When the Best Intentions Backfire: Supporting vs. Enabling

“No matter how old my daughter gets, she’ll always be my baby girl.”

Does this phrase sound familiar? Is it one you’ve said yourself? Do you have the loving impulses to do everything for your teen to help him or her grow into strong, independent, responsible adults?

We love our children dearly, and the desires to help and to protect them are ingrained instincts that can tragically backfire if they cross the line and into overly passive or excessively caretaking styles of parenting.

Supporting our young adults is, at its best, strengthening not debilitating. But how do we know if we are helping our young adults or enabling instead? First we need to define the two:

  • Helping is doing something for our children that they are not yet capable of doing for themselves.
  • Enabling is doing things for our children that they can and should be doing for themselves.

Although those definitions are fairly simple, we all too often find ourselves enabling when we think we’re helping. 

Knowing the Difference

Part of the reason we do so much for our young adults is because we don’t want to see them suffer. We assume any suffering is always a bad thing. However, preventing pain can sometimes be more harmful.

The following testimonial is given from an anonymous enabler. His decision to execute “tough love” was made out of fear. Had his son not learned from his decision this time, he feared the next time would end in more severe consequences:

“A friend recalls the time when he was arrested for driving and drinking. Upon being notified by the police, his father chose to leave him in jail overnight instead of bailing him out. Furthermore, the dad sold his son’s truck. Being extremely empathetic to his son’s plight, he slept very little knowing his son was in jail, but he wisely allowed his son to suffer the consequences of his actions. By the way, the son never drove after drinking again.”

Young Adults Need to Hear “No”

Often, our children need to be told “no,” but parents would rather enable them than deal with the struggle and conflict that inevitably follows. Avoiding outbursts, whether it be a toddler’s tantrum or a young adult’s fit, parents often cave in because they can’t handle the fall-out of tough love.

The Signs of An Enabler

Sometimes it isn’t obvious when we are enabling our young adults. After all, enabling behavior is born out of our instinct for love. It’s only natural we want to help our children be successful. However, when we apply it in overly excessive ways, our intentions have the reverse effect of what is intended. Examples of enabling behavior include the following:

  • Repeatedly bailing them out
  • Giving them “one more chance”
  • Ignoring the problem
  • Joining them in the behavior
  • Joining them in blaming others
  • Accepting their justifications, excuses and rationalizations
  • Avoiding problems
  • Doing things for them that they are capable of doing themselves
  • Softening or removing natural consequences
  •    Trying to “fix” their problems
  • Repeatedly coming to the “rescue”

Breaking the Habit

Breaking the pattern of enabling habits won’t be easy, but it is necessary. If we continually rescue our children from making mistakes, they will never learn to grow from them. Always coming to their rescue may be causing more harm than help.

Some of the ways you can break the pattern:

  • Pay attention to the unhealthy things you’re doing while “helping” your young adult
  • Stop making excuses, lying and bailing out your young adult
  • Avoid getting into arguments or begging your child to change
  • Stop actively taking away consequences

Enabling creates a sense of powerlessness. It can be discouraging and demotivating. Learning the difference between supporting and enabling young adults can be the difference it takes to helping your adolescent grow into a healthy, independent and responsible adult.

If you are having a difficult time saying no, and have concerns your teen is not taking responsibility for his or her actions, consider professional help. If you’re interested in learning more about Pacific Quest, feel free to contact our Admissions team anytime.
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