How Families Can Stop Enabling Behaviors

July 24, 2023 Tara Treatment Center l Franklin, Indiana

How Families Can Stop Enabling Behaviors l Tara Treatment Center

When a loved one is struggling with addiction, all we want to do is help. We want the best for our child, parent, grandparent, grandchild, relative, significant other or anyone else we love. We do everything we can to help them, but sometimes our well-intended actions can make the situation worse. 

Our idea of “help” may come in the form of enabling behaviors, which can actually worsen or extend the duration of a person's addiction. We may not even know that we’re enabling a loved one to continue using a substance, but these behaviors are important to identify and discontinue to support their recovery.

Identifying Enabling Behaviors

What does it mean to enable someone? People close to the addicted individual may unintentionally shield them from the consequences of their behavior. Tony Brenner, a Licensed Clinical Addiction Counselor and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, describes enabling as, “You're doing things that, even though it's not your motive, perpetuates the problem.”

Family members may not realize they’re enabling their loved ones to continue using a substance. There are certain behaviors to pay attention to that may be making things worse. Tony names making excuses for their loved one's behavior, covering for them, and solving their problems as common enabling behaviors. 

There are a few other enabling behaviors that the University of Pennsylvania Health System identifies:

  • Denial - refusing to acknowledge their problems, accepting blame for their substance use, or expecting them to be able to control their substance use

  • Using with them - to keep an eye on them and help them stay as safe as possible

  • Minimizing the situation - justifying their substance use or downplaying its severity

  • Controlling - trying to set rules around their substance use that end up pushing them away even more

  • Enduring - doing nothing and simply hoping things will get better

Tony shares this example: "If a loved one with an addiction is spending all their money on drugs, and then you as a family member are paying all their bills, well, then they're going to continue to spend all their money on drugs because they don't have to worry about their bills.” In this instance, the family isn’t taking an objective view of what’s going on with their loved one. They want so badly to protect their family member from consequences (such as getting evicted) that they cover for them. In reality, it’s only encouraging the family member to continue using the substance.

Emotions that Fuel Enabling Behaviors 

Even if the family knows their actions are wrong, sometimes certain emotions lead them to continue the destructive behavior. Tony shared three notable emotions that can blind family members from how harmful they’re being:

Guilt - “They have been impacted by their loved one's addiction and they've tried all kinds of things. They've taken all kinds of steps to either control it, fix it, or help their loved one out of their problem. All those efforts usually fail, so they end up feeling guilty about it.”

Shame - “Even though it's gotten better in the past decade or so, there's still a lot of shame and stigma around addiction. So families often don't feel that they have anywhere to go where they can just talk about this freely because of that shame. I found that to be especially true in parents with adult children who were addicted. There was often a theme or a question of, did they do something wrong? Did they miss something? Could they have intervened earlier? Why didn't they see it before? Those types of questions really haunt people.”

Fear - “They know what they're doing is not a good idea. People really get trapped in this, and it's a very difficult place to be. It's kind of ‘I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.’ I’ve heard that a lot from people. That's your loss of control when you find yourself doing things that are against your own principles, values, and out of desperation or fear.”

Recognizing how and why you are allowing your family member to skate by without consequences is an important step to discontinuing enabling behaviors.

Support for Families

Tara’s core values are honesty, trust, hard work, and commitment. However, these don’t solely apply to Tara's clients; they also are applicable to the healing journey family members experience. The best thing a family can do for their loved one is to start a recovery process themselves. Families are wounded and hurt by the actions of their loved ones, and they need support as much as the person with the addiction. 

When the future seems bleak, and you’ve tried everything you can think of to support your family member and failed, know you’re not alone. Hope is not lost. Addiction is a disease that impacts the entire family, and we’re here to support your journey to recovery in addition to your loved one. 

Tara has a rich history of treating individuals and their families. Our program is designed to address the challenges of family dynamics. We provide opportunities, either virtually or in person, for clients to connect with their loved ones and begin to heal relationships. Because we greatly value the role of families in treatment, we are currently revamping our family program and making improvements.


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