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Are You an Enabler? How to Stop Enabling an Addict

What Is an Enabler?

Enabling is a term that can be thought of in a positive or negative light, but when we talk about enabling in terms of addiction and recovery, it usually has a negative connotation. When someone is struggling with addiction, an enabler might be a person (usually a loved one) who contributes to someone’s maladaptive or destructive behaviors.1 This can take many forms, as we will discuss in this article, but typically, an enabler unintentionally encourages a person’s unhealthy behaviors.1

Enabling can also encourage or exacerbate co-dependent relationships. Enabling and co-dependency have a lot in common. These emotional and behavioral conditions can affect a person’s ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships and lead to an excessive preoccupation with the life, feelings, and problems of another person.2

More often than not, enabling stems from a place of love and wanting to help. It often involves one person “covering” for a loved one. For example, if you know your adult child is using drugs and you continue to pay their rent after they lose their job, you are enabling them to continue down the path they are on, at least for the time being. While the intention is to help them, it can passively encourage their behavior.1

Substance use disorders (SUDs) affect many people—not just the individual who is using drugs or alcohol. Family and friends are often confronted with the fact that they see someone they love struggling and don’t know what to do, so in an effort to help protect them or shield them from the negative consequences of their behavior, they sometimes become part of the problem.3

Signs of an Enabler

There are signs to be aware of if you suspect you might be enabling someone you love who has a substance use disorder:3

  • Avoidance: Using distractions such as work, food, exercise, or other activities to avoid examining the issues, or avoiding problems by keeping the peace at all costs.
  • Controlling: Trying to control their behavior by withholding things like money or car keys or controlling who they are allowed to spend time with.
  • Denial: Not admitting their loved one has a problem or expecting them to act rationally.
  • Enduring: Trying to wait the problem out or thinking it will get better eventually.
  • Feeling superior or condescending: Treating the addicted person like a child.
  • Justifying their behavior: Agreeing with their rationalizations; for example, job stress or the fact that they are in college and everyone is doing it.
  • Minimizing behaviors: Rationalizing, such as suggesting that “it’s not that bad,” or “it will get better if…”
  • Protecting: Helping to protect the loved one’s image with friends, coworkers, and family.
  • Taking over responsibilities: Taking care of a person’s chores or obligations because they are using or recovering from using substances.
  • Using drugs or alcohol with your loved one: Letting a friend/family member drink or use drugs with you or at home so you can “keep an eye on them.”

Enabling behavior is often disguised as trying to help. Covering for someone at work, taking care of their kids or other obligations, and making excuses for their behavior are natural reactions to seeing someone you love struggle and in need of help. The problem is, it isn’t necessarily helping. It might actually be allowing them to continue their addiction.

It is also difficult to see the behavior as enabling when you are close and involved. For example, parents are hard-wired to help their kids. If you have an adult child with a substance use disorder and you are trying to help manage their situation so that they don’t get into more trouble, it can feel like you’re simply doing your job as a parent to help or fix it.

How to Stop Being an Enabler

Individuals who have substance use disorders are not the only people who can benefit from treatment interventions, including various behavioral therapies. SUDs invariably affect family systems. Therefore, family members often need guidance to differentiate between helping and enabling.

There are strategies that friends and family may wish to pursue.4 For starters, individual counseling and family counseling can be beneficial.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in treating substance use disorders.5 CBT is based on the concept that maladaptive behaviors (like substance abuse) are partly due to negative thought patterns and learned patterns of unhelpful behaviors.5 By learning to recognize distorted ways of thinking and practicing healthy coping skills, people can face uncomfortable situations with more confidence and clarity.5

Behavioral couples’ therapy can enhance communication skills and strengthen relationships between partners.4 Behavioral couples’ therapy helps partners learn skills to support one another in developing positive changes in behavior.4 It can also help partners learn skills to decrease triggers and habits that led to substance use in the past.4 Couples can learn to manage stressful situations together, thereby reinforcing positive connections with each other.

The family can play an important role in fostering a loved one’s recovery from addiction. Family behavioral therapy (FBT) helps families learn new skills to improve the home environment and set goals together.6

Group therapyCommunity reinforcement and family training (CRAFT) is a strategy that includes functional analysis, motivation building, communication skills training, immediate treatment entry, life enrichment, and safety training. Furthermore, contingency management training is targeted at family members of people who abuse drugs or alcohol and incorporates rewards for positive behaviors and outcomes.7

Local support groups are also available for family members. Al-Anon is a worldwide mutual support group for people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking.8

Co-dependents Anonymous, or CoDA, is a program for recovery from co-dependence.9 Co-dependency is not uncommon in couples or families where someone is struggling with addiction.9 CoDA can help people find their own strength instead of operating under the assumption that other family members are more important than themselves.9

How to Talk to Someone Struggling With Addiction

Starting a conversation with a loved one about their addiction can be stressful, and it is important to approach it carefully. First, educate yourself about the biological and psychological elements of addiction and learn about the various available addiction treatment options.

Make sure you begin the conversation in an environment where both people feel safe and the person you are addressing is sober.10 Timing is something to consider as well. For example, after your loved one wakes up in the morning or gets home from work perhaps isn’t the best time. Maybe during a walk or over a meal would be an optimal time to begin an honest dialogue about what is going on. Here are some tips on how to best approach the conversation, including suggestions on what not to do:10


  • Identify an appropriate time and place to talk.
  • Express concern, but stay calm and patient.
  • Listen without judgment because their feelings are valid, even if you disagree with them.
  • Offer help. This can include treatment options and your willingness to attend group or family therapy.


  • Criticize or lecture.
  • Be confrontational or condescending.
  • Blame or shame the person.

How to Find Drug or Alcohol Addiction Help

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition that is often characterized as a brain disorder because of the way it disrupts healthy circuits and connections in the brain.11 It can change the structure and function of the brain, particularly in the area involved with decision-making and impulse control.11 However, addiction is a treatable disease, and help is available. There are many options for treatment and rehab to address a person’s individual needs. Recovery from addiction is possible.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. You can find an AAC drug and alcohol rehab center online now or instantly verify your insurance coverage based on your specific health insurance provider. You can also call AAC free at at any time for helpful advice, information, or admissions.

American Addiction Centers maintains a strong partnership with a large group of insurance companies at our addiction treatment facilities. Start the journey to recovery and find out instantly using the form below if your health insurance provider may be able to cover all or part of the cost of rehab and associated therapies.

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