Stop Enabling 101

by Don Carter

Visitors to this website email me with questions now and then. I regret to say that I have not been able to keep up with posting on these forums as much as I would like. It is on my New Year bucket list to spend as much time as I can in the forums this year.

When I get emails, they frequently have to do with enabling behavior. I just answered another one just the other day. I started thinking I should post my email responses here in the forums if I think they may be helpful to others. Here is the first of these email responses.

A visitor wrote to ask how she could tell the difference between helping and enabling. She says she has been practicing tough love, but that it was getting "tough" to know when to help and when to say no. Below are my best thoughts on that subject. Please feel free to add to the discussion!


It is a very difficult thing to go against all our instincts and let the shoe fall where it may. And there are no guarantees that tough love is going to make a difference to a loved on who is stricken with addiction. Tough love is more for you to keep from getting sucked into the addiction with him. So there are no easy answers, only a live-and-learn approach and some rules-of-thumb. Here are a couple of rules-of-thumb that I use:

1. If I am doing more than 50% of the work in any situation where the load could be shared equally, I am enabling.

2. If my loved one appears to be genuinely seeking a way out and they ask me for help, I will give it if I can. (but see rule #1)

3. If what looks like genuine effort (rule #2) is a repeat of the past, I need to see some serious muscle action before I offer any assistance at all this time.

4. There comes a time when letting go completely is called for no matter what the circumstances - you will know when that time comes, unless you really don't want to know.

One more thought: God has made the universe with certain laws in place. He did that for a reason, I think its for our own good. One of the laws is "cause and effect" the formula is A=B. For example: if A (a behavior) is something good, then B (the consequence) is also something good. But if A is something not so good, then B is also something not so good.

This law helps us to know when we have strayed from the path. When I step in repeatedly to "protect" someone from the effects of their behavior by taking away "B" and providing "C" then I have manipulated the law messing up the whole process; and I have elbowed in and taken over God's job to boot.

Looking back, God answered my own "foxhole prayers" many times early in my life, but then as I grew older, more capable but more irresponsible, He stopped bailing me out and turned me over to the law. When I went into treatment and threw myself into recovery (by His grace) He began to get more active in my life again. It must be hard for Him to let go too. I see Him as a good model for how to parent our own kids.

I have to say now I am very grateful that He did let go. Without the pain caused by my addictions, I never would have gotten to the point of genuinely seeking Him and I never would have found the life I have today. It's there for your son too, but he has to want it and choose it by reaching out and getting help.

So, this is not a guarantee that your son is ready to respond. But if you keep to the rules above, pray for strength and guidance, and really feel it is genuine then by all means help. Otherwise, let go and turn him over. Locate a bed at a Salvation Army or other shelter, or arrange to let him stay with a friend, church member, or family member who can be objective and not easily manipulated until a bed opens up at a treatment center in a few weeks.

My prayers are with you and your son,

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