In our role as a confidential counselling and referral service, we often come to the aid of family members who desperately want help for a loved one who is addicted. One of the hardest things we have to do is to make those family members aware that they might be contributing to an addiction through their own behaviour. This is known in the addiction treatment community as enabling. When family members practice enabling behaviour they are actually making addiction problems worse.

We are certainly not here to judge you or your family just because someone in your household is addicted to drugs or alcohol. We are also not here to subject you to long lectures about how you should change your lifestyle. However, if we are to be truly helpful to you, we must address any behaviour that enables the addict to continue doing what he or she is doing.

We’ll get into enabling behaviour in more detail as we go through this discussion. However, simply put, enabling the addict is engaging in certain actions and attitudes that encourage him or her to continue their addictive behaviour rather than seeking the treatment they need. Most families who are guilty of enabling do not even know they are doing it. They mistakenly believe that their actions or attitudes are protecting the addict. Instead, those actions and attitudes are actually harming them.

Excusing Addictive Behaviour

One of the earliest forms of enabling occurs when family members first recognise the signs of a potential addiction. Rather than do something about those warning signs, they make excuses that allow them to ignore reality. You may recognise some of these excuses, having made them yourself:

  • “He’s only drinking because he had a rough day at work.”
  • “She needs to keep taking those prescription drugs to deal with the pain.”
  • “He only drinks so that he can function in social situations.”
  • “She’s not high; she’s just not feeling well today.”

If you notice a family member using drugs or alcohol in excess, you are not helping him or her by making excuses for what they are doing. In fact, making excuses may enable what starts out as an abuse problem to eventually escalate to full-blown addiction. Would it not be better to deal with the problem before it gets that far?

Blaming Other People

Hand-in-hand with making excuses is the practice of blaming others. In other words, you may find yourself blaming drinking or drug use on other people your family member hangs out with. Unfortunately, it’s easy to say that addictive behaviours are the fault of someone else because it alleviates the responsibility to intervene.

The biggest problem with this type of enabling is that it allows family members to turn a blind eye to what is really going on. If they can say the alcoholic or drug addict is simply doing what he or she is doing because of the influence of others, they can also say they have no part in what is happening. Nevertheless, just like making excuses, blaming other people does not help.

Running Away from the Addict

You may feel that your only recourse in an addictive situation is to run away from the addict. You may isolate yourself in one part of the house, spend your days wandering around town or visiting friends, or doing something else that will ensure you are rarely in the presence of your addicted loved one. Not only is this bad for your emotional state, it is also bad for your family member.

Whenever an addict is isolated from other people, he or she simply has more opportunity to continue doing what they are doing. That’s one of the reasons why residential rehab programmes put addicts together in large groups. The group setting provides mutual accountability that is not available when the addict is left alone.

Providing Financial Assistance

Unfortunately, far too many people make the mistake of providing financial assistance to a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol. They do so because they feel sorry for the individual, not realising that providing financial assistance is only making the addiction worse.

That said, others provide financial assistance out of fear that a loved one will steal from them or physically assault them if they refuse to provide money. This is a very real concern that should not be ignored. If you feel as though you are in any danger by refusing to provide money to your addicted loved one you need to get help right away. Do not risk your own health and life in such a tenuous circumstance.

If you do notice personal property frequently missing from around your home, it is quite likely your addicted family member is stealing from you to support a drug or alcohol habit. This is common. Addicts will steal from family members in order to sell the goods. Most do not resort to stealing from others until there is nothing left at home to steal.

Providing Cover for the Addict

Perhaps you are not making excuses or providing financial support to the addict, but you still might be enabling his or her behaviour if you are covering up what they are doing. As an example, what do you do if your loved one’s employer calls the house to inquire about why he or she has missed work for the last few days?

If you are enabling the addict, you may cover up by telling the employer your loved one has just been under the weather. You might explain that he or she has been dealing with an extended bout of the flu, an exceptionally difficult head cold, or some other illness that might explain his or her absence. If you are lying to cover the truth, you are enabling your loved one to continue doing what he or she is doing.

Covering up can also include cancelling plans for family get-togethers, refusing invitations to social events, or changing holiday traditions in order to avoid potential conflicts. None of this helps the situation any.

Threatening the Addict

By the time an addiction becomes especially severe, enabling family members may resort to issuing threats. Despite what you may think, this is a very bad idea. Threatening an addict is no different than threatening a child. When you issue threats and fail to carry them out, the addict quickly learns that you are unwilling to do what it takes to stop his or her behaviour.

What does threatening an addict involved? Consider the two following scenarios:

  • Threatening Their Well-Being – Sometimes a loved one will threaten to throw the addict out of the house, end a marriage relationship, cut off financial support, or report him or her to the authorities. When you do this, you are threatening the well-being of the addict. It rarely works because the addict has already demonstrated, by his or her behaviour, that they are not concerned by their own well-being.
  • Threatening Your Own Well-Being – Unfortunately, some family members eventually reach the ‘last resort’ tactic of threatening to do themselves harm. They may tell the addict that they are going to somehow harm themselves if the addictive behaviour does not stop. Not only does this not help the addict, it also plants thoughts in your mind that could lead to you actually doing something you will regret in the future. Family members of addicts should never practice this type of threatening.

Reach out for Help

Having dealt with thousands of families over the years, we know how easy it is to become an enabler without even knowing you are doing it. We also know how difficult it is for families to come face-to-face with the enabling behaviours they might be engaged in. However, it’s still necessary to deal with these issues.

In addition to helping you find the detox and rehab programmes for your loved one, Addiction Helper can also assist you in locating and accessing family services. Sometimes these services are included in a residential treatment programme offered by the clinics we work with. Other times, the services are provided separately.

Family services can include:

  • counselling for spouses and children
  • group support from family-centred organisations
  • reintegration services (applied when the recovering addict returns home).

Family services are an important part of family recovery inasmuch as they teach spouses, children, and siblings how to properly deal with the recovering addict during and after rehab. Without these services, family members are left to continue attempting to cope on their own. This is never a good idea because it can lead to relapse in the weeks and months following the completion of a rehab programme.

Addiction Helper encourages you to seek out family services in addition to detox and rehab for your loved one. We also urge you to consider whether you are enabling a family member by making excuses, running away, providing financial assistance and so on. If you’re not sure, please call our helpline right away.

One of our trained counsellors will ask you some important questions that will determine whether you are an enabler. While it may be uncomfortable, it is one of the steps necessary for getting your loved one on the road to recovery. And, just so you know, all of the services provided by Addiction Helper are completely confidential and absolutely free.

Help for family, friends, and close ones is just as important as the help people suffering with addiction need. Seek support to find the right path.