In psychological terms, enabling is a well-meant attempt to fix a problem that ends up worsening or perpetuating it. The enabler acts out of love and legitimate concern. It is in our nature to help and protect our loved ones and to keep them out of harm's way. However, if protecting and safeguarding them stops them from experiencing the consequences of their poor choices, then helping becomes a dysfunctional behavior. Making poor choices and not facing the consequences will result in repeating with impunity the same poor choices over and over again.

Enabling: When Helping Hurts

The line between helping and enabling is especially blurred when parents are trying to protect their children. Parents feel it is only natural to take care of their offspring, and have difficulty recognizing at what point their well-meaning rescue efforts turn counterproductive. If our child gets a DWI, should we rush to hire the best lawyer in town to prevent a spot on their record?  If a child repeatedly skips school in college, should we keep paying their tuition? And if a child has an addiction that drives them to steal from us, should we call the police? These are anguishing decisions, and no single answer fits all possible situations.

When someone is enabling an addict's behavior, they are described as codependent. The codependent is easily manipulated by the addict. Codependents behaviors go above and beyond what normal caretaking requires. In AA terms, a codependent does the unnecessary for the ungrateful.  Codependents are unable to set limits or act assertively. They often give in to the bargaining behaviors and empty promises of an addict, agreeing to overlook bad behaviors "for this last time".  Codependents may entertain the fantasy that, if they try hard enough,  they will change their loved ones. They are often overwhelmed by guilt and paralyzing fear of "what will happen if I don't step in to help".

Support groups like Al Anon are designed to help those who have a loved one dealing with an addiction. The focus is to help members understand the three C's: they didn't Cause, can't Control and can't Cure someone else's addiction.  They also help family members identify what codependent behaviors may inadvertently be worsening the addiction by enabling the addict.  Enabling is done out of love, but the addicted brain simply translates the enabler's help into another opportunity to use drugs.  Facing the natural consequences of their actions may offer addicts the best chance of recognizing their illness and seeking help.

Content reprinted with permission: Clayton Behavioral