There are many ideas about substance use problems that are meant to help people understand things better but often have the unintended consequence of making people feel worse about themselves and more confused. The concept of “enabling” is most definitely in this camp. In the newly revised edition of the 20 Minute Guide, we added a discussion about this concept of enabling and the helpful (and UN-helpful) ways to define it. Feel free to see the whole discussion here (For Parents | For Partners).
“Enabling”… “Co-dependent”… “Powerless”… “Loving detachment”… These are words and ideas family members are likely to hear as they navigate the path of their loved one’s substance use issues and emerge out of some commonly held ideas about substance use:
Within this framework, the only options to this very frustrating, painful and scary situation can seem to be either: a) walking away and “taking care of yourself” while you wait for your loved one to “hit rock bottom” or b) confronting him/her with some type of forced choice (as in an intervention, where the answer is “you’re going away”). Unfortunately, being told that you are powerless in relation to your loved one’s use OR being put in the role of forcing change goes against what the evidence shows us: neither of these responses are likely to be effective in changing your loved one’s behavior in a sustained way.
Reinforcing positive behavior: the critical link
What the evidence (and experience) does support is something very different: you can stay involved with your loved one, influence them positively to change, and take care of yourself! The relationship you have is actually a powerful force for positive change. It is under your control, and it does not need to include forcing compliance, withdrawing, or neglecting yourself. If you have been taught that any involvement on your part will only make things worse (is “enabling”), then this idea of active involvement — “taking the driver’s seat” — will seem like a bad idea! But it’s not….and you can take care of yourself at the same time.
The strategies in the 20 Minute Guide include noticing, praising, and rewarding (called “reinforcing”) constructive behaviors, the ones that you would like to see more of (especially behaviors that directly “compete” with substance use), and NOT reinforcing the destructive (substance using) behaviors, the ones that you no longer want to see. Developing a lifestyle that competes with substance use is one of the most natural and effective ways to reinforce sustainable, positive change…and family members are in unique positions to help create this lifestyle.
So what IS enabling? Enabling is acting in ways that reinforce or support (unintentionally) substance use/negative behaviors. Examples include calling work for your hungover child to (falsely) explain their absence, or giving them money to help them “get by” when they run out due to their use. Often, this is an attempt to “saw off the rough edges” for your loved one, a very natural parental impulse, but one that prevents your child from learning the “naturally occurring” outcomes of their own choices and actions. On the other hand, actively reinforcing positive behaviors, the positive behaviors that you would like to see more of, is not enabling.
Points to remember:
Originally published at motivationandchange.com on March 8, 2016.