Adults, especially parents, often act as enablers for an adolescent’s substance abuse. Although they mean well, adults close to adolescents who engage in self-destructive behaviors often have trouble understanding where supporting ends and enabling begins. As the professional, you have the ability to see the situation with clearer eyes. You can help parents and caregivers walk this fine line in a more productive way, so they are no longer contributing to their child’s substance abuse.
Supporting vs. Enabling
Parents of adolescents who abuse substances don’t always know how to handle their child’s behavior. Their emotional ties can cloud their decision-making skills and leave them questioning what the right approach is. You can help parents understand where supporting ends and enabling begins. Generally, parents who are supporting their children help their child with things they are not yet capable of doing on their own. On the other hand, parents who are enabling their child’s bad behaviors do so by shielding their child from negative consequences. Enabling sends their child the message that their behavior is okay.
Parents who are enablers promote their child’s bad behaviors in many different ways. They may make excuses for their child’s behavior, have trouble enforcing rules, or even take it upon themselves to solve their child’s problem for them. While they may think they’re doing the right thing and helping their child, they are actually strengthening the bad behaviors and holding their child back because their child is never left to deal with the consequences of their actions. This typically leads to dependence and is very unhealthy for all involved.
Problem vs. Solution
As a professional, you can help parents learn to stop enabling their child by helping them understand the reason for the substance abuse. Instead of looking at the abuse of substances as the problem, you can explain to them that the adolescent used substances to help them cope with the problems they were experiencing. Each time the parents engage in enabling behavior, they’re reinforcing the bad behavior and sending the message that the child’s only problem is their substance abuse. By helping parents reframe how they see their child’s addiction, they can take steps to stop the enabling of their child’s behavior and instead support their child’s journey of recovering from the root problem.
For example, a parent who routinely makes excuses for their child’s substance abuse is focusing on substances as the problem. If they can shift to looking at substances as their child’s solution, they will be better able to support their child as they process the deep emotions that go along with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other issues. Helping parents retrain their mindset from enabling to supporting is a great way to create lasting healthy change in the adolescent’s recovery.
Wants vs. Needs
Adolescents whose parents act as enablers often give their child what they want when they want it. However, adolescents whose parents act as supporters usually give their child what they need when they need it. This is a key difference that can be very helpful to pass along to the parents of the adolescent who engages in substance abuse. You can help parents stand on the right side of the supporting and enabling line by helping them understand the importance of boundaries.
Boundaries are set by parents who act as supporters, not enablers, because boundaries ensure that the adolescent gets what they need instead of what they want. When their child returns home from treatment, it’s common for them to test limits and see if they can get what they want without any serious consequences. This is where the parents must hold their ground. Enablers usually give in if their buttons are pushed, but supporters will stand their ground and enforce the healthy boundaries that are necessary for their child’s sobriety.
If their child crosses a boundary, supportive parents will hand down the consequences for their child’s actions. Enablers, on the other hand, make excuses and have trouble enforcing the consequences. As the professional, you can help parents decide what the necessary boundaries are for their child in recovery and help them determine what consequences are appropriate for when the child crosses a boundary.
Nobody Is Perfect
Redirecting their child’s unhealthy behavior isn’t going to be an easy task for parents who are used to enabling that behavior. Parents aren’t going to be the only ones who have trouble with this — the adolescent will probably be very surprised when their parents set limits and don’t waver in difficult situations. The adolescent will try to find a way to get what they want and will be uncomfortable when they are met with firm consequences.
It’s important to remind the family that they shouldn’t be striving for perfection. Encourage the parents to stand tall and firm, reminding them that their child will benefit from supportive behavior in the long run, even if they are upset with it now. Their child will learn to make the right decisions with a little bit of trial and error. They, too, will thrive with the right balance of supportive behavior.
Recovery is a learning process for both the adolescent and their parents. Sustain Recovery is here to help everyone, including you as their professional, through this process. By helping them understand how they can stop enabling their children, parents will be able to act as supporters and facilitate a healthy and positive recovery. Let’s work together to help your clients and their families heal from substance abuse and addiction. To learn more, call Sustain Recovery today at (949) 407-9052.