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The Trap of Helping vs Enabling—Can You Get Out?

Table of Contents

Understanding the Dangers of Enabling Addiction
The Difference Between Helping Vs Enabling
Seeking Help with Addiction Recovery

When a loved one is suffering, it’s only natural to want to alleviate their pain. If they are physically hurt, you might provide bandages or a healing ointment. If they are sick, you might buy them medicine or cook them some chicken soup. You want to make them feel better—and it feels good to ease their burden even if you cannot magically wish it away.

But what do you do when your loved one is addicted? Helping someone overcome addiction, such as alcohol addiction or drug addiction, is not as straightforward as applying a cast to a broken limb or a cool washcloth to a feverish forehead. What seems like helpful behavior can often unintentionally trigger cravings or even enable an addictive habit.

Understanding the dangers of enabling behavior and the differences between helping vs enabling are both vital to ensuring you can be a source of support, rather than a hindrance, during your loved one’s recovery journey.

Understanding the Dangers of Enabling Addiction

The line between helping vs enabling addictive behaviors is a fine one—and often a blurry one. It can be tempting to simply assume that because something feels helpful, it is. But, in fact, enabling behaviors can significantly exacerbate addiction and its effects on both the individual and the family as a whole.

Enabling can lead to:

Of course, family members don’t intend for these outcomes. Enabling—like help—is born from love, but only one will truly support your loved one’s recovery.

The Difference Between Helping vs Enabling

In order to avoid a trap, you must first learn to recognize it. So, what is the difference between helping vs enabling?

Enabling means providing aid that supports, however unintentionally, a loved one’s addiction. Enabling involves things like making excuses for them, taking on their responsibilities as your own, and providing resources (like money for food, etc.) that can easily be used to acquire alcohol or drugs and lead to further drug and/or alcohol abuse.

Helping means providing aid without sheltering your loved one from the consequences of their actions or depleting your own strength and resources. It means maintaining healthy boundaries, offering encouragement rather than excuses, and providing support in ways they would not be able to take care of themselves even if they were not struggling with addiction.

Below are some examples to help give you a clearer picture of the difference between the two.

Enabling looks like: Helping looks like:
Downplaying or ignoring the fact that a member of your family is addicted. Addiction is always serious, no matter how functional your loved one may seem. Recognizing that your loved one may need professional help during their addiction recovery, such as an addiction treatment program, to get well again—and helping them to realize it, too.
Avoiding your loved one in order to avoid the problem or “give them time to think about what they’ve done.” Isolation breeds addiction, along with other psychological health problems and negative behaviors that may exacerbate the problem. Making yourself available to connect with your loved one as a source of empathetic listening and gentle guidance. You cannot force them to get better, but you can help them understand what steps they need to take to do so.
Lying or supporting your loved one’s lies to cover up their addiction or prevent negative consequences, such as being fired from a job. Allowing your loved one to experience the negative and natural consequences of their actions, and encouraging them to recognize the connection.
Setting ultimatums and making threats that you, ultimately, do not follow through on. For instance, saying you will cut off your son or daughter’s allowance if they do not quit, only to give them money the next time they ask. Establishing rules and sticking to them. It can be difficult to refuse a request for help, but if you bend once, you will be expected—and more likely—to keep bending until something breaks.
Providing money or other resources that might be used to support their habit, such as paying a phone bill that ultimately allows them to stay in touch with their dealers or paying rent so they can spend their money on drugs instead. Providing food or water. Sharing a meal not only ensures your money is going where it is supposed to, but it also gives you a chance to connect with your loved one and talk while enjoying something positively healthy.
Doing things for your loved one that they should be doing themselves to help support the entire family, such as chores, homework, or a presentation for work. Helping them with things they actually do need help with, such as finding the right treatment program for their addiction.
Always providing resources or solutions for your loved one, no matter what they need or when they need it—or whether you can afford to provide it. It’s important to be there for your family but not to an unhealthy extent. Setting healthy boundaries that let your loved one know you are there for them within reason. Helping them take care of themselves while making sure to take good care of yourself, too.

Of course, understanding the difference between helping vs enabling is only the first step. Recognizing enabling behavior and replacing it with truly helpful support can be difficult. It’s all too easy to want to give into what someone you love wants, rather than what they need, and the gray area in between can be challenging to navigate on your own.

Luckily, you don’t have to do it alone.

Seeking Help with Addiction Recovery

Seeking professional help with addiction recovery is as important for your wellbeing, and that of your entire family, as it is for your loved one. This is because a good treatment program—one that approaches addiction treatment holistically and adaptively—will include family support as well as individual healing in its curriculum.

Experienced addiction specialists can help you analyze your own actions and reactions and evaluate them objectively. They can then guide you through the process of replacing enabling behaviors with more positive methods of support while, simultaneously, helping you build the resilience and patience necessary to do so.

Family therapy programming offers you and your loved ones, including the family member struggling with addiction, an opportunity to heal and to build a path to long-term recovery together. Clinicians may also recommend support groups to connect you with others whose family members are addicted and are seeking answers to similar questions of helping vs enabling. Individual therapy outside of an addiction treatment program can also be a great resource for repairing the damage that your loved one’s habit may have caused to you or to others in the family.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your loved one is to connect them with the support they need to get and stay well. It may not be easy, but with the right help, recovery is more than possible—both for your loved one and for you.

At New Choices Treatment Centers, we understand how difficult it can be to escape the trap of helping vs enabling, and we’re here to help. Our comprehensive care model encourages family involvement and education and includes family therapy sessions as well as support group recommendations and various resources. To learn more about how we can help you and your family heal from addiction, contact us or call us today at (726) 888-7003.