Look up the definition of “enable” in the dictionary, and you find that the original meaning involves giving the power, means, or ability to do something. To support or encourage someone. This sounds like an admirable thing to do for another person or for a parent to do for their young adult. But it depends on what is being enabled or supported.
For better or worse, the addiction community has adopted this term (not unlike “Tough Love”) and has come to have an exclusively negative connotation. In the addiction field, “enabling” has been associated with giving misguided support to a person that supports self-destructive or irresponsible behavior. Many parents I have worked with have wondered if their behavior is enabling in this negative sense.
Enabling vs. Disabling
As a psychologist with training in addictions, I have clearly used this phrase to describe people who are “co-dependent;” another popular concept in addictions. My comments are not meant to be critical of the addiction field’s effective use of this term; however, I’d like to suggest that enabling could better be described as “disabling.” To disable, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means to lose or cause to lose strength or vigor,”…bring about impairment or limitation in physical or mental ability. When we “enable” young adults to be irresponsible and avoid consequences, we are “disabling.” We impair their ability to move toward self-sufficiency and responsible independence. Rather than overturn the widespread use of the term, I will use enable as applied to certain parent behaviors going forward that are “disabling.” Hope I don’t have you totally confused at this point.
Parental Enabling Quiz
What are some of the enabling actions of parents of young adults? Do any of these ring true in your parenting?
___Making excuses for the young adult’s inappropriate behavior – “it’s difficult, he’s trying, he’s had a hard time in school, he had a tough childhood, it’s tough these days for young adults.” He misses school or work because he didn’t get up, was hungover or overslept, and you cover for him – tell the school or employer he is sick.
___ Giving in when money is requested even though you know it will not be spent wisely.
___ Bribing the young adult to do something by giving him money, but when he doesn’t follow through, you have no consequences and then repeat this same behavior.
___ Providing a young adult with free room and board, laundry service, cable, internet, and stocked refrigerator without asking for anything in return.
___ Avoiding difficult subjects because you fear the young adult will get angry and not like you.
___ Stepping in to rescue the young adult or solve a problem for him. Meeting with teachers in college to question your young adults’ assignments or grades. Fixing a car that got dinged by your son without asking for any help.
___ Allowing your young adult to swear at you and call you names and either respond in kind or ignore these and deliver no consequences.
___ Putting your young adult’s needs before yours. Drop what you are doing or change a plan to accommodate your young adult.
___ Hoping your young adult child will eventually want to leave home or stop asking for money when there is no reason for them to give up the ATM or their basement bachelor pad at home.
____ Hesitating to say “no,” set any boundaries or limitations, or discuss any future plans for them to move out or on with their independence because they may shut down and withdraw.
Why do Parents Enable Young Adults?
Some parents continue to believe that they are responsible for their young adult and the young adult’s behavior even though society disagrees. Many parents believe they are responsible to “fix” or take care of any problem the young adult has. These beliefs or assumptions are irrational and often driven by guilt and regret from the parent’s past or anxiety and fear about the young adult’s future. We can’t change our past as parents, and we can’t control our young adults’ future.
Some of us are driven by experiences of our family of origin. We may have been treated poorly or unfairly as children and swear our kids will not experience what we had to endure. A small but real example of using our kids to heal a childhood loss is illustrated when I took my son to a Twins Baseball game. It was clear to me that one source of my motivation to do this was that my dad took my older brother to a Phillies game when my brother was about eight but left me behind because I was six and too young. I was determined that my son would not be left behind from a ballgame. Fortunately, he was athletic and did enjoy the game, and never knew he had my past to thank for it.
What can Parents do to Stop Enabling Young Adult Children?
- Challenge our thinking that we are responsible for their actions or responsible for fixing them. Change our thinking to one of a responsibility “to” them and not “for” them.
- Address underlying emotions such as guilt, shame, regret or anger and resentment through apology and forgiveness.
- Challenge thoughts of compensating for our childhood experience. This creates an extra burden on the child to believe they have to solve our unresolved family of origin issues to make us feel better. It’s hard enough to address the challenges of young adulthood, not to mention our unresolved past family issues.
- Practice the art of saying “no.” It’s not a four-letter word. It forces them to take responsibility, and although it may be tough to stand our ground, it can be the most empowering action we can take. It sends a message that we believe in their ability to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.
- Don’t confuse loving them with giving in or doing whatever makes them happy any more than believing that restraining them from playing in the street as a toddler was not an act of love.
Being a parent who challenges our young adults to take responsibility is an act of love at this stage of their lives and ours. It’s not without a level of suffering and grieving, especially when we see them make mistakes, but intervening, so they don’t have to face the consequences of their actions only impedes their efforts toward mature independence. Let’s not beat ourselves up if we cave in at times, but when we draw a “red line” of what we will and won’t do, let’s do our best to hold our ground.