Enabling a Family Member with a Substance Use Disorder
For friends and families of people living with substance use and mental health disorders it can be difficult to watch their loved one struggle. Often, well-intentioned attempts to mitigate the fallout from substance misuse or untreated mental illness can end up perpetuating continued negative patterns, including drug and alcohol use — a circumstance called enabling.
We’ll discuss what enabling is, what it looks like, and how to stop enabling your loved one so that they can get the help that they need.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling refers to the behavior or actions of the loved ones of a person struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder that perpetuates unhealthy and dysfunctional patterns of behavior — including continued substance misuse.
Enabling is any behavior that prevents another from facing the consequences of their destructive actions. Once someone recognizes the way they are enabling someone, they can begin working with the addicted individual to create better solutions to the problem.
Enabling Someone with Addiction
Addiction is a complex and complicated disease, as are the dynamics that addiction disorders create within families, among friends, and between significant others. Just as it isn’t always easy to determine if someone has an addiction, it’s not always clear where the line is between supporting and caring for someone and enabling them. Enablers themselves are often in as much denial about their behaviors as addicted individuals can be, resulting in a codependent relationship.
Enabling behaviors can include:
- Repeatedly bailing a person out of jail for behaviors like drunk driving or buying drugs.
- Lying to others about the extent of the addicted person’s drug or alcohol misuse.
- Making excuses for the person’s substance use or related behaviors.
- Frequently assuring the addicted person that the substance use is not a problem.
- Paying for damages or legal fees caused by the use of substances.
- Denying the impact of the person’s addictive behavior.
Enabling Someone with a Mental Health Disorder
Mental health disorders affect millions of people everyday. Unfortunately, some individuals may inadvertently enable their loved one struggling with a mental health disorder or co-occurring disorders. When this occurs it can prevent the individual from getting the help that they need.
Signs of enabling mental illness include:
- Making excuses for negative behavior.
- Covering for your loved one with bosses, teachers, or authority figures.
- Making their needs a priority in front of your own.
- Ignoring or downplaying harmful or negative behavior.
- Attempting to “fix” the problem for your loved one.
- Taking care of your loved one’s responsibilities for them, such as paying bills or cleaning their personal space.
Other Forms of Enabling a Loved One
Enabling a loved one isn’t limited to addiction or mental health disorders. Some examples of other ways that people may be enabling family members or friends include:
- Supporting a loved one past the point where they should be expected to take on age-appropriate responsibilities like maintaining a job or paying their own bills.
- Making excuses for so-called “soft addictions” to things like gambling or excessive video gaming.
- Enabling the enabler (e.g., helping someone continue to enable another’s substance misuse).
Why Do People Enable Their Loved Ones?
In interpersonal relationships, it’s normal to want to help someone who is experiencing challenges with their mental health or in other areas of their lives. For example, parents may loan their adult child money, attempt to get them out of a legal situation that may have negative consequences, or offer them a place to stay for a while.
Enabling is often done out of love, even if it makes things worse in the long run. The people doing the enabling are often those who are most affected by the behavior of the people with addiction. They may think that the enabling behaviors and avoiding all conflict is their best or only option. Some people also enable as a result of codependent relationships.
Some people believe irreparable harm may come to the person if they stop helping them, or that refusing to unconditionally support that person would mean withdrawing love. There are innumerable reasons why people start and continue to enable the addicted or struggling person in their lives.
Enabling behaviors are any actions that allow the addicted person to continue destructive substance use with minimal consequences. Because people struggling with addiction disorders will often only seek help once their behaviors start to significantly interfere with the lives, when you enable your loved one you effectively prevent them from getting the help that they need.
How to Stop Enabling: Breaking the Cycle
The first step to ending enabling behavior after recognizing it is to admit that it’s causing harm to the addicted person. Though enabling is typically done out of love and concern for a friend, family member, or significant other, the fact is that it’s ultimately a more dangerous option than facing the real, underlying problem. Addiction disorders only become worse without treatment, and the destructive behavior will not change without consequences.
In the long run, the only way to help an addicted person is to get that individual to admit the problem and accept help. Otherwise, that person will eventually begin to suffer from serious medical problems, encounter legal troubles, become unable to hold a job, and experience more negative life effects — all while becoming increasingly dependent on their substance of choice. Unfortunately, very few people who need specialized treatment for an addiction disorder receive it—around 10%, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
The key to breaking the enabling cycle is to return responsibility to the addicted person. That individual needs to once again be responsible for their actions and face the consequences of their substance misuse. This means setting clear and hard boundaries with the addicted person.
Helping Someone Without Enabling
Of course, not all forms of helping someone qualify as enabling. Some actions can go a long way in helping someone help themselves. Rewarding someone’s positive behaviors can be as simple as thanking them when they behave thoughtfully, emphasizing their potential for change when they take positive steps needed toward healing, or when they work toward recovery goals.
Some tips for helping your loved one without enabling include:
- Set boundaries and stick to them. Examples of this can include not allowing drugs or alcohol in the home, not allowing them in the house when they are under the influence, or refusing to cover for them.
- Hold them accountable for not seeking help, taking their meds, or continuing to use drugs or alcohol.
- Don’t downplay harmful or hurtful situations. Be honest if they have hurt you.
- Offer to take them to speak to a therapist or their doctor for assistance in finding treatment.
- Participate in couples counseling or family therapy sessions.
- Help them research and tour drug rehabs near Miami or other treatment facilities.
- Find resources for helping an addict.
Get Help for Addiction and Mental Illness Today
If your friend, family member, or significant other is struggling with addiction or a mental health disorder the best thing that you can do is help them get professional evidence-based treatment to get them on the road to recovery.
Contact our admissions navigators at to learn more information about our Hollywood, FL drug and alcohol rehab — including the different levels of addiction care that we offer. Our navigators can also answer your questions about starting the rehab admissions process, payment options for rehab, or using your insurance for addiction treatment.
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