by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What is enabling? Is it a bad thing? What are some things enablers can do to stop enabling?

What is enabling? In psychology, enabling has both positive and negative meanings. Positive enabling refers to some form of empowerment that encourages individuals to develop and grow. Negative enabling, on the other hand, is dysfunctional in that it perpetuates or exacerbates some problem behavior.

The word “enabling” is most frequently used in addiction literature, and it is challenged in addiction treatment. A wife will sometimes enable her husband to continue his drinking and drugging behavior by calling his supervisor, stating that he is ill and cannot make it to work, when actually he is drunk or hung over.

It’s even more dysfunctional when children are expected to cover up for their parents’ intoxication by lying to explain why a parent cannot come to the door or cannot take a telephone call. Parents sometimes enable their teenagers to become involved with drugs and alcohol by ignoring the fact that their teenagers are out beyond curfew, coming home intoxicated, or not contacting legal authorities for help when laws have been violated.

There are other forms of enabling that are just as detrimental. For example, some parents have no real plans for their child or children to ever grow up and take responsibility for their own economic self-sufficiency. This takes the form of continually providing economically for a child long after he or she reaches adulthood. As a result of this, according to developmental literature, adolescence has not been extended to nearly 30 years of age.

Is enabling a bad thing? As already noted, it can be. If you cover up for a drug or alcohol abusing spouse, or child, you are enabling that person to continue destructive behaviors. Or, if you have no plan for your child to become an adult, move out on his own without your assistance, you are enabling that person to continue to be a child.

Every parent should have a plan for their child or children to become independent when they reach the age of majority (18-21). Whether enabling someone to continue destructive behavior, or enabling a child to not take responsibility for being an adult, you are harming that other person, even though you may think you are being helpful.

Why does someone enable? That question was not asked, but needs to be asked to answer the next question. Carol Bennett, M.A., writing for Psychology Today (online, posted July 1, 2012) provides us with insight into why some people feel the need to enable. The reasons in italics are hers; the comments in plain type are mine.

•Don’t want to hurt the alcoholic/addicts feelings by saying “No” or “I’m not comfortable with your request” or just not agreeing with their plan. This also applies to enabling adult children to remain adolescent.

•Afraid of the anger or retaliation that might come from not granting their request.

•Afraid they may do something “bad” (act out). The alcoholic/addict can so easily say, “I’ll show you, you’ll be sorry.” Young adults that are allowed to remain adolescent may threaten parents with really bad behavior if parents make them get a job, move out, or move on.

•We will be perceived poorly/ indifferent. The alcoholic/addict can very easily turn the tables back on you, as not caring or that you are a bad person or mean. Also, and not to be taken lightly; the judgment of others like family members that have no idea what goes on behind closed doors will evaluate your actions. Parents also may fear the judgment of others if they ask their children to move out or move on.

•The alcoholic/addict always seems to plea for more time, one more chance to make the wrong right.

•Maybe this time will be different. But remember, you thought it would be different the last time also. Time’s up!

•Want (need) to be liked. More often with parents than spouse, siblings or friends, parents want to be pals with their kids. If you are a parent, it never was your job to be their pal, buddy, or best friend. None of those are a part of the definition of “parent.”

•Too lazy to change. I have no comment for that one; it seems self-explanatory.

•Afraid. This is where dependency turns to co-dependency. You are afraid of losing something if you say “no” to an alcoholic spouse, or an adult child that is acting adolescent by not taking adult responsibilities. You may want your addicted spouse, or adolescent adult child to get help, but you may be the one that needs to get help to explore why you cannot let go.

•This “dance” has been part of my life for so long, they don’t know what they would do without it. They don’t know what they would do without it, but neither do you.

Get help. Learn to let go. Let go and let God! That requires faith. Often Christian parents have as hard a time as anyone letting go because they have such high expectations for their children and they fear their children will fail to meet their expectations. Remember, if you teach them to think for themselves, they may very well do that, and sometimes that means they won’t do everything you want them to do. But if your child is an adult, your job is done. Accept it! Move on, and let them move on!

What are some things enablers can do to stop enabling? Therapist Darlene Lancer, J.D., LMFT, wrote in an article titled Are You an Enabler, “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.”

If you have been enabling your adult child to remain in your home and he or she is making no progress toward independence, you might consider meeting with your child and giving him some benchmarks to meet. For example, you might agree to allow him or her to remain in your home for another six months, but during that time he or she must get a job and begin the process of working toward finding an apartment. If allowing your adult child to live in your home is not a problem, then you might request a reasonable amount of rent. If the adult child continues to live in your home and pay rent, then be sure and set guidelines. It’s still your home; don’t be afraid to have expectations for whoever lives in your home.

So if you want to be an enabler, enable the person to lead a sober, productive life. If you want to be an enabler, empower your adult child to become an adult, and not remain dependent.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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