Do You See an Enabler in the Mirror? (Look Out for These 6 Warning Signs!)

teenager with addiction
It can be difficult as a parent to tell whether your actions are helping your addicted teen or making their addiction worse.

If you’re experiencing any (or all) of these responses to your teenager’s addiction, you may actually be causing more harm than good.

Being a good parent means wearing many hats. You are both the compassionate protector and the discerning disciplinarian; the supportive friend and the real-world pragmatist. It’s not easy, and no parent is perfect—nor is any teenager.

Raising adolescents is often challenging and emotionally turbulent: teens are constantly trying new things, forming identities, and losing identities. Unfortunately, adolescence is also a common age to experiment with drugs, make many mistakes, and feel naively invincible.

So, what happens when normal teenage experimentation turns into a full blown addiction?

Parenting a teenager is already difficult, but finding out that your teen is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol is an even greater challenge, one that seems nearly almost impossible. And, for many parents, it actually is. Many stop parenting and unwittingly become the teenager’s enabler.

An enabler is a loved one who recognizes addiction, yet helps to form an atmosphere or support system that’s conducive to the addict’s detrimental behaviors. It’s incredibly hard to love someone unconditionally, know there is an issue, and resist helping (anyway you feel you can). However, enabling a teenager in the throes of addiction can be incredibly hurtful and, in some cases, deadly.

While it’s difficult to break the cycle of enabling, many cases require doing so before any productive, meaningful solutions are found. In other words, if the safety net is always available, your teenager will continue to jump.

Good parents are instinctually driven to help, so stopping enabling behaviors is not easy. However, in cases of addiction, “helping” can actually be doing more harm than good. Before an addict seeks treatment, they must first understand the consequences of their actions. If these consequences are not felt, then the addiction may only worsen.

Willful Ignoring

When a teenager begins to display common signs and symptoms of addiction, some parents may try to ignore the problem, hoping it will disappear. Others may attribute the change in behavior to something else entirely. Unfortunately, addiction is a progressive disorder and ignoring the problem will only lead to worsening behavior and/or a more severe addiction.

Inability to Express Emotions

Parenting is an emotional undertaking, especially when dealing with a teenager in active addiction. If you’ve begun bottling up your emotions, unwilling to express your concern to you child, you’re allowing the circumstance of addiction to control you. No matter the consequences of sharing, you must feel free to express yourself.

Acting Out of Fear

More than any other emotion, enablers typically feel constant fear: fear of their child’s dangerous behavior, fear of what others may think, and fear of losing their child to the addiction. For this reason, many parents continue to clean up their child’s messes. Whether it’s providing transportation or routinely paying cellphone bills in an effort to keep in touch, acting out of fear (not love) helps define the problem of enabling.

Prioritizing the Addict’s Needs

While it’s natural to love your child and feel compelled to “help” however you can, addiction quickly takes priority over yours and others’ needs. For this reason, the other important parts of your life, such as marriage or work obligations, begin to suffer. Enabling your teenage child will eventually consume your life as the addiction progresses.

Lying to Others

Arguably, addiction’s most destructive effect to a family is its ability to create shame within the household. In an effort to try to keep internal peace while presenting a controlled home life, many enablers continue to lie about the problem to others. Unfortunately, this is also a reason many parents hesitate to seek professional help.

Projecting Blame

Rationalizing the addiction and the child’s behaviors is also a common characteristic of an enabler. A parent may blame others, themselves or certain situations for the addiction. While many things may have led up to the chemical dependency, removing blame from the addict allows their actions to continue without consequence.

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