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 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.