What is enabling?

Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine

In the true sense of the word, to enable is to supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity to be or do something -- to make feasible or possible.

In its true form, then, enabling behavior means something positive. It's our natural instinct to reach out and help someone we love when they are down or having problems.

However, when we apply it to certain problems in living - addiction, chronic financial trouble, codependency, certain forms of chronic depression -- enabling behaviors have the reverse effect of what is intended.

Here are some examples...

  • Repeatedly bailing them out - of jail, financial problems, other "tight spots" they get themselves into
  • Giving them "one more chance" - ...then another...and another
  • Ignoring the problem - because they get defensive when you bring it up or your hope that it will magically go away
  • Joining them in the behavior when you know they have a problem with it - Drinking, gambling, etc.
  • Joining them in blaming others - for their own feelings, problems, and misfortunes
  • Accepting their justifications, excuses and rationalizations - "I'm destroying myself with alcohol because I'm depressed".
  • Avoiding problems - keeping the peace, believing a lack of conflict will help
  • Doing for them what they should be able to do for themselves -
  • Softening or removing the natural consequences of the problem behavior
  • Trying to "fix" them or their problem
  • Repeatedly coming to the "Rescue"
  • Trying to control them or their problem
Sheila Dunnells
Addiction Medicine
If you observe adolescents, the kids who use drugs stick together. They do not hang around "straight edge" kids. Why? They want to be enabled. They don't want someone calling them on their behavior; pointing out that they just consumed their eighth beer or smoked their second bag of pot in less than 24 hours.

They hang with their own. Kids who are using as much as they are or more. If they run short, someone will get them a fresh supply; they lend each other money to purchase; they will hide drugs for each other; and, they will lie with a straight face to any parent, teacher or policeperson who is questioning their behavior. In teen-speak, they "have each other's back."

Often parents suspect their child is using but refuse to admit it. There was a student in a local HS. Everyone knew he was coming to school high but his parents always had a ready exuse. One day, he fell right out of his chair and onto the floor, out cold. The EMS arrived, took him to the hospital, which released him 24 hours later. His parents told the school that their son had an adverse reaction to cold medication. That's enabling.
Kathy Sowder
Kathy Sowder on behalf of MDLIVE
Enabling is usually thought of as the behaviors the loved ones of an alcoholic or addict use in response to the addict`s behavior meant to protect him, but resulting in aiding the addict to stay in denial and keep using. Examples of enabling behavior include bailing him out of jail, loaning him money, covering for or lying about his whereabouts, and riding with him drunk or high. Usually enabling is done with good intentions or out of not knowing any better, but if these behavior are done repeatedly after the loved one is educated about addiction, they may be compulsive and the enabling person may not be able to stop without help. The enabler may use the same defenses as the addict does for using, including denial, justification, rationalizing, and blaming. This is why often the loved ones of the addict are called codependents; their life becomes as focused on the addict at the addict`s life is focused on the drugs/alcohol. There are twelve step Alanon groups, individual therapy, and treatment program groups available to help the enabler change their behavior and put the focus back .on taking care of themselves
George Joseph
Addiction Medicine
When you begin to make excuses or minimize the person’s use, it prolongs the problem. This is a way for the addicted person to continue using – getting what they want. In order for the person to realize the hazards of drug and alcohol abuse, negative consequences may have to be a part of that equation. You feel you’re protecting them, but actually, you are endangering them.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.