enabling by will wooton

Enabling by Will Wooton

We all want to see our loved ones be successful, happy and achieve their goals. This is never more powerful then a parents desire for their children. Who wouldn’t do almost anything to see their child grow into an emotionally well-adjusted adult? Just about every parent I’ve worked with has only the best of intentions for their kids yet many of them are actually setting them up for a harder life as a result of family dynamics and enabling.

How can you know if your parenting is helpful guidance or crossing a line that falls into enabling behavior? The first step is always being able to honestly look at the situation. Denial can be the hardest part of this process and also the hardest to break. So many times enabling is done with the best on intentions. To look beyond the single action can sometimes take help from the outside; a friend or therapist often will see these behaviors long before the enabler will. Truly be honest about your intentions and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have you ever felt fearful that not doing or doing something will cause a blowup with your child?
  • Have you assigned blame for problems to other people rather than the one who is really responsible?
  • Have you made excuses for your child’s actions citing differences that they have that other children don’t?
  • Have you continued to offer help when it is never appreciated or asked for?
  • Have you lied about or justified your child’s behavior?
  • Have you shielded your child from natural consequences for their actions telling yourself that they don’t deserve a punishment?

These actions can be small and start very early. From doing a second grader’s homework because you feel that they need more help then other children or lying to the police or judge to protect a teenager. I’ve seen both done and everything in-between hundreds of times.

This brings in one of the most used and misunderstood words in therapy – codependency. Typically the enabler develops their own self-worth or esteem about themselves (or the attached relationship) based off of how willing they are to make a situation right. Trying to help gives a false sense of control to a situation often spiraling downward. Sadly what happens is the person that they are trying to help not only doesn’t get the help they need but they also lose motivation and a healthy idea of boundaries. Once this pattern has been established, it can take serious work to break it. It becomes a dysfunctional merry-go-round that everyone sees isn’t working but no one is getting off the ride. The harder the enabler tries, the worse the child gets.

Now there are plenty of resources for motivated parents who feel they need to stop enabling. Some as easy as talking to a trusted friend and bouncing parenting ideas off of them. Sometimes it’s more intensive, such as personal or parental therapy. Allowing a non-emotionally attached person to help guide you can be a great way to go plus there are support groups solely focused on this for parents. Self-help books often claim to be able to help but I’ve found that unless the reader can really look at their behavior with an intense level of honesty, denial and codependency will return quickly.

Remember that the goal is to empower your children. Give them the tools and ability to gain the strength to do things on their own. If every time they struggle and mom or dad come running to save the day, you have to ask yourself, “Whom am I really helping? Am I helping them or am I co-dependently addressing my own needs?”

Will Wooton is director of Pacific Treatment Services and co-author of “Bring Your Teen Back From The Brink.” PTS is a substance abuse company working with teens and young adults.

Parents often have to make hard decisions, set boundaries, and do their own internal work alongside helping their child into recovery.


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