Support vs Enabling – The most important things any parent with a child in treatment needs to know

Our desire to support a loved one who has a mental health, substance use, or other problem behavior is a cherished impulse and something nearly all parents of the teens and young adults I work with want to do. Enabling? That’s an entirely different deal. Enabling becomes a dirty word, something most people believe needs to be avoided at all costs. But knowing the difference between the two, knowing where our support ends and the enabling begins, is at the top of the list of questions parents have when their kids enter therapy.

Let’s start with as clear a distinction between support and enabling as possible

  • Support – Assisting your teen in doing something they can’t do for themselves or that promotes healing
  • Enabling – When our assistance makes their negative behavior easier to engage in or negates their responsibility for the behavior

Consider the case of a person who breaks his leg while skiing. A broken leg needs a cast and a crutch in order to protect the bone, give it time to heal and return, to the greatest degree possible, to normal, healthy functioning. The cast goes on and he uses the crutches to limit the amount of weight the bone is bearing and to assure better rest. He is careful to not bump the leg and uses the crutches even when it’s a hassle or embarrassing to do so. He takes his medication to reduce the pain of injury and of the physical therapy. The reduction in pain allows him to get better rest and makes him more willing to push himself with the physical therapist. In this case, the cast, crutch and meds are supporting him in his recovery. Enabling, on the other hand, would look like this: The person gets the very same cast, crutches and meds, but continues to engage in the same kind of risky behavior that got the leg broken in the first place. He may not be snowboarding, but he is still doing things like jumping off porches and generally being careless. The cast allows him to persist in the reckless behavior because it’s protecting him from feeling the full pain on the broken bone. In fact, the cast is doing the job of the bone. Same with the meds. Instead of proving comfort and rest after physical therapy, the medication allows him to escape the full weight of consequences for engaging in risky behavior.

Same cast, same crutches, same meds, but each used with very different motives and associated with very different behaviors; in one instance, they are “support” and the other are “enabling”.

The line between enabling and support can be razor thin and easy to cross. You will at some point cross it. There will be things that you do to support than become enabling. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but you will not always be able to know the difference between the two until you offer the assistance. When you cross the line, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just recognize you crossed it and correct it. As you shoot for this sweet spot, consider the following:

The line between support and enabling can be crossed for two reasons: Our own motivations and the way our assistance is used. To help with the former, being honest with yourself is a necessary first step:

  1. Am I providing assistance because I genuinely want my child to learn and grow? Support
  2. Am I providing assistance in large part because I want my child to appreciate me, to look like a “good parent” or because I feel guilty? Enabling
  3. Am I doing something for my child that they cannot do for themselves? For example, my teen doesn’t have a driver’s license, so I give him a ride to therapy, 12 step group, and/or meetings with his probation officer. Support
  4. Does my assistance help my teen get away with, cover up, or reduce their accountability? For example, I tell the school that he had the flu and excuse his absences when in fact he was ditching or unable to go to school because of a hangover. Enabling

The issue of “making it easier”

One place where we often second guess ourselves in the support vs enabling debate is when we see that our assistance is making things easier for our teen in some way. The worry is that by “making things easier” we are by definition enabling. It’s an understandable question, but also one that doesn’t help you make a better distinction. Both support and enabling “make things easier” in some ways. The critical question is exactly what becomes easier. Here are some additional guidelines.

Support

  • Can my teen do this for himself/herself? No, then it’s probably support
  • Should my teen be doing this for himself/herself? No, then it’s probably support
  • Does my assistance prevent my teen from transitioning into a life of self-sufficient adulthood? No, then it’s probably support
  • Does my assistance make it more likely my teen will be able to engage in problem behavior? No, at least not directly, then it’s probably support
  • If I provide financial help, I never give it directly to my teen (i.e. I don’t give money for food, but I buy food) and I we include a plan for them to make some kind of restitution? Yes, then it’s probably support

Enabling

  • Can my teen do this for himself/herself? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling
  • Am I doing this for my teen so I will feel better, be liked or look good? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling
  • Am I ignoring my gut or what my eyes see because I want to keep the peace or because it’s just easier right now? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling
  • Does my assistance make it more likely they will be able to engage in problem behavior? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling
  • Am I suffering or being hurt in a significant way by offering this assistance? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling
  • I provide financial help because I want them to avoid consequences or because I think I owe it to them? Yes, then you run the risk of enabling

Even with all these guidelines in place, you may still have questions about whether you are being supportive or enabling. What we want as parents but don’t get to have is a definitive list of exactly which kinds of assistance are supportive and which are enabling. For example, is bailing your child out of jail support or enabling? We may not know until after we do it, so again, cut yourself some slack as you negotiate this difficult issue. Knowing the difference requires constant work on your part. You’ll get better at recognizing the difference the more you practice with the above questions, by being honest with yourself about your motives, and by learning to listen to that gut read. Our parental instincts may not be perfect, but they are a powerful ally if we learn to listen.

If you have more specific questions about support vs enabling, this is a great question to ask your therapist. A third party who can look objectively at your situation and who has experience in distinguishing the difference between support and enabling can help provide guidance. The challenge is great, but journey worthwhile. Best of luck my friends.

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