Enabling: Loving Your Child to Death

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No matter what they do, it’s hard for some parents to see their kids as anything but children. (altanaka/Shutterstock)
No matter what they do, it’s hard for some parents to see their kids as anything but children. (altanaka/Shutterstock)

Addiction takes time. It takes time to develop as the addict goes through the stages of the Jellinek Curve that lead toward the inevitable downward spiral. It takes time to recognize, as some signs of addiction will not show as immediately as others. And more than anything, it takes time to heal. It can be hard to stage an intervention and convince an addict to seek treatment, not to mention the time it takes for recovery to really start setting in. But as addicts and alcoholics progress through all of these stages, the family and friends progress along with them. And no one feels this more than the people who have been enabling the addict’s use.

This can be a hard truth to accept, but the simple fact is that enablers are a part of the problem in identifying and resolving many cases of addiction. Just about every addict or alcoholic have somebody enabling them, be it a parent, spouse, or even child. And while these people are generally coming from a good place, the results of enabling will always be damaging no matter how good the intentions behind them may be. This can be especially true when the enabler is a parent, someone entrusted with the task of raising a child to be responsible, accountable, and virtuous.

We’re all familiar with the concept of “loving your child to death.” In the case of enabling parents, this expression holds a lot of weight. Everyone has their own reasons for enabling, which we will discuss below. This will be followed by a discussion of the harm that can be caused by this sort of behavior. We will then conclude by discussing the measures that must be taken to put an end to enabling so that the addicts and alcoholics in our lives may begin the proper healing process and learn to flourish in recovery.

Common Reasons for Enabling

Enabling can be defined as many behaviors, some stemming from action and others stemming from inaction. The cause of enabling will often be related to the form that it takes. (TungCheung/Shutterstock)
Enabling can be defined as many behaviors, some stemming from action and others stemming from inaction. The cause of enabling will often be related to the form that it takes. (TungCheung/Shutterstock)

Let’s not skirt the obvious—enabling begins with denial. A parent sees their teenage son or daughter becoming distant and standoffish, and they assume that this is merely a phase. And for many teenagers, this would be true. But then other signs begin to appear, such as poor hygiene, a drop in grades, or a sudden change in social circles. Again, these all seem as if they might be temporary changes. And even when the parent catches the child with drugs, it is easy to assume that this is a one-time infraction. But if these things happen repeatedly and nothing is done about it, then what began as denial or naivety has crossed the line into enabling.

Now, assume the child in question has graduated high school and is attending college. They seem to be posting a lot of Facebook pictures of parties they’ve been attending, but this seems like a good thing. After all, the child is simply partaking in the full “college experience.” And on top of this excuse, there is the fear that criticism might put more distance between the child and the parent. Once they have flown the coop, many parents are prone to worrying that their relationships with their children will not be as strong as they once were. And while you can’t turn back the clock to when they were younger, perhaps a bit of leniency will earn their love.

These are natural feelings for a parent to experience, and are forgivable to a certain degree. But when enabling takes its most serious form is when the parent actually starts solving the child’s problems for them. They’ve lost their scholarships because they’ve been partying too much and perhaps spending more time drinking and smoking marijuana than they’ve spent studying, yet a parent might pay the difference instead of demanding that the child get a job. And much like spouses and even children have had to do for the addicts in their lives, some parents may find themselves bailing their kids out of jail or calling in sick to work for them. The intention is not to fuel their addiction, but rather to protect them. It’s easy for a parent to justify this, believing that it is their job to safeguard their offspring.

Again, this is a perfectly natural feeling for any parent to experience. But it is also quite unhealthy, and this is where enabling meets codependency. Many parents who engage in these enabling behaviors are hoping that their actions will merit respect or love from the child they are protecting. But in a normal relationship, it is the child who should be seeking the parent’s approval—not the other way around. Codependency not only enables addiction, but it breeds family dysfunction to an excessive degree. And this is where a great deal of the harm comes in.

How Enabling Causes Harm

Codependent relationships lock each person into an ostensibly secure mental prison from which it can be difficult to escape. (Sangoiri/Shutterstock)
Codependent relationships lock each person into an ostensibly secure mental prison from which it can be difficult to escape. (Sangoiri/Shutterstock)

First of all, enabling causes great harm to the enabler. According to Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s psychology chief Scott Wetzler:

“Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on their loved ones for fulfillment.”

In cases of enabling, this generally applies to both the addict and the enabler. The addict lacks autonomy because they have a loved one to fight their battles and right their wrongs for them. But the enabler lacks autonomy as well. Many of their actions are decided by the addict or alcoholic in their lives. Addiction becomes a family disease, and the enabler is little more than a slave who makes great sacrifices yet receives no rewards for their efforts. This will wear on the enabler over time. According to psychology professor Shawn Burn of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo:

“You can become burned out, exhausted, and begin to neglect other important relationships. And if you’re the enabler in a codependent relationship—meaning you promote the other person’s dysfunctions—you can prevent them from learning common and needed life lessons.”

This is where enabling begins to embody the concept of loving your child to death. As scary as it may be for a parent to admit, there comes a time in every child’s life when they must learn to face the consequences of their own actions. And yes, these consequences can be frightening. No parent wants to see their child lose a job, get kicked out of school, or spend the night in jail. But if their actions have earned these consequences, little good will come of saving the day. All that you will accomplish is reinforcing the addict’s belief that no harm can come to them. As noted by therapist Darlene Lancer:

“Stopping enabling isn’t easy. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Aside from likely pushback and possible retaliation, you may also fear the consequences of doing nothing. For instance, you may fear your husband will lose his job. Yet, losing a job is the greatest incentive to seeking sobriety. You may be afraid the addict may have an auto accident, or worse, die or commit suicide. Knowing a son is in jail is sometimes cold comfort to the mother who worries he may die on the streets. On the other hand, one recovered suicidal alcoholic said he wouldn’t be alive if his wife had rescued him one more time.”

