jail.

Enabling vs. Helping

Since enabling behaviors can often look like helping behaviors, it’s important to understand the difference between helping and enabling behavior.

In many cases, parents are completely unaware of their enabling actions or habits. This can allow these behaviors to continue infinitely, eventually leading to dire, sometimes tragic consequences. When determining whether or not one is enabling or helping their son, there is one essential thing that sets enablers apart from those who are genuinely helping. Enablers protect their sons from the consequences of their actions (whether knowingly or unknowingly) and thus hinder their son’s ability to get the help they need.

When we enable a loved one’s addiction, we are allowing them to continue self-destructive behaviors by often hiding their problems entirely leading to negative consequences. Contrarily, when you help a person with substance abuse, you are giving them an opportunity to get healthy and supporting them in that process. An example of enabling is making excuses for a loved one after they get a DUI, or justifying their substance abuse and bad behavior. An example of helping is providing love, emotional support, and supporting someone in getting sober through a treatment program.

Instead ofTry
Making excuses for their addictive behaviorsBeing honest about how their behaviors have impacted you
Bailing them out from problems they get themselves intoHold them accountable for their own actions
Turning a blind eye to unacceptable behaviorsSetting healthy boundaries and honoring them when there are boundary violations
Avoiding confronting them about the problemHelping them find the right kind of professional help and addiction treatment
Impeding yourself from feeling uncomfortable emotionsAllowing yourself to feel these emotions

Signs You Might Be Enabling

By understanding the signs of an enabler, a person can better understand their own personal situation to determine whether or not they are enabling their son. Enabling can take many forms and can be glaringly obvious, or totally invisible. This is why so many enablers do not even realize the extent that they are harming their son’s progress. Signs you might be enabling your son’s drug addiction may include but are not limited to:

  • Ignoring behaviors associated with drug use
  • Lying to family, friends, or colleagues 
  • Tolerating mental, physical, or emotional abuse from one’s son
  • Allowing one’s son to be completely free from the consequences of their actions
  • Covering up or hiding addictive or destructive behavior
  • Avoiding addressing the problem and communicating with one’s son
  • The family member struggling could be described as having ‘failure to launch’ syndrome
  • Other family members provide financial assistance despite being employable
  • Your child shows a lack of respect
  • Your child has been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder

While this list is not exhaustive, these are many of the attributes that are directly linked to a parent enabling their son’s drug use.

Benefits of Not Enabling

When a person is no longer enabled, they can repair their wounds and begin living the drug-free life they were intended to. The physical, emotional, mental, and financial stress that parents carry with them during this time can be reduced greatly. As your son recovers and you also heal in your own way, the groundwork for a healthy relationship can be built. From here, both you and your son can continue to heal together, strengthening your relationship and ensuring a brighter future.

How to Stop Enabling

Though enabling can be extremely destructive to an addicted person’s life, there is hope. By addressing these issues head-on, a parent can effectively get their son the help he needs, as well as an opportunity for a full and drug-free life. Breaking the cycle of enabling can be incredibly difficult, especially in the case of someone you love so dearly. However, a parent must keep in mind that they are stopping these habits and promoting positive behavior in the best interest of their son’s health.

Learn more about substance abuse disorders.

Most families do not understand how serious addiction can be and the impacts it has on the family. By taking time to educate yourself about addiction, you can gain better insight into the struggle your loved one is facing.

There are plenty of viable resources available to help you learn more about addiction. Many sober living homes host support groups for family members of addicts. They can also provide other valuable resources, like literature, research studies, and so on. Al-Anon and other support groups also offer valuable resources, providing support for family members of loved ones struggling with addiction.

Avoid being alone with the addict.

It is better when there are at least two family members present when the addicted loved one is present. One family member might give in easier than the other. By working together, both family members can help each other avoid enabling behaviors and being manipulated by the individual struggling with addiction. 

Seek peer support from other families.

Learning how other families are dealing with a loved one’s addiction can be eye-opening and provide valuable insight. You can just listen if that is all you want to do. Seeing how other families are coping can provide the strength you need to avoid enabling. 

Do not provide alcohol or drugs for the addicted person.

It might seem obvious, yet you would be surprised that some families fall into the bad habit of supporting the addict. They might supply cash or give them alcohol or drugs, which further enables the addiction.  

Avoid giving the addicted person money.

If your loved one is struggling with addiction, giving them money can be risky. Sometimes, individuals struggling with addiction will ask for money to help pay a bill, get groceries, or cover basic needs then use the cash to buy drugs or alcohol. If your son asks for help paying for bills that they may have on their own, such as a cell phone or car insurance bill, offer to pay the bill directly rather than giving them the cash.

Let the addicted person experience the consequences of their actions.

Covering up the addiction and making excuses for the individual struggling with addiction are two destructive enabling behaviors. When you stop hiding the addiction, the individual will have to face the consequences of their addiction. 

For example, an addicted person cannot get up to go to work. Or, they are arrested for drunk driving.  Your best course of action is to do nothing – don’t call them in “sick” or bail them out of jail. Let your loved one deal with the consequences of their addiction. 

Talk openly about addiction and how it is affecting the family.

Making your loved one aware of how their addiction is affecting the family helps you avoid enabling behaviors. When you speak to them, make sure they are sober. Let them know they are loved, but the family will not support their addiction in any manner. You can always involve a neutral third party in a family therapy session to mediate the conversation.

Encourage them to get help for their addiction.

Once your loved one realizes the family is not going to enable their addiction, you can start to encourage them to get help. Substance use or alcohol use disorders are dangerous, and getting help is usually an urgent matter. Encourage the person struggling with alcohol or drug use to get help.

Whether through individual therapy, participation in a support group, undergoing detoxification and rehabilitation, or embracing the structure of a sober living facility, the path to healing begins with acknowledging the need for help. Offering unwavering support while urging them to access appropriate resources can empower them to break free from the cycle of addiction. By emphasizing the value of seeking expert guidance, we not only pave the way for their physical and emotional well-being but also cultivate an environment of hope, understanding, and renewed determination. Ultimately, our proactive efforts to promote their engagement with tailored interventions can lead to a transformative journey of recovery and provide them with the tools to reclaim their lives from the clutches of addiction and alcohol abuse.


In the battle against addiction, the line between genuine support and enabling can be a challenging one to navigate. Enabling inadvertently prolongs the struggle, whereas genuine support empowers individuals to take charge of their lives and seek the help they truly need. Let us remember that change is possible, and by encouraging our loved ones to embrace the transformative journey toward recovery, we become allies in their fight for a better future. If you’re seeking a safe haven for young men to break free from the chains of addiction, consider exploring New Life House.

New Life House is a sober living home in Los Angeles, California, that provides structured support, healing, and growth for young men ages 17-29 and their families. We connect families with resources to address their enabling behaviors, correct their communication, and make resolutions for a better future.

Last Updated on February 2, 2024


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