Have you ever heard of the term “failure to launch” - often for adults who are unable to reach full independence, living with parents into mid-to-late adulthood? While a romance comedy of the same name from the early 2000’s sheds light on the humor behind this term, it represents enabling behavior on that of the parents of the adult child. It’s normal to want to help our children, and even into adulthood, children may require the support of parents and family. Unfortunately there is a fine line between healthy helping and enabling and it’s important to understand the difference, because enabling creates unneeded pressure on every member of the family. Understanding the difference between healthy helping and enabling is possibly harder, but even more important, for parents as their children move into adulthood.
Enabling vs. Helping: The Could and Should test
You’ve helped your child for years and now they are an adult. What constitutes healthy helping versus enabling? This is a pivotal aspect of parenthood as children reach adulthood because helping is not always enabling but enabling is never helping. Assisting someone with a situation or circumstance they are unable to do on their own would be helping in a healthy way. Helping becomes problematic, or enabling, once we begin assisting others with things they could and should be doing on their own. If we enable, we hinder a person's ability to become more independent because we are robbing them of the ability to adapt to circumstances. Over time this is even more detrimental because it leads to unneeded stress on the enabler and decreased autonomy, self-esteem and self-efficacy of the enabled person.
Common Situations of Enabling Your Adult Child
With the rise of substance abuse and mental health issues in this country, there may be no more apparent example of enabling than parents that support their adult child who continually abuses drugs and alcohol. In these cases it is dangerous to continually support the addict financially, or with housing, legal aid and other resources rather than supporting them for treatment for the addiction. Why is this? Because enabling the adult struggling with addiction makes it easier for the addict to continue to use. It also shifts focus off of the issue of drug abuse and onto avoiding the consequences of addiction, consequences that could motivate someone to seek the help they need. In this circumstance enabling is perpetuating the problem.
Another example would be an adult child who is unwilling to address mental health issues that keep them from reaching common life milestones such as moving out and becoming independent. Instead of drawing hard boundaries with their children to seek help, parents instead may do many things for their adult child that the child should be doing on their own. Think of the consequences of never having to do anything for yourself. How would that affect your self-esteem and self-efficacy? Enabling is harmful to everyone in the family, including the person being enabled.
Are You Engaging in Enabling Behavior with Your Adult Child
While avoiding the topic entirely for fear of upsetting them is one of the most common ways of enabling our adult children struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, or another mental health issue, here are some other specific signs: We lie or make excuses for them, we pay bills and other financial obligations that they have agreed to pay, we complete tasks for them, we loan them our car or money, we continually agree to help in these ways even though they have remained unreliable repeatedly. These acts will only exacerbate the problem and are actually rewarding behaviors for the adult child who is struggling.
How to Support Your Adult-Child Struggling with a Substance Abuse or Mental Health Issue
Initially it may be helpful to seek the help of a therapist, mental health professional or support group. This is because enabling behavior doesn’t happen overnight, and parents who have been enabling for a long time may not be able to objectively identify their enabling behavior. It starts with boundaries for yourself first. If you aren’t willing to set a boundary and maintain it for you, you will have difficulty being able to maintain that boundary with your loved one struggling with addiction or a mental health issue. This is why the resources of counseling, therapy and support groups can be pivotal in stopping enabling behavior.
Some specific ways to stop enabling behavior include: Not keeping the problem a secret to others, stop lying or hiding your adult-child’s behavior, don’t fix the problems their behavior has created for them, refrain from any financial support except for treatment of their issue. These steps, while difficult, will stop rewarding your adult-child’s addictive or avoidant behavior. There are many options for assistance out there including Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and your area’s Access and Crisis line.
Mike Gallagher is the clinical director of Shoreline Recovery Center in Encinitas, CA. Mike graduated with his Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Capella University, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, and has been working in the field of mental health and addiction treatment since 2015.