When Helping Hurts – Enabling the Addiction of Your Child

enabling addiction - when does it endWhen I was a beginning therapist and working in community mental health, I witnessed an example of what happens when families fall victim to enabling the addiction of their children. One of our services to the community was to help complete the paperwork for involuntarily hospitalization for a loved one’s treatment. Two families came in on a day when I was on call to provide this service. The first were the parents of a 30-something year-old man. Their child was addicted to drugs and behaving in a very dangerous way. As we reviewed their history, the parents informed me that they had been fighting this addictive cycle for over 20 years. Later that afternoon, another couple came in. Their 19 year-old daughter was also abusing drugs and putting herself in serious danger. This teen had just totaled her second car and the father was lamenting the cost to buy her another car.

“Do you really have to do that?” I said.

“B-but, how will she get to work?” The parents were dumbfounded.

“Let her figure it out. Do you still have her childhood bike? She can ride her bike. If you continue to bail her out, how will she ever understand the cost of her choices? Without experiencing some pain and discomfort, what is her motive to change?” I briefly told them about my earlier clients and said, “I’m afraid if you don’t stop now, you could be back here in another 20 years asking for help.” I gave them their papers and off they went. I have no idea if they listened to my advice.

One of the hardest lessons for parents and children is that parents can’t always fix things. An even harder lesson is that sometimes parents shouldn’t fix things. Especially when your child becomes addicted. It’s even worse when they become young adults – recognized as legal adults by the system but far from having the maturity to make healthy choices.

Parents naturally want to help a child who is in trouble. At some point, however, that behavior ceases to help and becomes the reason the child stays stuck in a destructive cycle. This is known as enabling the problem. The first time you help your child out, it makes sense and I bet your logic went something like this: “He made a big mistake. I’m sure it won’t happen again.” Or “I’ll (pay the fine/replace the car/ask for second chance on his behalf) and we’ll put this behind us.” The next time, you think, “OK, he’s really learned now. This won’t happen again.” But a habit is starting to take hold. At some point in the near future, not only won’t you think twice about helping, you may begin to feel like you have to run to the rescue. Now, you’re caught in the trap of codependency.

Signs of Enabling the Addiction

1. Making Excuses

You can blame genetics, other mental health issues, or life’s problems for their behavior. Some of these may be factors in why they started using, but it does not excuse your child from being responsible for their choices. Covering up the addiction and covering for them encourages their denial that they actually have a problem. I have often had to tell a loved one that not talking about a family member’s addiction is not protecting their loved one, it is protecting the problem.

2. Minimizing the Effects of Their Addiction

In an effort to put the current crisis behind you, sometimes you minimize the problems the addiction creates. An example is the parent who doles out money without ever adding up the overall spending they are doing. Or brushing off the strain the addiction is putting on the family or making jokes about it (often at their own or the addicted child’s expense).

3.  Financially Enabling the Addiction

Parents spend good money after bad, denying they are supporting a bad habit. I know a father who continues to pay for his son’s spending addiction. “I bet I have to give him $500 – 1000 a month to help pay their bills,” he cries, “I wish he had a better job.” This client  refuses to accept it is not a low-paying job that’s the problem; it’s where the money from that job goes. Which brings up another way we enable:

4. Becoming “Hooked” Yourself

When we get caught in this cycle, we sometimes lose sight of how or why we started, what our goal was, and, worst of all, who we were when the problems started. Sometimes you can become so identified with your role as rescuer, you become dependent on it for your sense of self. This is another sign of codependency

Do any of these signs sound familiar? In a future blog, we will discuss how to break this cycle. But you may need to get some help. Contact a support group like Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous or reach out to a therapist for help and support.