Trying to Help Does not Make you an Enabler!

March 8, 2016

There are many ideas about substance use problems that are meant to help people understand things better but often have the unintended consequence of making people feel worse about themselves and more confused. The concept of “enabling” is most definitely in this camp. In the newly revised edition of the 20 Minute Guide, we added a discussion about this concept of enabling and the helpful (and UN-helpful) ways to define it. Feel free to see the whole discussion here (For Parents | For Partners).

“Enabling”… “Co-dependent”… “Powerless”… “Loving detachment”… These are words and ideas family members are likely to hear as they navigate the path of their loved one’s substance use issues and emerge out of some commonly held ideas about substance use: 1) that it is a problem caused by flaws in character, morals, and genetics (therefore you are “powerless” to help), 2) that reluctance or trouble deciding to change is evidence of “denial” rather than an understandable ambivalence about change, 3) active involvement of family actually contributes to continued substance use (is “enabling”), and 4) the only recommended path for families is to “detach with love” or force compliance (e.g. have an Intervention).

Within this framework, the only options to this very frustrating, painful and scary situation can seem to be either: a) walking away and “taking care of yourself” while you wait for your loved one to “hit rock bottom” or b) confronting him/her with some type of forced choice (as in an intervention, where the answer is “you’re going away”). Unfortunately, being told that you are powerless in relation to your loved one’s use OR being put in the role of forcing change goes against what the evidence shows us: neither of these responses are likely to be effective in changing your loved one’s behavior in a sustained way.

Reinforcing positive behavior: the critical link

What the evidence (and experience) does support is something very different: you can stay involved with your loved one, influence them positively to change, and take care of yourself! The relationship you have is actually a powerful force for positive change. It is under your control, and it does not need to include forcing compliance, withdrawing, or neglecting yourself. If you have been taught that any involvement on your part will only make things worse (is “enabling”), then this idea of active involvement – “taking the driver’s seat” – will seem like a bad idea! But it’s not….and you can take care of yourself at the same time.

The strategies in the 20 Minute Guide include noticing, praising, and rewarding (called “reinforcing”) constructive behaviors, the ones that you would like to see more of (especially behaviors that directly “compete” with substance use), and NOT reinforcing the destructive (substance using) behaviors, the ones that you no longer want to see. Developing a lifestyle that competes with substance use is one of the most natural and effective ways to reinforce sustainable, positive change…and family members are in unique positions to help create this lifestyle.

So what IS enabling? Enabling is acting in ways that reinforce or support (unintentionally) substance use/negative behaviors. Examples include calling work for your hungover child to (falsely) explain their absence, or giving them money to help them “get by” when they run out due to their use. Often, this is an attempt to “saw off the rough edges” for your loved one, a very natural parental impulse, but one that prevents your child from learning the “naturally occurring” outcomes of their own choices and actions. On the other hand, actively reinforcing positive behaviors, the positive behaviors that you would like to see more of, is not enabling.

Points to remember:

  1. You can make a difference!
    In any big change process, it’s understandable to at times feel stuck in the thoughts about all the things you wish you’d done differently in the past. Also, when scared and feeling mistreated, positive reinforcement does not come easily! Know that you can influence change, and even consider how you can positively reinforce yourself in the process of making these changes.
  2. Taking an active role does NOT make you an “enabler.”
    The issue is not whether you are being active, but what type of behaviors you are reinforcing.
  3. “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
    Just as it is easier to attract flies with sweet honey than sour vinegar, it is easier to get your child to listen with loving words than with criticism. And this is more than a wise old saying; it is proven by research!
  4. You have another chance!
    Changing your behavior can be difficult, but it’s helpful to remember that you get to keep trying and practicing. Be patient with yourself. You have a lot of time and energy invested in this relationship – you’ve likely tried to help your loved one change many times. Isn’t it worth it to try another approach?
  5. Change does not usually happen overnight!
    A common experience is to feel so afraid, angry, and desperate that you make ultimatums you’re not actually ready or willing to follow through with when it comes down to it. Also, you might feel discouraged if your efforts to positively reinforce healthy behaviors do not result in changes right away. Baby steps! With this approach, you are learning to focus on making small improvements to your own self care (so that you have more resources and feel less desperate) and to improve and increase the positive interactions between you and your child (to improve your relationship and help you feel less angry). Small changes build confidence and create the foundation for substantive, long-lasting change.

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