As parents, most of us like to think that we make the best decisions for our children, that we care for them, and that we protect them as much as we can. When children make bad decisions, it’s too easy to step in and take care of them, clean up their mess, pay off their debts, or loan them money. While this is often done with the best of intentions, it leads us down a road of enabling – where our care allows our children to continue using. Approximately 1.3 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old are addicted to substances each year, and only 150,000 ever get help. Addictions often extend well into adulthood, with over 23.5 million adults addicted to substances in the USA alone. Together, these numbers make up nearly 10% of all Americans over the age of 12. Addiction and substance abuse is a problem that affects millions, and as parents, it is our responsibility to help our children escape from it, not enable them.
What is Enabling Behavior?
Most of us have seen shows like “My 600 Lb. Life”. In these shows, a person is often bedridden or unable to move because of their weight, and as a result, they suffer from severe emotional and physical health problems. However, even though their weight is typically caused by eating, sometimes in combination with an existing mental or physical disorder, these people often have family members and spouses who continue to bring them food, often large quantities of unhealthy food, enabling them to maintain their weight. This behavior enables that person to remain overweight, because the person providing the care is knowingly or unknowingly supporting the problem. In substance abuse, enabling behavior is often very similar. As a parent, you take steps to care for your child, to protect them, and to give them the best life that you can. Unfortunately, taking these steps will often allow your child to continue using, enabling the substance abuse.
Types of Enabling Behavior
Enabling behavior can occur at every age level, with young children, young adults, and adults who have moved out of the home. Children – Enabling children is often easier than you might think, and can stem as much from attempting to protect them, give them a chance to do better, or to establish a relationship with them. This can result in:
- Letting children spend time with friends who are known to use substances
- Allowing bad behavior to avoid a tantrum or to win approval
- Giving rides to children going to/from places where they can get substances
- Lying for the child (for example, calling in sick to school for them, making excuses for missed appointments, etc.)
- Placing them back in the same school after rehab
- Attempting to get life ‘back to normal’ during a substance abuse problem or addiction
- Completing school assignments for the child
Here, your goal should be to force your child to get medical help, and then change the circumstances in which they were pushed into using. Children do not have the capacity to help themselves, and it is your responsibility to take the steps to get them help.
Young Adults – Dealing with drug and alcohol use in young adults who still live inside of the home makes it extremely easy to enable their behavior.
- Ignoring risk behavior
- Letting them live rent free
- Failing to create consequences for substance use
- Leaving them alone in the house
- Giving rides to friends or school
- Lying for the child
- Denying drug or alcohol use
- Covering up for mistakes or problems
- Offering too much trust
- Letting teens get away with behavior to avoid being the ‘bad guy’ in the relationship
- Ignoring issues or refusing to talk about them
- Blaming others for the addiction
Dealing with addiction and substance abuse in teens can turn an already tumultuous time in the family relationship into a nightmare, but ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Similarly, supporting their behavior by covering up for problems only protects you, not them.
Adults – Enabling your adult children can be complex in that you may take steps to provide for their basic needs, keep them off the street, or keep them out of jail, only to find that this behavior enables your child to continue using. Enabling behaviors include:
- Giving money for rent or food
- Paying debts
- Covering fees or fines
- Offering a place to stay after a night of using
- Bailing them out of jail
- Convincing partners or spouses to stay
- Cleaning up after your child
- Making excuses for their bad decisions
While watching a child lose the things they have worked for is painful, supporting an addict only enables them to continue using. So long as the addict knows that you will step in to cover for their bad decisions, they have no real reason to stop using.
Codependency and Enabling
Codependency is the process of becoming addicted to caring for someone. In a codependent relationship, the caretaker will often give up all or most of their own sense of self in favor of caring for the addicted person. In the case of parent/child ponds, codependency can form and interact with enabling to form a vicious cycle that damages everyone. Codependency often develops when parents see themselves as needed, feel that the child cannot take care of themselves, and spend all or most of their time on their addicted child, or thinking about their addicted child. You may be codependent if you:
- Take steps to hide the addiction
- Avoid confrontation with your child to avoid conflict
- Make excuses for your child’s behavior
- Enjoy the feeling of being needed by your child
- Assume your child is going through a phase and that the addiction will end on its own
- Handle your child’s responsibility or try to
- Continue to give chances despite evidence that you shouldn’t
- Participate in risky behaviors to fulfil your child’s demands (for example: you buy your child alcohol/drugs to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms)
Moving Away from Enabling Behavior
No one decides to be enabling, just like no one chooses to become an addict. However, if you or a family member is engaging in enabling behavior, where your actions allow someone else to continue using, it is important to recognize it and move away from that behavior so that the substance dependent person can move on. Stepping away from enabling behavior means taking steps to recognize that you are enabling, and then stopping that behavior.
- Recognize that you are facilitating your child’s addiction
- Determine what you can do to step away from your role as an enabler (Stop paying rent, stop buying food, take your child to rehabilitation, begin discussing problems with a school counselor, etc.)
- Take steps to end your role as an enabler
Detach with Love – While many people advocate tough love, or cutting addicted children out of your life, responding harshly, and offering punishment for wrongdoings, studies show that this approach should only be used as a last resort because it largely does not work. Instead, detaching with love is a theory that allows you to step back, continue to provide care for your child, and continue to build relationships with them, without cutting them out of your life. This process allows you to refuse to give them money, refuse to enable them, and to make the hard decisions, while remaining present in their life, offering emotional support, and working to get your child help. Parents are caretakers, and while it can be difficult to see children suffer, that is often what must happen to allow them to reach a state where they are motivated to get clean or sober. If your child is suffering from a substance use disorder, it is important to work to get them help. A treatment center can help your child to move past their physical addiction, offer therapy to help them recognize and move past the issues behind their addiction, and can help you to take steps to prevent relapse and future substance abuse. The Oceanfront Recovery Addiction Treatment Program can help you or your loved one through the process of recovery from substance abuse addiction or recovery from alcoholism. Our passionate clinicians focus on bringing the underlying causes of addiction to the surface with a modern and effective recovery program. Contact us at Oceanfront Recovery today for a confidential assessment with no obligation.