So often in the addiction recovery process, family members and close friends are told that they need to “stop enabling” a loved one because it perpetuates the disease. But what exactly is enabling behavior? And how can someone know if they’re enabling?

Helping families understand the answer to these questions is an important theme in our work at Feinberg Health Care Solutions. To support a loved one who is struggling with addiction in creating a long-term recovery, it’s absolutely critical that families understand how they can shift their behavior to increase the odds of success.

 

What is Enabling Behavior?

Enabling behavior is doing something for someone else to their detriment when they’re capable of doing it for themselves. It’s the phrase “to their detriment” that’s the distinction between helping and enabling.

Let’s use the example of a 12-year-old boy who suffers a broken hand. At first, he is going to need help doing things he was proficient at before his injury. He may need assistance putting on his clothes, cleaning his room, doing his homework, or performing his chores. Naturally, the child’s parent or guardian would step in and help him with the things he is unable to do on his own or without assistance at first.

When the child’s hand reaches a certain level of healing, he starts physical therapy to regain full function. As his strength and dexterity improve, he’s told to resume the things he could do before the injury as part of his physical therapy. Of course, these things are difficult and slow for him at first.

As a parent, you might see your child struggling and say, “Let me help.” You may button his shirt buttons, make his bed, or take care of his chores. Your son begins to realize that if something feels even the slightest bit hard for him, you will step in to help.

What started out as helping developed into enabling, and as a result, the young boy does not regain full strength and dexterity in his hand. He developed a dependency on others to do things for him, which is the crux of how addiction thrives.

 

Should I “Cut Them Off?”

“Cutting them off” is a well-known concept in the addiction recovery world, and one most people understand.

This approach makes sense for families when there are purpose and strategy in it. No longer financially supporting someone or no longer allowing him or her to live in your house when they’re in the midst of addiction can be the impetus for a person to accept the treatment they need and enter recovery.

For someone already in recovery, however, “cutting them off” might not necessarily help — especially when the person in recovery is an adolescent. Even for someone in their 20s, a certain amount of parenting and support may still be needed.

So how do you know if you’re helping or enabling a person in recovery? Ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing to their detriment, or is it supporting them in becoming self-reliant?”

In our work with families, we often have to point out how a parent’s own anxieties can play a key role in enabling their son or daughter. It often proves difficult for a parent to refrain from “taking care of things” for their child.

In every recovery, there are things that need to be learned. If families have an awareness of what these things are and are willing to step back and allow their loved ones to learn them, they are providing their loved ones with the gift of being able to gain the skills they need to create a great life for themselves.

If they’re earnest in their effort, they will earn the support of their families as they seek bigger and better things for their lives.


Kristen Byrne

Vice President of Addiction & Mental Health Services