Helping Vs. Enabling: What’s the Difference?

adult son talking to senior mother - enabling

By Sandy Baker

There’s nothing harder than watching your loved one make the same wrong decision time and time again. If only they would stop using. If only they would seek help. You just want to help them stop facing so much pain and heartbreak. It’s very easy to move from being a supportive, empowering person in your loved one’s life to being an enabler of their addiction.

Who Doesn’t Get Help?

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.7 million people over the age of 12 needed substance abuse treatment in the previous year. Yet, in that year, just 2.3 million people received treatment from a specialty facility. In other words, only 10 percent of those who needed help that year received it.

A key reason for this is simply a lack of motivation to seek out help. The question you need to ask is whether or not you are encouraging a loved one to get help or if your actions are allowing them to avoid getting help. If you’re not pushing them toward treatment, you are enabling them.

What Is Enabling Behavior?

Consider the parent who pays for much of their adult son’s day-to-day financial needs because he misses work so often due to feeling sick or hungover. Or, consider the spouse who thinks that if her partner leaves work to seek treatment, they’ll lose their home. Rather than push her partner toward treatment, the spouse hides the problem from the rest of the family.

Enabling is happening when your actions allow the addicted person to continue to use their preferred substance. Most of the time, caregivers don’t purposefully enable; they just don’t have (or believe they have) the time, support, or courage to push their loved one toward change.

Signs You May Be Enabling a Loved One

Could you be enabling your loved one to continue using drugs or alcohol? Take a look at a few key examples of enabling.

#1: Denying the Extensiveness of Their Problem

Perhaps the hardest part is admitting that your loved one has a problem. It’s easier to deny or ignore the possibility of addiction than to face it. Or, you might admit the problem exists but think you can manage it yourself. But let’s be realistic: how does all of this management affect you? Are you feeling drained, exhausted, frustrated? Are you constantly anxious about what will happen next and how you’ll handle it? In the end, enabling takes a greater toll on you than confronting the problem honestly and seeking help.

#2: Blaming Others for Your Loved One’s Situation

The doctor over-prescribed pain medications for your loved one. It’s not her fault she can’t live without them now. Your loved one had a tough childhood, or a tough break-up, or a demanding job. It’s not his fault that he put his fist through the wall after a drinking binge.

#3: Lying for Your Loved One

Why didn’t they make it in to work on time? Why are they unable, once again, to attend a child’s after-school program? Why don’t they want to visit their parents anymore? An enabler lies because he or she wants to keep the peace. It feels easier to deal with a child’s (or parent’s, or boss’s, or friend’s) disappointment by lying than by telling the truth.

#4: Trying to Avoid Confrontation

It is very common for those who are using drugs and alcohol to react poorly any time they are confronted. An enabler would rather avoid this confrontation, and so they ignore the behavior, push things to the side, or avoid their loved one altogether.

#5: Providing Financial Support for Your Loved One

In situations where your loved one is unable to pay the rent, do you give them money to do so? Do you make excuses for them to miss time at work? Do you give them money so they can purchase more of the substances they desire? Do you look the other way when they steal cash from your drawer or purse?

What Can You Do Instead?

If you find yourself stuck in an enabling pattern and want to break free, now is the time to do something about it. The first step is to reach out for help from an alcohol and drug treatment program such as The Ranch at Dove Tree. Discuss your loved one’s unique needs with a counselor who can give you insight into your options for getting them real help.

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To learn more about our programs at Ranch at Dove Tree, including inpatient addiction treatment in West Texas, please contact us today at 800.218.6727.