Sometimes, trying to help a family member who is addicted to alcohol or drugs actually winds up doing the opposite.
If someone who means the world to you – such as your child, partner, parent, or friend – is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, you may feel you’ll do anything to help them. And that can be useful if you’re doing things like looking for a recovery program, or caring for their children or pets when they can’t.
But other behaviors that may feel helpful, such as giving them money or making excuses for them when they miss work or school, can actually make the situation worse by keeping them from hitting rock bottom and seeking help, says Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, an addiction counselor in Bolingbrook, IL.
“Enabling is an act in which one’s behavior, though generally well-intended, further contributes to their addiction to alcohol or drugs,” Glowiak says.
Often the family member or friend doesn’t realize they are enabling. “They believe they are helping their loved one meet basic needs,” Glowiak says, “ but rather, they are providing a means by which a loved one may continue using.”
Put simply, anything you do that allows the addicted person to keep using alcohol or other drugs without consequences is enabling.
While it’s important to recognize that some of your behaviors may be enabling, keep in mind that your enabling isn’t the cause of your loved one’s addiction, says Aaron Sternlicht, LMCH, an addiction counselor and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York.
“Family, especially parents of addicted children, have a tendency to blame themselves for their loved one’s addiction,” Sternlicht says. “No one is to blame, and the focus should be on providing an environment that encourages recovery.”
What Enabling Looks Like
Some typical ways that you may unintentionally enable a loved one’s addiction include:
- Letting them live in your home rent-free, without making any meaningful contributions or doing housework
- Paying for their expenses while they remain unemployed or spend their money on frivolous items
- Giving them money to buying alcohol or drugs, out of fear that they’ll resort to illegal or dangerous means of getting money if you don’t; or in some cases, even getting the drugs or alcohol for them
- Bailing them out of jail, or paying for their fines or legal fees
- Making excuses for their addiction or blaming others for their behavior, such as, “His new boss has really been hard on him,” or “She took the stress of the pandemic really badly.”
- Denying to others that there is a problem
- Putting your own life on hold or neglecting your own self-care to focus your time and attention on the addict
Why It’s So Easy to Slip Into Enabling
Love for a child, partner, sibling, or close friend is a powerful emotion, which is why enabling behavior is an easy trap to fall into, says Deena Manion, PsyD, LCSW, chief clinical officer at Westwind Recovery in Los Angeles.
“Our loved ones are our loved ones, so it is very personal,” she says.
When someone becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, they start behaving in ways that are completely different from how you knew them before. That’s the addiction taking charge, Manion says.
“Your reaction may be to try to gain control, to get them back to ‘normal,’” she says. “But when you try to control someone who has a substance abuse problem, it becomes a power struggle, and the enabler tends to lose that battle.”
Family members often enable because it puts their mind at ease. But it backfires.
“A parent might allow their addicted child to live with them because they will at least know where they are and that they’re safe,” Sternlicht says. “But that comes at the expense of their addicted child being financially supported, where they might otherwise hit a bottom if they do not have a place to live.” They may need to reach that low before they will agree to seek help.
How to Tell if You’re Enabling Someone’s Addiction
The first and most important question you need to ask yourself, Manion says, is this: “Am I enabling my loved one to continue to use drugs and alcohol, or am I enabling them to get help and support?”
Other signs you may be unintentionally enabling your family member or friend include:
- Your primary focus is on the person struggling with addiction.
- You spend too much money on the addicted person, even maxing out credit cards or mortgaging your home.
- You feel helpless about the situation.
- You become isolated from other friends and family members.
- You put your own goals on hold while you help the addicted person.
- You don’t keep up with your own health needs.
Detach, Out of Love
Once you recognize that some of your attempts to help your loved one are enabling them to keep using, consider taking these steps:
Learn about addiction. Have you read about the science and behavior of addiction? “It’s so important to educate yourself about substance abuse and how the behaviors change in a person when they're using,” Manion says. “It is very common for the user to become very manipulative, to lie, and to make you feel guilty,” she says. “They present themselves as the victim, and if they don't get what they want, they start blaming and pulling at the heartstrings.” Resources include the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Partnership to End Addiction, and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).
Connect with a counselor. Look for one who is trained to work with family members dealing with addiction. “They can help you come up with a game plan so that when you are put in a position where your loved one is trying to get something from you, you know what to say,” Manion says. “For example, you can say, ‘Of course, I would never want you to go hungry and I want you to be safe. But as long as you're using substances, you're putting yourself in dangerous situations. If you are willing to let us help you to stop using substances, I will support you.’”
Set clear boundaries and stick with them. Make it clear to the person with an addiction that you are eager to help them find treatment and get sober or clean, but you have firm boundaries that you will not cross. For instance, you won’t give them money, lie for them, or let them bring risky friends in the house. “These boundaries must be unwavering,” Glowiak says. “If they’re not unwavering, your loved one will learn that there is a breaking point when you will ultimately give in to what they want.” He suggests you work together with other family members and friends to stay committed to these boundaries.
Join a support group. Consider joining a local or online support group through Al-Anon or Nar-anon, (both groups identify as nonreligious, yet spiritual). “Members may share stories and resources while holding one another accountable and providing support,” Glowiak says.
Hard, but Necessary
Detaching from your loved one may be one of the toughest things you’ll ever do, but it is a necessary step.
“By recognizing and letting go of enabling behavior, you help the family member struggling with addiction to have fewer means of acquiring the substance. Without shelter, food, steady income, and otherwise, the individual must choose between meeting survival needs or continuing this cycle of behavior. Here, rock bottom may be hit faster,” Glowiak says. “Though this sounds scary, and truly is, it is oftentimes the wake-up call one needs to begin the recovery process.”