Enabling — What is it?

Enabling behaviors and resources

The concept of enabling sounds straight forward — doing for others what they can and need to do for themselves — and yet it's often incredibly hard to distinguish between helping, supporting, and enabling. As parents we are hardwired to want to help our children. As siblings we often want to help our brothers or sisters get out of a jam. As spouses we want to keep the peace.

Enabling behavior, simply put, shields people from experiencing the full impact and consequences of their behavior. Enabling is different from helping and supporting in that it allows the enabled person to be irresponsible.

Enabling behavior:

  • Protects the addict from the natural consequences of his behavior
  • Keeps secrets about the addict's behavior from others in order to keep peace
  • Makes excuses for the addict's behavior (with teachers, friends, legal authorities, employers, and other family members)
  • Bails the addict out of trouble (pays debts, fixes tickets, hires lawyers, and provides jobs)
  • Blames others for the addicted person's behaviors (friends, teachers, employers, family, and self)
  • Sees "the problem" as the result of something else (shyness, adolescence, loneliness, broken home, ADHD, or another illness)
  • Avoids the addict in order to keep peace (out of sight, out of mind)
  • Gives money that is undeserved or unearned
  • Attempts to control that which is not within the enabler's ability to control (plans activities, chooses friends, and gets jobs)
  • Makes threats that have no follow-through or consistency
  • "Care takes" the addicted person by doing what she is expected to do for herself


Al-Anon, a mutual-help group for people with alcoholic friends or family members, pioneered the idea of detachment with love. A core principle of Al-Anon is that alcoholics cannot learn from their mistakes if they are overprotected. Detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. It also means being responsible for our own welfare and making decisions without ulterior motives-the desire to control others.

Ultimately we are powerless to control others anyway. Most family members of an addicted person have been trying to change that person for a long time, and it hasn't worked. We are involved with other people but we don't control them. We simply can't stop people from doing things if they choose to continue.

Understood this way, detachment with love plants the seeds of recovery. When we refuse to take responsibility for other people's alcohol or drug use, we allow them to face the natural consequences of their behavior.

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