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Are You Helping or Enabling?

When a loved one has a substance use disorder, it is natural for families to want to fix the problem. While their intentions are typically good, family members who don’t know the difference between helping and enabling may end up contributing to the addiction. However, there are several steps families can take to stop enabling and start helping.

Loved ones often enable addicts because they do not know the best way to help. Family members may condition themselves to think that they can control the addiction to minimize the risks. This results in a dysfunctional dynamic where families support the drug user’s dangerous lifestyle.

What Is Enabling?

Enabling occurs when the friends and family of a substance user support the addiction through their thoughts or behaviors. People who enable act as a cushion for addicts, preventing them from facing the consequences of their substance abuse.

When family members enable their loved one’s addiction, they lose respect for themselves, and the substance user loses respect for them. Ignoring the problem or engaging in enabling behaviors makes us lose self-respect because we know we’re not doing the right thing.

Enabling not only creates a permissive attitude toward drug use, but also gives the addict no desire to seek treatment. Enabled addicts lose faith in themselves and do not respect loved ones who make it easier for them to continue using drugs.

Signs of Enabling Behaviors from Family

Loved ones may enable the addict because they feel responsible for causing the substance use disorder. They often blame themselves for the addiction and try to make up for it by sacrificing time, money and energy.

Family members make these sacrifices to reduce their loved one’s pain and suffering, but they often don’t realize they’re engaging in enabling behaviors that are barriers to recovery.

Enabling behaviors come in many forms. By recognizing and ceasing these unhealthy behaviors, families can focus on getting their loved one proper treatment.


Denial is one of the primary behaviors that families adopt when they learn that their loved one is addicted to drugs. They refuse to accept the reality that their family member has a substance use problem. They convince themselves that treatment isn’t necessary and the addict will know how to control their drug or alcohol use.


Justification and denial work hand in hand. Families often reject the problem, making up reasons to justify their loved one’s addiction. For example, a family member may feel that it is fine for a loved one to use alcohol or drugs to cope after a stressful day at work. Parents may also believe the substance use is only temporary and will stop after a change in lifestyle such as college graduation.

Allowing Substance Use

Family members may think that they are controlling the situation if they allow their loved one to use drugs at home. They may even consume drugs or alcohol with the addict to manage their intake level and to make sure they gravitate toward home when using instead of more dangerous locations.

Suppressing Feelings

Not expressing your concerns about addiction to a person you love gives them a reason to keep using. In some cases, substance users dismiss their families’ fears by reassuring them that they will not consume drugs or alcohol. When an addict dismisses these fears and concerns, it may encourage family members to keep their feelings to themselves.

Avoiding the Problem

By ignoring the problem and not confronting the substance user, family members may feel that they are keeping the peace in their home. Instead of getting their loved one proper treatment, the family focuses on keeping up appearances to look normal.

Protecting the Family’s Image

The stigma of substance use is ever present. People may be ashamed of their substance-using family member, leading them to portray the person in a falsely positive light to friends, co-workers and acquaintances.

Minimizing the Situation

People surrounding the addict may lighten the issue by convincing themselves that the substance user could be in worse situations. They treat the addiction as a phase that will improve on its own with time and patience.

Playing the Blame Game

Adopting negative attitudes toward substance users only pushes those struggling with addiction away. Blaming or punishing individuals for their substance use alienates them from their family, which may result in destructive behaviors.

Assuming Responsibilities

Family members may be inclined to take over the regular tasks and responsibilities of the addict in an effort to prevent their life from falling apart. Instead, assuming responsibilities and providing money to the substance user removes accountability and allows them to fully indulge in their addiction.

Controlling Behaviors

Exerting control on a substance user may worsen their addiction. Constantly treating the addict as an inferior or placing numerous restrictions on their lifestyle may drive them further from the family unit and closer to their substance-using peers.

Enabling Patterns in a School Setting

Schools and colleges have strict drug and alcohol policies. However, even faculty members can enable substance use among students.

Some signs of enabling behaviors at school include:

Faculty members may think that they are helping students by turning a blind eye on substance use, but they are only making the situation worse. Once teachers and peers learn to recognize and cease their enabling behaviors, they can encourage the substance user to seek appropriate treatment.

Coping with Enabling Behaviors

Addiction is a disease that affects not only substance abusers, but also their families. A dysfunctional family dynamic may contribute to a codependence between the addict and family members. Enabling a loved one allows their substance use disorder to flourish. People surrounding the addict need to set proper boundaries to make sure that the disease does not engulf them as well.

Patricia Postanowicz, a faculty member and addiction expert at Northcentral University’s School of Marriage and Family Sciences, understands the difficulties families face when living with someone suffering from a substance use disorder. On the university’s blog, she explains that the experience can be stressful and even traumatic for family members. Postanowicz says family members living with an addict are at risk for substance abuse because people may abuse drugs to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Recognizing Codependency

Codependency occurs when an individual cannot properly function without another person. Codependent people form and maintain one-sided relationships that can be abusive or emotionally destructive. Addiction occasionally causes codependency because it forces family members to adapt to the lifestyle of the addict.

Some signs of codependency include:

How to Help

Concerned family members can help a substance user by ceasing harmful behaviors. By identifying and changing their enabling behaviors, families can give their loved one a chance to recover from addiction. In addition, there are several steps families can take to improve an addict’s likelihood of attaining sobriety.

Attend Meetings

Support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon can provide the family with a platform to share their concerns. Through listening to other people’s experiences, the substance user’s family can learn to distance their emotions from the disease. Regularly attending these meetings will help the family cope with their situation and encourage them to seek the appropriate treatment for their loved one.

Set Boundaries

Addiction causes a ripple effect on the family and close friends of a substance user. Family members should set clear boundaries with the addict to minimize stress and prevent drug-seeking behaviors.

Stop Making Excuses

Making excuses for an addict encourages them to indulge in substance abuse. Some ways family members can make excuses for an addict include providing false reasons for missed work or events, financing their addiction and allowing the addiction to dictate the family’s plans. Even if it is difficult to say no to a loved one, remaining firm and refusing to enable their disease will help them recover faster.

Participate in Family Therapy

Even if only one person is using substances, addiction affects the whole family. The family may change its dynamic in a way that protects the addiction. Family therapy can be a great resource to address underlying issues. It can help addicts cope with their feelings stemming from addiction and teach them how to separate themselves from the disease.

Fully Commit to Treatment

Addiction treatment is a lifelong commitment for addicts and their families. If family members are not careful, they may trigger a relapse in the person in recovery. Families need to commit to attending therapy sessions with their loved one, where they will learn new and healthy ways to communicate and interact.

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