How to Stop Enabling Your Grown-Up Child

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From changing diapers to zipping zippers and wiping noses, there probably isn’t much that you haven’t done for your child. The role of “parent” has certainly changed throughout history, but caretaking and guiding a child from birth through adolescence and into adulthood is a fairly universal process that involves doing quite a bit for our kids.

As older teens become college students and/or transition into independent lives, the role of parent can get delightfully simple (pay the tuition bills and brace yourself for the amount they eat when they visit) to infuriatingly difficult. If your child develops a drug or alcohol problem while away from home, the situation can get even more upsetting, challenging and confusing. Here are some guidelines and suggestions for dealing with your adult child if they’re developing a drug or alcohol problem.

What Is Enabling?

As a mom or dad, isn’t it your job to help your children? Shouldn’t you be on the front lines with them, facing any problem they face right alongside them? What if they developed any other disease—cancer, for instance? You’d swoop in and do as much as you possibly could to make sure that they could focus on healing. Why is addiction different?

One of the key aspects of addiction that makes it different from many other chronic and debilitating diseases is that certain attitudes, thought patterns and behaviors are symptoms of addiction. Lying, denial and manipulative behavior are all common in individuals struggling with addictions. People with addictions are not immoral or bad people because they engage in these behaviors, but it is important for the people close to them to understand that these behaviors are part of the addiction.

Enabling is helping too much, and many parents of young adults struggling with addictions fall into this trap. Enabling looks like being a good parent at first: helping with the rent money, use of your car, or perhaps giving your son or daughter rides to work or school. As an addiction progresses, things get worse. Maybe your son or daughter has gotten into trouble with the law—a DWI or a bar fight, perhaps shoplifting to sell stolen goods for cash to buy drugs, or maybe just a possession charge—and you do everything you can to reduce the impact on your child, from helping to hire a lawyer to bailing him or her out after an arrest.

Enabling means you are stepping in between your child and the consequences of his or her actions. By doing so, you absorb some of the impact of his or her actions. And this is a problem. It might sound like exactly the right thing to do and it might feel necessary. You may feel shame or guilt if you even think about not helping your child. But the confounding thing about addiction is that if you get in the way of the addict or alcoholic experiencing the impact of his or her actions, you make things worse. You’re feeding the monster, so to speak, and the monster will grow.

So What Can You Do?

  • Be honest. Don’t make excuses for refusing to provide money or saying no to borrowing the car. Stick to your guns, be kind and speak the truth.
  • Know what you know. Don’t get confused by the smokescreen of lies, excuses, stories or manipulation. You don’t need to argue or convince your child, but don’t get blown off course by their disease process. Trust yourself and know what you know.
  • Don’t equate love with saying yes. Your child will likely accuse you of not loving him or her, but stay true to what you know: that you love your child and you refuse to help him or her succumb to this disease.
  • Offer to help him or her connect with local self-help, 12-step, or treatment programs. Treatment works, and getting connected with a good program will help your child more than any money or other favor they might ask of you.
  • Be kind to yourself. You didn’t cause this problem and you can’t fix it. Let yourself off the hook and stay positive. Get help if you need it. And reach out to others who have walked in your shoes through self-help groups, treatment groups or the Internet.


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