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Substance abuse and addiction are serious problems in the U.S. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that while more than 23 million people needed treatment for a substance use disorder, only 2.5 million received treatment. These numbers suggest that many people are in denial about their substance abuse.
The reasons for denial are complex, but one common reason is enabling from family and friends. As a family member or friend of a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s natural to want to help them in any way possible. Unfortunately, sometimes the steps you take may actually be enabling their addiction rather than helping them.
It’s not easy to stop enabling your loved ones, especially if you didn’t realize you were doing it in the first place. Here are some quick, practical tips for moving away from enabling.
When you love someone, enabling their behavior is easy — even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. While some enabling behaviors are obvious, others are harder to recognize. Signs that you’re enabling your loved one and their substance use disorder can include:
If you start changing your schedule to pick up the kids because your loved one is still hungover from last night, or you’re completing your child’s schoolwork because they’re high, you’re enabling their addiction.
If you find yourself making excuses for why you’re loved one didn’t attend a family gathering, left an event early or spent all night throwing up, you’re enabling their addiction. While you may feel you’re protecting them, you’re preventing your loved one from taking responsibility for their behavior.
Maybe you avoid bringing up your child’s prescription pill abuse because you don’t want to cause drama at home. Or you avoid mentioning your concerns to your spouse about their cocaine use in hopes it’ll go away on its own. However, addiction profoundly impacts the brain, and it’s only a matter of time before your loved one’s behavior worsens. As difficult as it may be, the best thing you can do is to address their substance use and its effect on your relationship.
When you spend most of your time worrying about your loved one, catering to their needs or ensuring their responsibilities are taken care of instead of focusing on yourself, it’s a sign of enabling.
Substance abuse and addiction are expensive habits. Not only will your loved one need money to buy drugs, but they’ll also likely need money to pay for necessities like gas, rent or groceries.
Maybe you’ve bailed your child, spouse or loved one out of jail. Or you’ve lied to their boss about why they missed work for a week. Cleaning up after their messes only supports their addiction.
Enabling an addict is harmful to the addict and the person who is enabling their behaviors. This type of relationship between two people is damaging and does not encourage the addict to seek out treatment for their behaviors.
Enabling does not allow an addict to take responsibility for their actions or the consequences of their actions due to their addictive behaviors. An addict may be kept in their addictive behaviors longer if friends and family support their addiction through enabling.
Someone may not mean to enable an addict but is unsure how to help them stop their addictive behaviors. Enabling habits such as drinking with an alcoholic, denying there is a problem or covering up addictive behaviors continue to support an addict. Taking responsibility for an addict can be emotionally exhausting for someone or even become a financial liability if there are legal costs due to addictive behaviors.
Stopping the cycle of enabling can be difficult to break, but basic principles can help someone stop enabling an addict.
It is important to establish clear boundaries with someone who is an addict. By defining the behaviors you will and will not tolerate, you are not allowing the person engaging in addictive behaviors to break these boundaries. This can look like not allowing them to abuse substances when you are around or refusing to speak to them if they are under the influence of any substances.
Establishing a strong practice of saying no can help stop enabling behavior. Limiting the resources you give to an addict can help reduce enabling. Saying no to financial, emotional or physical resources is a great way to embrace the power of no.
Enabling can often look like making excuses for an addict or covering for their behaviors. Stopping these practices forces the addict to take responsibility for the addictive behaviors or consequences of their actions.
Having an addict in your life can be mentally and emotionally exhausting over time. Establishing a good self-care practice can help increase your capacity to practice good boundaries and less enabling behaviors.
If you are struggling with enabling behaviors, it can be helpful to seek professional help. A licensed professional can help establish a plan for you to stop enabling the addict in your life.
Just because you’ve enabled your loved one’s addiction does not mean you can’t get them some help. In fact, the best thing you can do is encourage them to seek treatment for their addiction. It’s not an easy conversation, especially with someone so close to you, which is why the team at The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is here to help. We offer a variety of treatment programs, including medical detox, outpatient drug treatment programs, partial hospitalization and family programs. If you’re ready to stop being an enabler and help your loved one overcome their addiction, contact us today.
Changing Enabling Behaviors. (2003). Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/addiction/berman/family/changing.html
Enabling Behaviors. (2003). Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/addiction/berman/family/enabling.html
Written by: Christina Bockisch
Christina is a blogger based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She writes about mental health, fitness, and life as a whole on her blog,My Life in Wonderland. Follow her on Twitter.
University of Pennsylvania Health System. “Changing Enabling Behaviors.“>Changing[…]ng Behaviors.” 2003. Accessed August 13, 2023.
University of Pennsylvania Health System. “Enabling Behaviors.“>Enabling Behaviors.” 2003. Accessed August 13, 2023.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.
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