Parents always want what’s best for their kids. It starts the moment they’re born, if not before. Most parents see their child for the first time and think something along lines of “Well, I know what I’m doing for the next eighteen years.” Parents of grown children chuckle at this sentiment: they know the parenting never stops. Whether their kids are twenty-two or forty-two, their first impulse is to help them, support them, and make life easier for them in any way they can. They’ll never forget the early years, and part of them never sees their adult children as anyone but that little girl or little guy in diapers, toddling around the house, tasting everything not nailed down, trying to eat most of it, and throwing the rest behind the couch.
In those early years, your job as a parent is clear: you hug them, kiss them, feed them, coo at them, and make up silly nursery rhymes you hope no one else hears. You bounce them on your knee and push the pram around the block and watch them marvel at the world. You put a roof over their head and clothes on their back. You teach them the basics of life, from practical skills to people skills. You teach them how to tie their shoes, how to say please and thank you, and how to determine right from wrong. When they reach school age, you teach them how to make friends, stand up to bullies, and how to be good students. You do all that because you know it’s your duty. You feel it deep in your bones. You’re supposed to shield them from harm, teach them how to navigate all the new experiences they encounter, and help them have more good days than bad days.
Then, around the time they hit middle school – it’s different for every kid – the people who pretend to know the most about parenting start telling you to back off. It’s time to let your kid experience failure. The days of helicoptering around the climbing structures at the playground are long gone. If they leave their homework on the kitchen table when they bolt out the door to get the bus, you’re not supposed to drive it over to the school. When they have trouble getting the spacing on their science project display just right, you’re supposed to let them figure it out. You’re free to offer suggestions, but you’re absolutely forbidden from doing it yourself.
They’ll never learn anything if you do everything.
Perfectly sound logic – and good advice – but every parent knows it’s hard to let go.
When Help Becomes Harm
As difficult as it is, letting go is something you have to do. When your default mode is to shield your child from every possible disappointment, failure, or negative experience in life, you set them up for failure. You block their opportunities to develop resiliency, overcome adversity, and take the good with the bad – because you never let them face real obstacles or give them the space to feel negative emotions. When helping crosses the threshold from positive to negative – when help becomes harm – those helping behaviors take on a new definition: they’re called enabling.
It’s tricky to identify the moment when your instinct to support your child has the opposite effect than you intend. When they’re little, the consequences don’t seem to dire: you intervene before they fall off the edge of the slide – no big deal. You kept them from getting an ugly bruise or maybe breaking a bone. You bring their violin to school when they forget it – also no big deal. You kept them from getting a zero that day in orchestra class.
When they become teenagers, though, the choices they make affect the course of their lives. That makes letting go twice as hard, but it also makes it twice as necessary – especially when it comes to things like experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and problem behaviors. Almost every teen makes questionable choices, and a 2015 survey on adolescent alcohol use shows these questionable choices often involve alcohol or drugs:
- 1/5th report binge drinking at least once in the past month.
- 1/3rd report drinking alcohol at least once in the past month.
- About 1/10th of high school students admit to drinking and driving at least once in the past month.
- 1/5th admit to riding in a car with someone who’s been drinking at least once in the past month.
Shielding your teenager from the consequences of decisions like these does not help them – actually it does, but it helps them in the wrong direction. You’re no longer keeping them from bumps and bruises or bad grades in school: you’re helping them make bad decisions. That’s when your impulse to help meets the clinical criteria used by mental health professionals to describe enabling. That’s when you cross the line and become an enabler. An enabler is:
One who allows another to persist in self-destructive behavior by helping that individual avoid the consequences of that behavior.
Let’s cut to the chase: you don’t want to be an enabler.
Parents: Signs of Enabling Behavior
Here are the classic signs of enabling, with specific regard to parents, teens, and drug/alcohol use:
- You refuse to believe your teen has a problem.
- You consciously ignore obvious warning signs.
- You cover up the problems to avoid personal shame and embarrassment.
- You allow the problem teen to dominate family life, to the detriment of yourself, your spouse, and your other children.
- You blame any bad behavior on the negative influence of peers.
- You don’t follow through on reasonable consequences for unacceptable behavior.
- You give them a thousand second chances. Hint: by definition, there’s only ever one second chance. After that it’s you, caving.
- You avoid confronting your teen about alcohol or drugs because you’re afraid of conflict.
- You think a quick talk and a simple solution will solve everything – then you go back to pretending everything is okay.
If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, then it’s time to take a hard look at what you’re doing and how it may be harming your teen. If you’re unsure whether your particular version of these behaviors constitutes enabling, take the following quiz, adapted from a free resource provided by The Center for Parenting Education:
The Quiz: Am I An Enabler?
- Have you ever called in sick for your teen – to school or work – even though you know they could have made it?
