Enabling substance abuse is a problematic behavior and many parents are unaware of the negative impact it can have on individuals struggling with a substance abuse problem. Learning how to stop enabling and practicing healthier forms of support can lead to healthier relationships and prevent ongoing self-destructive behaviors.
Three of the most difficult behaviors to learn as parents are when to let go, when to step back in, and when to say, “No more.” At some point, children grow into adults, responsible for making decisions, taking action, and accepting responsibilities for themselves and for the consequences of their decisions and actions.
Legally, of course, that time is the day a child turns 18. The U.S. justice system follows that timing. For parents, that day is very different. Kids graduate from high school and go away to college, have relationships, get married, and have their own children. But they never stop being their parents’ children.
When confronted by a child with an addiction, loving parents often confuse caring with enabling, a pattern of behavior that never produces an outcome of delivering a healthy, independent, functional, and self-dependent person.
What Is Enabling?
Overly involved parents, despite their good intentions, drive home a subconscious message that their kids need them and won’t flourish without them. You could argue that parents are thus robbing their kids of the self-confidence (or even self-esteem) needed to live happily as responsible adults.
Examples of Enabling Behaviors
For parents whose adult child still lives at home, enabling behavior starts with small things: doing their laundry, cleaning their bedroom and bathroom, and cooking meals.
For parents whose kids are on their own, enabling behaviors are usually more serious. They include important backstops, such as paying for gasoline and car insurance, paying medical bills, and giving them money for a place to live.
In both cases, enabling includes bailing them out of jail, especially if jail is not a one-time event.
Enabling includes harmful behavior, such as the failure to set boundaries, financial support, and neglecting your own needs. In fact, when you commit to stop enabling, setting boundaries is the first significant step. The best thing you can do for your child is push them in ways to live on their own.
In the most severe cases, enabling drug and alcohol abuse prevents a child from hitting their bottom, depriving them of the opportunity to examine the consequences of their actions in their own life – and to choose to recover from drug abuse.
Contributing Factors of Substance Abuse and Recovery
For those who embrace 12-step recovery programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots, recovery begins after an addicted person hits “rock bottom,” the lowest emotional and physical part of life. Losing a job, a marriage, and all your money as a result of substance abuse is a bottom. So are getting arrested, going to jail, seeing your picture on the evening news, and your name in the newspaper because of a negative event.
Often it takes such a devastating low point for sanity to reach an addict’s brain and pass along the message: “You can get better, but you have to be the one to decide.”
Some researchers have explored an alternative path to escape addiction via “recovery capital.” That is, how much and how well can internal and external resources help someone start and maintain recovery?
Examples of recovery capital are money, food, and shelter. It also includes friend groups and loved ones. But for friends and loved ones to be true to their titles, especially for parents, there can be no enabling. But it’s a fine line – and a debate.
Supportive vs. Enabling Behaviors
“Why provide a person with an active addiction with resources (e.g., money) if he or she will only spend it on his or her drug(s) of choice?” asked the authors of one study of addiction recovery. “If people are protected from suffering the natural consequences of their poor choices, they will never have reason to choose differently.”
Yet their conclusion: “Recovery supports are effective at engaging people into care, especially those who have comorbid conditions, who appear to have little recovery capital, and/or who otherwise would likely have little to no ‘access to recovery.’ ”
Over-Parenting: an Enabling Behavior
Even when addiction issues are on the table, parenting experts use the term “over-parenting” to describe enabling. They refer to inappropriate strategies and tactics or unhealthy behaviors that deliver positive short-term outcomes but lead to lasting emotional issues and insufficient and unhealthy long-term solutions.
Whether their addiction is drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or something else, adult children often wrestle with mental health problems, some more severe than others. Depression and anxiety are probably the most common, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
So, what should parents do? Here are a few suggestions culled from medical, treatment, and human developmental experts.
Setting boundaries should apply to parents, children, and everyone else. Parents should not have to bankrupt themselves or re-mortgage their homes so that their children can succeed in recovery. It’s just a bridge too far.
