The Key Differences Between Being Supportive and Being an Enabler

All parents want to protect their children from the world and from their own mistakes. It’s instinctual to want to help your teen as best you can, but when does helping become hurting? There’s a difference between supporting your teen and enabling them. Supporting your teen is inspiring them to be self-sufficient and healthy, while enabling allows them to fall into old patterns or behaviours that can be self-destructive.

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What does enabling look like?

It’s hard to know how to effectively help a teen struggling with addiction. The first sign that you might be enabling your teen instead of supporting them is that you do things for them, as opposed to with them.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but bailing them out one too many times can prevent your teen from learning from that their actions have consequences. Here are a few enabling behaviours that you might not realize have the potential to set your teen back in their recovery process.

  1. Lending money: Being strapped for cash might motivate your teen to seek out employment or work harder at the job they already have. Filling their wallets with money makes it easier for them to buy drugs and alcohol whereas a job could help set them on the right track.
  2. Making excuses: Don’t lie or make excuses for your teen. Let them take ownership of their own mistakes. If they wake up hungover and don’t make it to class by the bell, you should not always phone in for them. The same goes for incomplete assignments and missed deadlines. A parent’s note could easily become a crutch for teens to let their academics slide in favour of their bad habits.
  3. Buying drugs or alcohol: While it might make you the ‘cool’ parent in moment, if your teen has or is developing a problem with substances, supplying them with drugs or alcohol will only make matters worse. It will also send the message that you condone their bad behaviors.
  4. Taking on their responsibilities: Be wary of taking over your teen’s responsibilities. There’s a difference between being understanding and letting them off the hook entirely. Even relieving them from their household chores could be reinforcing the status quo and allowing them to retreat into their addiction. Your teen needs to manage their day-to-day activities in order to develop into a happy, healthy, successful adult.

teen adult hugImage Credit: Stephen Garcia

What does supporting look like?

  1. Let them fail: The consequences that stem from their failures are important teachable moments. If you protect them from feeling the effects of these consequences, there is little motivation for them to change their behaviours. Let them fail, but be there for them when they do.
  2. Follow through: If you say this is the last time, mean it. Keep the promises you make. Even if it feels harsh at the time to cut your teen off or punish them, it will help them to learn discipline and to heal in the long run.
  3. Push them to be independent: Needing you less is a good thing. Guide your teen towards being able to help themselves. The less of a role you need to play in their recovery, the better.
  4. Take time for yourself: Taking care of your own mental health is important when you’re supporting someone who is struggling with addiction. Seek out help if you need it. Talk to a professional, join a support group or do whatever you need to do to stay balanced. You provide an important model for success to your teen, so don’t be afraid to focus on yourself—it will benefit them too.

We love our children and want what is best for them. Sometimes what’s best for them is a dose of tough love. Setting boundaries and guiding your teen to find their own way within is key to being a good supporter. Ultimately, it will strengthen your relationship and help them on the road to recovery.

Feature Image: Ekkasit Rakrotchit / Shutterstock