Family & Addiction: Enabling or Supporting?

The Differences Between Enabling and Supporting a Loved One Struggling With Addiction

When a friend, neighbor or loved one is struggling with addiction, it is natural for people to want to help. This is a noble goal, but some actions that are designed to help can actually hurt chances of successful recovery. It is critical to understand where helping and supporting end and where enabling begins.

Enabling Skirts Natural Consequences

When determining whether an action is supporting or enabling, there is one key thing to consider. If the action helps individuals avoid natural consequences, then it will likely be enabling. While it is natural to want to assist loved ones, enabling isn’t true long-term help.

Think about some of the key ways that an addict may ask for assistance. For example, a person who was accused of a crime may want a loved one to lie as an alibi. Helping them avoid a fine or jail time, however, is letting them get away with dangerous behavior and the natural consequence of their action.

It is important for those who are struggling with addiction to face the reality of their actions. The consequences of their addictive behavior, no matter how severe, reflect the severity of their actions. If loved ones help mitigate these consequences, then individuals struggling with addiction may not understand how dangerous their condition truly is.

Financial Support is Almost Always Considered Enabling

One of the most common ways for addicts to seek help is through financial assistance. As tempting as it can be to offer a short-term solution in the form of cash or a loan, there is rarely a time when offering financial support to an addict is advised.

To start, any financial assistance offered will often go directly to the procurement of an addictive substance. By giving a family member or a loved one cash or a check, you might actually be purchasing their next drink or their next dose of drugs.

Even in cases where the money is technically going to a seemingly helpful thing, such as paying rent or an electric bill, it helps addicts avoid the financial costs of their addiction. If a loved one pays the bills, then the addict can continue using their own supply of money to purchase drugs.

In addition, financial assistance falls under the category of helping to avoid negative consequences. Giving individuals financial help means that they don’t need to experience the consequences of their poor financial decisions. This may postpone their decision to seek professional help and addiction treatment, which is never a good thing in terms of recovery.

Lying and Protecting Constitute Enabling

Often, family members and loved ones are put in a situation where an addicted family member or friend asks them to lie. Although most people say they wouldn’t lie for an addict, the reality is that many do. Even small lies, however, can set back recovery and be a way of enabling addictive behavior.

Sometimes, the lie is a small one that is meant to defend the reputation or actions of an addict. For example, people may say that their incredibly drunk family member is simply having a tough day or needed to let loose after a setback in life. Alternatively, someone may lie about why a person is late or absent from a gathering. This small white lie, however, helps protect addicts from their self-induced consequences.

It is especially important not to lie or protect an addict to the outside world. This means that there is never an excuse to contact a boss or teacher in order to protect an addict from getting fired or from failing a class. These events, which may feel like “rock bottom,” are part of the wake up call that some individuals need.

Preserving the Idea of Victimhood is Enabling

Those who struggle with addiction often feel that they are they victims of unfortunate circumstances. They may declare that they aren’t at fault, preferring to blame others for their misfortunes. Family members should take care not to encourage or foster that idea of victimhood.

A critical element of recovering from addiction is taking personal responsibility. While there is no question that addiction is a disease, that doesn’t mean that those struggling with addiction can blame others for their behavior. Telling addicts that they alone are in charge of their actions may not make them happy, but it is important to help them see the reality of the situation for what it is.

Empty Threats are Not Helpful

It is normal to feel frustrated and overwhelmed when trying to help a friend or family member who struggles with addiction. Unfortunately, it is also common to make empty threats at this time, and then fail to back up those threats with action.

Sometimes, an ultimatum can be helpful. For example, you can tell a loved one that unless they seek addiction treatment, you can’t allow your children to see them anymore. However, if you decide to let them see the children anyway, then your threat has lost all its power, as will all future threats or ultimatums. If you can’t back up a threat like this, it is much better to avoid issuing them altogether.

True Support is Professional Medical Attention

If family members shouldn’t protect loved one from the consequences of their actions or lend money, what can they do to truly help? The number one way to offer support is to get loved ones in a professional addiction treatment program. There are a number of ways to help facilitate this, all of which could be considered support rather than enabling.

For example, family members can research the best facilities. Or, they can offer to care for children or pets while addicts get the help necessary. In some cases, they might even offer to physically drive the person to a treatment facility. Since these actions result in actual change, they are supportive and helpful rather than enabling.

Differentiating between helping and enabling isn’t always easy. However, it is critical that family members offer the right kind of help and support that leads to recovery from addiction.