- Do you make irrational excuses for your teenager’s behavior?
- Do you lie to family and friends to cover up for your teen’s behavior?
- Have you incurred legal fees – or car repair fees, etc. – as a result of your teenager’s actions?
- Do you blame yourself for their behavior, as a way to avoid placing responsibility on them?
- Do you tiptoe around the issue with your teen because you’re afraid of how they might respond?
- Do you search for ways to justify their negative behavior – ways that don’t include admitting they have a drug or alcohol problem?
- Have you given them more than one second chance to change problem behaviors?
- Have you finished school projects for them, which they failed to complete for themselves?
- Have you set consequences for problem behaviors, but failed to follow through on them?
If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, then it’s likely you’ve fallen into the role – at least partially – of enabler. That means your instinct to protect your child, which was completely appropriate when they were younger, no longer serves the purpose you think it does: rather than protect them, it helps them continue self-destructive, life-interrupting behaviors. We’ll go out on a limb and assume you don’t want that for your child.
Let’s say you take the quiz, face some hard facts, and realize you may be enabling your child. What can you do about it?
How to Stop Enabling Your Teenager
One of the first things that will help is to step back and examine your family as a whole. Determine if it’s just you – which is unlikely – or if the entire family participates in enabling your teen’s behavior. This is important whether you have a traditional nuclear family or a non-traditional family, because if you’re going to make changes in the way your family works, then everyone needs to know what’s coming, and everyone needs to be on board.
Here’s a list of steps you can take – adapted from this article in Psychology Today – to change your behavior so you can help, rather than harm, your teen:
- Get everyone in the family on board. Yup: we just said that. It’s worth repeating, because family involvement in behavioral change can make all the difference.
- Educate yourself about addiction and recovery.
- Get professional help for your child if they have a real problem.
- Get professional help for yourself if you feel overwhelmed by the changes you need to make.
- Get community support for yourself. You may not know this, but there are 12-Step groups designed for the family members of people struggling with alcohol or substance use disorders. Groups like Al-Anon, Parents Anonymous, and Nar-Anon are there for you.
- Prepare yourself for the fact that the road to recovery – for you as an enabler and your child as someone struggling with addiction – is filled with challenges. Expect to take one step forward and two steps back. Make peace with that ahead of time.
- Be patient with yourself and your teenager. The patterns you’re trying to change didn’t blink into existence overnight, and they probably won’t blink out of existence overnight, either.
- Take care of your other kids, if you have them. Don’t let your problem teen dominate family life.
- Believe their actions rather than their words. Teach them actions are what matter at this point, not promises.
There’s another thing to consider when you change the family dynamic: your teenager will probably be angry at you and resist the changes you want to make. Which makes sense, because up to this moment they haven’t been held accountable for their actions. Take the time to explain you’re changing in order to help them change. Explain you believe you’ve been helping them make questionable choices, and even taught them it’s okay to continue with their problem behaviors. They may refuse to believe you. They may look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
In that case, we have an idea that may work: sit them down and have them take the same quiz you just took, reworded to make it hard for them not so see the situation as it is:
The Quiz: Is My Parent Enabling My Problem Behavior?
[Note: for non-traditional families, insert the appropriate title, such as grandma, uncle, or primary caregiver, in place of word parent]
- Has your parent ever called in sick for you – to school or work – even though you know you could have made it?
- Have your parents ever made irrational excuses for your behavior?
- Do your parents ever lie to family and friends to cover up for your behavior?
- Have your parents paid legal fees – or car repair fees, etc. – as a result of your actions?
- Do your parents blame themselves for things you do? Do they say things like “It’s my fault for not being here more”?
- Do your parents avoid talking about your problem behaviors because they’re afraid of how you may respond?
- Do your parents believe it when you lie to them, even when you know they know you’re lying?
- Have your parents given you more than one second chance to change your problem behaviors?
- Have your parents finished school projects for you, which you were supposed to finish yourself?
- Have your parent set consequences for your problem behaviors, but failed to follow through on them? In other words, do they let you get away with just about anything, no matter what you do?
Have your teenager read and answer the questions out loud. They may answer “no” when you know the answer is “yes.” When that happens, give concrete, irrefutable examples to counter their misconceptions. They may not know you told grandma they were sick when you knew they were hungover. They may not remember how many second chances you’ve given them, how many times you let them off the hook without consequences, or exactly how much it cost to replace your front left fender (and your mailbox) when they had that little incident in the driveway last summer.
We’re not saying the process of taking this quiz and addressing the answers will be easy. What we’re saying is that it’s necessary, particularly if you think you’ve allowed these patterns to develop and persist in your home. In that case, changing these patterns becomes essential, and you can use this quiz as a tool to get everyone in the family – including your problem teen – on the same page. Once that happens, you can move forward and work to restore balance and harmony to your home.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.