How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Drug Addict Child

By Published On: October 19th, 2021Categories: Parenting and Family Recovery, Recovery Tools & Tips

The topic of enabling a drug addict child has been around the drug and alcohol recovery circles for decades. However, it has become somewhat of a dirty word in recent years, and can even sometimes be used to pass judgement on other parents: “That kid wouldn’t get high if she didn’t enable him so much!”

Nonsense. Insinuating that a kid would sober up if he / she stopped being enabled is an oversimplification of a very complex issue. It’s as silly as saying an addict should “just stop” doing drugs. If you’re a parent of an alcohol or drug user, you already know – it’s not that simple. Supporting an addict without enabling them comes with a list of caveats and nuances that can be hard to navigate.

Let’s start with this:

You are a good parent who loves your child

Before you ask yourself if you’ve been enabling an addict, stop and remember that you love your child. Nobody is questioning that. Just as no addict intended to get hooked, no loving parent intends to take potentially harmful actions towards their children.

Young people start doing drugs for a host of reasons, the most popular (by far) of which is to have fun. At some point having fun turns serious, and the seeds of addiction are sewn. The most common age for addictive drug use in the United States is 18-25. By the time a young person comes through the door of our treatment facilities, their substance use disorders have taken a strong hold in their life.

The reality is that addiction is a complex issue. The mechanisms by which addiction works are still getting sorted out in the science today! So to feel that your child’s drug use is your fault due to enabling behavior is silly.

The real reason to stop enabling

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the real reason to take a look at any enabling practices you may have adopted over time. Really, there are two reasons:

  1. YOUR self esteem, confidence, and mental / physical health take a hit every time you take an action contrary to your own principles. If you know deep down that you are paying (even in part) for your child’s addiction, your parental self esteem will suffer!
  2. Your loved one is continuing to use without incurring some (or all) of the potential consequences that might cause them to re-evaluate their behavior.

What is enabling?

No loved one of an addict or alcoholic wants to be thought of as an “enabler.” To enable literally means to make something possible or easy. It can also mean to permit. So, what is really meant by enabling is that the actions of the enabler allow the addict to more easily continue to use drugs while avoiding natural and logical consequences.

The most common forms of enabling:

  • Providing money or resources to an active user
  • Allowing an active addict/alcoholic to remain at home
  • Paying for an addict/alcoholic’s legal costs
  • Continuing to spend money to put an unwilling drug user through addiction treatment programs

Addicts, alcoholics, and substance abusers will naturally attempt to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions by surrounding themselves with people who will (consciously or subconsciously) facilitate their behavior and shield them from consequences. These people can be parents, other family members, friends, or using buddies. Some examples of this type of behavior:

  • Attempting to get people to ignore their potentially dangerous behavior by justifying why it isn’t that bad. The result: they don’t get confronted regarding the risky situations they are constantly placing themselves in.
  • Getting a loved one or friend to “cover” for them at work or school, often by convincing their loved ones that it’s in their best interest. The result: natural consequences such as being fired or suspended get put off.
  • Convincing a loved one or friend to give them resources (such as drug money, food, lodging, or transportation) by attempting to appear helpless or by saying things like “Well, how am I supposed to eat, then?!” The result: the addict doesn’t need to work to cover these expenses, often for extended periods of time.
  • Surrounding themselves with using buddies whose drug or alcohol problems are “worse” than theirs. The result: the addict never has to hear the truth about their addiction.

Do any of these sound familiar? If so, now is a good time to take a look at what areas you can lovingly support your addict by not helping them.

How to know if you’ve been enabling

Sometimes providing help in these ways is not enabling. How can one determine the difference? Here are a couple ways of thinking that may help:

Demonstrations of Love

The enabler will often say that he or she is “just trying to help” or “what am I supposed to do, let him go broke or die?” It is never a question as to whether or not a parent or significant other loves or trusts the addict or alcoholic. The issue is always the demonstration of love.

When most people think about “love,” they are actually referring to sentiment. Love, as an action, is not always the easiest path to take. Sometimes love is best demonstrated through not accepting behavior that is harmful to one’s self or other people. When an active addict or alcoholic is allowed to avoid the consequences of his or her behavior he or she is not being “loved.” 

This may sound harsh, but consider the alternative. Someone actively using drugs is not rational. His or her decisions are not made based on concern for self or others. The addict only wants to be left alone so he or she can continue to use. People are either a means to this end or are in the way. Until he or she is abstinent, this way of thinking will not change.

Consider your own motives

Some people will say that (for example) providing money to a drug user is always enabling. Not true! Here are some simple questions a loved one can ask when confused about whether or not a pattern of enabling is taking place:

  • Is this going to help my loved one find sobriety?
  • Am I doing this/providing this help because I feel guilty?
  • Am I worried about what others will think?
  • Am I doing this because it helps my loved one or because it will make me feel better?

These questions can give you a good beginning. Remember that not every situation is the same. What one person does may be enabling while someone else does the exact same thing and it is not. The key is to honestly examine your own motives and whether or not the action is the most loving thing for the person being helped.

Seek help and support

There is no exact formula for enabling. Like many things with addiction and drug abuse, there are many shades of grey that exist. Aside from taking the above suggestions, one of the most helpful things you can do is seek the guidance of a professional who is objective and has experience in this area. Additionally, seeking support groups such as Al-Anon or our parent support groups can be a very good idea. No loved one ever has to face these difficult decisions alone.

When looking for a substance abuse professional, it can be a good idea to consult a trusted healthcare professional or counselor you have already been working with. They can be invaluable in helping you determine whether you’ve been enabling a loved one, and how to set boundaries that are clear and logical.

If you live anywhere in the Southeastern United States, we provide no-cost consultations and evaluations. Feel free to call the Insight program to speak with one of our substance abuse and addiction counselors.

About the Author

Clint Stonebraker, the executive director of the Insight Program.
Clint Stonebraker has worked in the substance abuse treatment field since 1987 and has been the owner of The Insight Program since 1993. Clint Stonebraker has overseen the expansion of Insight into Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh North Carolina as well as growth in the Atlanta area. Clint is committed to providing quality care to individuals and families affected by substance abuse.

Recent Posts