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When Does Helping Become Enabling?

enablingA parent’s duty is to protect and care for their child, and over the years, the definitions of “protection” and “care” change.[1] Deeply engrained in a parent’s mind are the natural instincts to do so; therefore, when a child suffers a mental illness or substance abuse problem, the line between helping and enabling can be easily crossed.1 Instead of benefiting the child, as the parent’s intentions are to do so, enabling makes it easier for the child to continue down the destructive path.1

Enabling is giving someone the means to do something, and in the case of mental illness and substance abuse, it is giving the person the means to continue their unhealthy habits.1 Children who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse problems are able to manipulate their parent’s emotions in order to allow them to continue this downward spiral, which, at first they do not notice is destructive.1 Enabling helps to worsen the life of your child, while helping, on the other hand, offers promise of change.1

For example, a parent who gives their child who struggles with addiction additional funds, only helps that child buy drugs, reinforcing the addiction.1 It is extremely difficult to see your child spiral out of control; however, refusing to give them money helps them to hit rock bottom sooner, which is devastating, yet it encourages them to also seek help sooner.1 It is painful, but it is love.

Whether or not parents are obligated to help their adult children is a difficult question to answer.1 It isn’t wrong to say “no” to your child, as saying “yes” all of the time is definitely the wrong way to go.1 The key is to find a balance between protecting and caring for your child and assuring that your own basic needs are met.1 You are unable to protect and care for another if you are unable to protect and care for yourself first.

While wondering whether or not you should help your child, consider the following:1

  • Does your child pose a danger to you? If helping your child does so, you have no obligation to help.
  • Does your child threaten or manipulate you to help them? If so, you are being tricked into enabling, not helping.
  • Does your emotional wellbeing depend upon your child’s behavior? If so, you are much more vulnerable to their manipulation strategies.
  • Does your child make an effort to maintain a healthy relationship with you? If your child simply sees you as a means to an end, you are not obligated to help them.
  • Is helping your child putting someone else in harm’s way? If so, do not help in these situations.

The line between helping and enabling is extremely blurry, as parent/child relationships are complicated and highly emotional.1 The key is to look at the big picture, and evaluate the progress your child is making towards a better life.1 This makes it easier to understand whether your actions are helping or hindering.1 Now, ask yourself the following questions:1

  • Do I feel manipulated?
  • Am I helping because I want to , or do I feel I have no choice?
  • If my child takes advantage of my help, will it ultimately harm her?
  • Is my child taking steps towards bettering himself/herself?
  • Does my child do better or worse after I help?
  • Do I offer help because I think it will cure my child?
  • Does my family not support the help I offer?
  • Am I ignoring or tolerating violent and other unacceptable behavior?

Every parent makes mistakes. There is no reason to beat yourself up for engaging in enabling behavior.1 However, once you notice you are doing so, stop and work towards simply helping in a healthy way.1 Learn from the past and work towards a more balanced relationship with your child.1

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