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For parents, there is no entirely “right” reaction to the drug or alcohol addiction of a child. There is, however, a wrong reaction — to enable the substance abuse. Unfortunately, many parents have difficulty fighting their instinct to protect their child and, consciously or not, end up enabling the addictive behavior.
If you believe a loved one is enabling their offspring’s substance abuse problem, this guide is for you. It speaks to parents of children at any age — both teens and adult children. It will help identify the signs of an enabler, illuminate why parents enable and why it’s ultimately destructive, and how to address the issue productively.
It’s not easy for a parent to let go of a child, so remember that your compassion will be a key element to helping them see that it’s for the best.
Enabling means eliminating someone’s sense of personal responsibility: by taking care of the addict’s problems for them, they never see the natural consequences of their actions. This behavior might include:
To a parent, these actions are nurturing. For an addict, however, these actions are behavior-affirming. The parent is reinforcing negative behavior by never punishing their child, or in the case of adult children, never letting their choices catch up with them. The addict abuses drugs freely and doesn’t have to deal with losing their home, getting in trouble at work, or finding shelter for the night because they know their parent will always come through.
Attitude is an essential part of enabling, as well. Parents tend always to see only the best in their child, to give them the benefit of the doubt no matter what. This can cause them to further enable addictive behavior by:
These kinds of behaviors can arise in a parent who is indeed in denial of their child’s substance abuse problem, or who refuses to accept the child’s need for professional treatment. Some parents may write off signs of trouble as a teen learning to cope with the pressures of high school or an adult child struggling to bounce back after losing their job. Unfortunately, their efforts to cut the child some slack often exacerbate the problem and can send conflicting messages. With a parent always there to clean up messes and never impede the substance abuse, children may learn that they just aren’t capable of dealing with problems on their own.
So why do people enable? Simply put, they often can’t help themselves. It presents a particularly complicated situation for parents, whose first instinct is to protect their child from harm. They may not be able to stop the child from abusing substances, but they can offer a warm place to stay on a cold night. A parent can’t take away withdrawal symptoms in the morning, but they can bring food and water to ease the process along. To a parent, rejecting a child in need is practically betrayal.
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Some parents may also feel guilty about their child’s addiction. Those with past substance abuse issues may feel that they have passed on their problem to their child, holding themselves responsible. In addition to nature, they look to nurture: they blame themselves for not being a better parent. They see their children as a testament to their upbringing, and any failure in the child is a failure in the parent. From an outside perspective, it’s easier to see that they can’t possibly hold themselves responsible for their child’s mistakes. But when it comes to a child you’ve loved and watched grow since infanthood — potentially even carried in your body for nine months — it isn’t as easy to find that line.
In the case of adult children, parents may worry that without their help, something terrible will happen. They could lose their job, their family, or their home. When a problem has gotten really out of control, there’s even the fear of looming death. To an outsider, a parent may be blatantly giving the child money for drugs; to a parent, they’re offering money for rent or food in the hopes the child will use it wisely. The child might show up begging for help, perhaps even manipulating by talking about how long it’s been since they’ve had a meal.
There are also parents who enable because they have a fear of conflict. They may know on some level that there’s an addiction issue but are so afraid to upset their child by bringing it up that they hide from it. They might worry their child will become angry, or that it could cause problems with a co-parent. This can make it difficult to stand up to a child who may outright lie or manipulate to get what he or she wants.
This isn’t to say that no parent will ever be able to put their enabling feelings or behaviors aside. To have a productive conversation with your loved one, however, it’s vital that you understand where they are coming from. Most enabling parents are genuinely trying to help their child and don’t completely realize that their behavior is hurting the situation. You must have compassion and help them see the things that genuinely will help their child.
When you’re ready to talk to your loved one, find a time that you’ll be able to sit for an uninterrupted conversation. If you are approaching both parents at once or are speaking to your parents and want to include another (sober) sibling in the conversation, do so as you see fit, but limit outside involvement. It’s a deeply personal topic, so don’t bring in more people than necessary. It shouldn’t feel like an attack, but an opportunity for open and honest communication.
Start by letting the parent know that you understand that they love their child and are attempting to help. Acknowledge that it’s not a comfortable situation for anyone, but that some hard choices need to be made to do what’s best for everybody. Explain that your concern isn’t only for the child’s welfare, but the parent’s as well. After all, enablers often put the needs of their loved one ahead of their own.
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Present your evidence as if you’re a lawyer: name specific instances of enabling, and how that behavior negatively impacted the parent, child, or both. There will likely be a rebuttal, so hear out the parent’s concerns. The point isn’t to dismiss their genuine anxieties, but to show them that they don’t have the desired effect. Be compassionate, but be firm. Consider these talking points when it comes to counter-arguments:
When the parent grows angry and asks if they’re supposed to let their adult child merely end up on the street, for example, point out that perhaps that poor outcome could be a reality check. The parent must realize that the child needs negative consequences. If life stays peachy while they abuse drugs, there just is no incentive to change.
Tell your loved one that it’s time to make a new strategy for dealing with their addicted child. They need to set clear, specific boundaries and be prepared to stick to them. Help them create a plan, and offer help and support where you can. Your plan should align directly with the enabling behaviors you pointed out: find a new approach for each situation. If it’s an adult child, perhaps they can only visit the parent’s home while sober. For teens, there may need to be more rigid rules about spending time away from home. Make sure any co-parents or other guardians are on the same page as necessary. Remind them that you’ll be setting similar parameters (if you haven’t done so already) and are prepared to stick to them.
The parent also needs to decide on consequences for when the boundaries are broken. If a teen breaks curfew, there should be an immediate and firm consequence of being grounded for a week. No excuses, no second chances, no reduced punishment for good behavior. If an adult child continues to show up unannounced looking for a place to crash after a binge, he or she should be sent away immediately.
Keep in mind that for a formerly-enabling parent, these kinds of changes will be difficult. It may help to have a designated support buddy or someone they can call to vent to when they have trouble standing firm. However, this isn’t someone who should offer to come over and act in the parent’s place. If the addicted child learns that Aunt Sue will lay the heavy hand when Mom feels weak, they may simply learn to approach Mom when Aunt Sue is out of town or busy at work. The parent has to learn to stand up for themselves not only to help the child break their dangerous cycle but to reassert their position as a strong leader and role model.
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Let the parent know that it will indeed be a tough transition, but it is truly for the child’s good. An addict has to decide for themselves that they want to stop using, and it often takes them feeling the actual impact of their actions. They need to see how dangerous and painful it can be to keep up an addiction and to recognize all that they stand to lose.
The parent’s focus will likely stay on his or her child’s well-being but don’t forget to point out that they too deserve more. They shouldn’t have to continually worry about cleaning up their child’s messes or lying to cover the truth. Parents of adult children shouldn’t have to worry about caring for their child’s every need, and should instead focus on the things that make their own lives healthy and happy. It’s natural that the worrying will linger, but devoting constant time and energy to solving a problem that the parent can’t fix leads to nothing but frustration and resentment.
The hope is that with time, the child will realize he or she needs professional treatment. The parent should be wary that the topic of treatment is sometimes brought up as a bargaining chip, and they should be prepared to hold the child to their promise. Parents may also want to consider seeking to counsel for themselves to better understand and cope with their feelings.
Ending enabling behavior requires compassion. Do what you can to support your loved one in their endeavor to better help their addicted child, but don’t be afraid to step in and remind them of boundaries as you need to. Hold them accountable for the commitments they made, and recognize small victories as they happen. The more they see that ending enabling behavior is crucial to their child’s well-being, the sooner they can stop the vicious cycle.
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