When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

Coping with mental illness, substance abuse, and the problems that tear families apart

When Helping Your Child Becomes Enabling

(And how to know the difference)

When your child was born, you likely vowed that you'd do anything to keep him safe—even give up your own life. It's a parent's duty to protect her child, but that duty changes and evolves as your child grows. It would be unreasonable, for example, not to make dinner for a three-year-old, but you're under no obligation to provide meals to a 30-year-old adult. A parent's deeply ingrained protective instincts can work against her when a child suffers from mental illness or substance abuse problems, and helping can easily cross the line into enabling. There's no one-shot test to determine whether you're enabling your child, adding shades of gray to an already complicated relationship. But by becoming more mindful of your own behavior, you can slowly begin to discern the difference between helping and enabling.

What is Enabling?

Enabling is any behavior that makes it easier for your child to continue down a destructive path. Troubled children sometimes manipulate their parents' emotions in a way that makes it easier for them to continue to spiral downward. Ultimately, enabling makes life worse for your child and for you, while helping offers the promise of real change and mutual respect.

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For example, giving a child who struggles with addiction additional money could help her buy drugs and, therefore, reinforce her addiction. Conversely, refusing to give money could help your child hit bottom more quickly, encouraging her to seek help. Of course, there's a fine line here. One of the best ways to make this distinction is to evaluate how you feel after taking a particular action. Do you feel used and taken advantage of? Are you frustrated and angered by your child's behavior? Are you doing something out of obligation and emotion rather than because you've carefully thought through your course of action? If so, you're probably enabling your child.

Am I Obligated to Help My Child?

Whether parents are obligated to help their adult children is a challenging and loaded philosophical question. It's not necessarily wrong to say no to your child, and saying yes all the time is almost inevitably the wrong strategy. Instead, the key is to strike a balance between protecting your child and ensuring your own basic needs are met. Whether or not you should help your child varies from situation to situation, and every family has to establish its own philosophy about helping. But when you evaluate whether to help your child, consider some of the following:

• Does your child pose a danger to you? If helping your child puts you in danger, you're under no obligation to do so.

• Does your child threaten or manipulate you to get help? If so, he's trying to get you to enable him, not help him.

• Do you feel like your emotional well-being hinges upon your child's behavior? If you do, then you're much more vulnerable to manipulation strategies.

• Has your child made an effort to maintain a healthy relationship with you? If your child only sees you as a means to an end, you don't have to help.

• Is it possible that helping your child will harm someone else? For example, helping your child keep custody of her kids could put the children in danger if your child is an unfit parent, and you don't have to—and shouldn't—help in this situation.

How to Tell the Difference

Sadly, the line between enabling and helping is a blurry one, and parent/child relationships are often complicated and highly emotional. It can often be difficult to logically examine your child's behaviors and your responses to these behaviors. The key is to look at the big picture of your relationship with your child. Evaluate the progress he's making toward a better life and consider whether your actions are helping or hindering. Asking yourself some of the following questions can help:

• Do I feel manipulated?

• Am I helping because I want to or because I feel I have no choice?

• If my child takes advantage of my help, will it harm her? For example, if your child misuses money you give her, consider whether doing so will make her life worse.

• Do I feel comfortable placing conditions on the help?

• Is my child taking steps toward getting better? Paying for rehab is a much different undertaking than paying for your child to get a drug fix or avoid being evicted.

• Does my child do better or worse after I offer help?

• Am I offering help because I think it will cure my child? While you can provide an environment that encourages success, you can't force your child to get better until he's ready.

• Are there arguments in my family about the help I am offering? If helping your child is causing problems in your relationship with others, you could be enabling your child at the expense of your own emotional well-being.

• Do you find yourself ignoring or tolerating violent or otherwise unacceptable behavior? Your child should not get special rules just because she struggles with mental illness or addiction.

• Do you lie for your child?

Every parent who struggles with a troubled child makes a few mistakes along the way, so there's no need to beat yourself up if you find you're engaged in enabling behavior. Instead, focus on learning from the past and consistently working toward a healthier, more balanced relationship with your child.

References:

Enabling. (n.d.). Nar-Anon Family Groups. Retrieved from http://www.naranoncalifornia.org/norcal/literature.htm

Helping vs. enabling. (n.d.). The Hills Center. Retrieved from http://www.thehillscenter.com/family/helping-vs-enabling/

Khaleghi, K. (2012, July 11). Are you empowering or enabling? Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-anatomy-addiction/201207/...

Dr. Young is a psychiatrist practicing north of Detroit, specializing in the treatment of adolescent, adult, and geriatric mental illness.

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