Often, though, where and how a family member or parents draw boundaries is much trickier than having a hard line about money. It’s hard but necessary for parents to decide:
- Will they let their son come to Thanksgiving if he shows up drunk?
- Is it time to ask a court for custody of a grandchild when it’s clear their child can’t function as a responsible parent?
- What circumstances must be present for them to walk away, to let go?
Likewise, kids should draw boundaries for their parents, too. “I welcome you listening to me, loving me, and supporting my recovery. But you are not to give me money.”
Enforce Your Boundaries
Part of the boundary-setting process is agreeing on what lines you won’t cross again. Addiction history suggests you will be confronted with one or more of your boundaries. Either you will be questioned about why it exists or tested on how strongly you will defend it.
We all know people who set boundaries, and either ignore them or will move them to accommodate someone else. If we’re honest, we probably know people we can manipulate into doing what we want, no matter what they say. Frankly, why set the boundary at all?
With boundaries set for your children, understand they exist to protect you. Don’t let someone else dictate your terms for you or when and why they’re there.
Develop Emergency Responses
What is your history when you run into an emergency family situation? Do you drop everything, put on your cape, and fly in for the rescue? Do you rally other family members in support of your beloved child? Do you sometimes feel you’ve let your addicted child push your buttons into getting what they want?
You can prevent quick, emotional responses by preparing a plan. Unless it’s a life-or-death medical emergency, chances are you can buy yourself a few hours (or a few days) before you have to decide. So, plan for that.
Create your talking points. You may need a day or two to digest the news you just learned. You might want to talk to your spouse before answering.
Talk to your therapist or someone in your support group. If you face a scenario and get asked for help, there are others who have already gone through a similar situation. With time comes wisdom, so tap into your support system for advice.
Get Your Own Recovery Tools
Parents trying to help a child struggling with addiction are only free to help if they’re able. And being able means devoting time and energy to self-care.
Taking care of yourself means making physical, emotional, and spiritual health a priority. That can take many forms, such as:
- Eating properly and getting enough sleep
- Developing a meditation practice
- Exercising regularly, even if it’s just walking
- Finding ways to laugh
- Writing or journaling, particularly about gratitude
- Finding support groups, such as Al-Anon
- Go to individual or group therapy
Just as treatments are not one-size-fits-all, the same is true for recovery tools. Where daily exercise may help one parent stay sane, meditation and journaling may work better for others.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment
One of the hardest – yet kindest – acts is to seek professional help for your beloved child. This can mean emergency help like calling an ambulance or even the police. It also can mean insisting on checking your child into a drug and alcohol treatment center.
This is arguably the hardest decision a parent can make because it’s often met with major conflict. But if a child has proven he or she can’t – or won’t – get better or seek help on their own, rehab is often the only path left.
There are many treatments and care philosophies in Los Angeles and California. Some last a week. Others last a month. Some programs run for a year or longer. Some sober-living facilities provide a long-term and supportive recovery environment, as long as the resident abides by the rules and lives with other residents in a clean and healthy way.
Stop Enabling, Start Recovering
Learning how to stop enabling can push your loved one toward seeking help. It can be difficult to watch your child experience serious consequences as a result of their addiction, however, if you’re always there to save the day they may never decide to recover. Hopefully, with healthy boundaries in place, your loved one will decide to get the help they need and make a positive change in their life. When this time comes, having a plan in place can eliminate the frantic search for treatment. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call New Life House to learn more about our sober living for men in Los Angeles.
- Bernstein, J. (2023, July 20). Reality Check: Are You Enabling Your Adult Child?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/202307/reality-check-are-you-enabling-your-adult-child
- Lynch, S., et al. (2002, Fall). Parental enabling attitudes and locus of control of at-risk and honors students. Adolescence. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12458691/
- Davidson, L. et al. (2010, October 6). Enabling or Engaging? The Role of Recovery Support Services in Addiction Recovery. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6419765/