This makes sense if you give it some thought. Yes, you may worry that the addict in your life could come to some sort of harm if you stop enabling them. But if they continue their substance abuse, how long will it be before this harm comes to them anyway? The fears that spurred your enabling will become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you will witness your beloved addict or alcoholic come to the same harm that you fought so hard to avoid. This is why you must learn to stop enabling before it is too late.

Learning to Stop Enabling for Good

As hard as it can be to admit, the best thing for a person’s recovery is sometimes to experience the consequences of their own actions. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)
As hard as it can be to admit, the best thing for a person’s recovery is sometimes to experience the consequences of their own actions. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)

For both yourself and the addict in your life, you have to start gaining some autonomy. Set stricter boundaries, and do not go out of your way to support behavior that you do not find acceptable. If you are dealing with your child, then you will likely encounter some anger and resistance. This can be tough, but you must power through it. Make it clear that you will not be enabling them by bailing them out of jail or giving them money that will likely go toward drugs, alcohol, or the consequences of their use. No matter what they say, bear in mind the selfishness and stubbornness of their prior actions and do not allow such behavior to continue unabated.

If codependency has had a particularly negative impact on your life, you may consider attending a support group such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. These groups are full of people who have undergone their own struggles with enabling and have learned to stop. Talk to some of them and follow their advice. If you feel that the addict in your life might need treatment, then you should also consider joining A Mother’s Hope, our Facebook group for the parents of addicts and alcoholics. You will find its members (which include a former enabler who has written for this site) will greatly support your efforts to stop enabling.

The biggest trial facing you will be when the day comes that your loved one needs bail money or some other sort of assistance that you have come to recognize as enabling. At this point, you must learn to say no. You may hear awful things in response, but you must stay the course. No matter how much they insult you or tell you that they hate you, remember that you are doing this for their own good. If an addict is not given enough rope, they will never hit rock bottom and accept that they need to become sober. Once this happens, the hatred they once expressed may easily turn into gratitude.

If you need help to stop enabling or ideas regarding the best means of staging an intervention and getting your loved one into treatment, do not hesitate to contact us. We will assist you in any way that we can.

Remember, the first step in solving any problem is to recognize it. If you can see that you have been guilty of enabling in the past, then you should now be ready to make a change and begin putting your foot down. You can support your loved one in their recovery, but try your best not to do anything for them that they should be able to do for themselves. Otherwise, you will just be moving backward. Do not become guilty of loving your child to death. Stop enabling, and you can allow them to begin truly living. And that is one of the most beautiful things that a parent can do for their child.

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7 thoughts on “Enabling: Loving Your Child to Death”

  1. My son 34 is in rehab now. I am afraid what will happen when he gets out. When he gets out he will not have anything. No job, no money, no car to find a job. Where we live you NEED a car to get to a job. What if he wants to come back home to live or HAS to. Can we help him then. Like to get back on his feet. Help with a place to stay ti ll he gets a job,car and money for his own place?

    1. What I have seen a number of parents do is require their children to stay in a sober living facility for a minimum of six months, while only paying their rent for a maximum of three. This gives them some time to adjust to life outside of treatment, while also requiring that they learn a thing or two about getting a job and being dependable.

      No matter what you do, you should set these sorts of time limits. It is not generally recommended that addicts move back home after treatment, because it will be easy for them to feel comfortable falling back into old habits. So while it isn’t suggested, if you ARE going to allow it, you have to set some pretty strict rules. Tell him what’s acceptable and what isn’t, tell him how long he has to find a car and a job, etc. And then adhere to these boundaries. No exceptions. Or else the entire cycle may easily start over again.

    2. These concerns should be given back to your son. Give him the gift of letting him live his life and figure this out. And you should start living your life and find joy in it. If you keep enabling, he will be 50 years old and still a child depending on his Mom. Do you want to keep this up for the rest of your life? DETACH. LET GO.

  2. After his 1st over dose this year. My son called me and said that he couldn’t stay in that facility any longer. All of my support systems were telling me you can’t go get him stick to your boundaries . I told him he needed to stay there or to go to treatment. Everything in my body felt that this was wrong to say but I did what everyone said I should do . instead he checked himself out with two people he did not know ended up doing heroin all night and overdosed again.
    I feel like if I had at least gone and gotten him I could’ve brought him to another facility or at least home where he would’ve been safe that night until I could’ve found another place.

    1. Possibly, but don’t blame yourself too harshly. My own mother frequently blames herself for my experiences in addiction, and I constantly have to tell her that I was not her fault. She wanted to see the best in me, and I love her for that. It’s simply a terrible disease. Eventually, she learned to set boundaries and it helped me. Maybe I would have entered recovery earlier had she not enabled me. But that does not make my experiences her fault. Parents should avoid enabling when they recognize it, but should never beat themselves up for failing to. Recognition and blame are entirely different animals. In the case of enabling, we should look to the former rather than the latter.

  3. I get concern when i hear that family members are in rehab. My biggest concern is that most treatment are not based in either medical or psychological science. And I be bold to say that the substantial number of clinicians are science illiterates.

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