The Difference Between Enabling and Help

Mother and adult son addict.

Every parent wants to help their child, wants to ensure that their kids have the best chances possible for a good and happy life. This imperative is built into a parent’s nature. But it’s not enough to just hope for a good life for our kids. We, as parents, have to do our best to make that future a reality for our kids. And most parents do just that.

However, this becomes very difficult to do when a son or daughter falls prey to a drug habit. Given how toxic and self-destructive addiction is, it becomes nearly impossible to enhance and improve the lives of our kids when they are actively using drugs. But we still try; we always help them; we still do what we can to make their lives better.

That isn’t always a good thing, though, as what we think may be helpful can sometimes be harmful. Supporting the wrong behavior can harm our kids. The truth is, when a parent’s help enables a son or daughter’s drug-using behavior, they are doing more harm than good.

Enabling Defined

Let’s talk about the term “enabling.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as such:

“A person who facilitates the self-destructive behavior of another is referred to as an enabler.”

“… In the past several decades, enable has also started to take on a new associated sense in the field of addiction studies, where enabling is viewed as giving misguided support to a person with some substance-abuse issue. A person who facilitates the self-destructive behavior of another is referred to as an enabler.”

To enable an addict is to act in such a way that allows them to use drugs. Or it can mean to act in a way which makes it easier for them to use drugs. Right off the bat, any parent will understand that this is not something they want to do. Any parent will see the danger in enabling, and will, of course, desire to avoid this type of behavior.

What takes most parents by surprise is when they find out that a lot of regular, day-to-say parental activities can be a form of enabling. Let’s take a look at some of the things that parents do which equate to enabling.

Examples of Enabling

Giving a car keys

An article in Very Well Mind paints the distinction between “help” and “enable” quite well. Quoting that article:

“Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves. Enabling is doing for someone things that they could and should be doing themselves. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which the alcoholic can comfortably continue his unacceptable behavior.”

When a parent enables their child (adult child, teen, adolescent, etc.), they are doing something for their son or daughter that their son or daughter is not able to do for themselves, likely because of their drug habit. Enabling can also manifest in the form of covering up for someone, making it safe for them, making it easier for them to use drugs, etc.

Here are some examples of enabling:

  • Paying for a son or daughter’s legal fees, bailing them out jail, etc. without insisting they attend a treatment program.
  • Lying to other family members or to a son or daughter's place of work to cover up for their transgressions.
  • Making excuses to yourself or others for a son or daughter’s behavior.
  • Paying the individual’s bills.
  • Loaning money to the person.
  • Giving the individual money or possessions like a car, a cell phone, valuable items, etc.
  • Allowing the person to commit wrongs against the parent or other family members and then not holding them accountable for those wrongs.

Some of these items sound like things that most parents would do for their kids without even batting an eye. And for a son or daughter who didn’t struggle with a drug habit and who just needed a little extra help from Mom and Dad, most of the above items could be generally acceptable. In fact, even if a son or daughter was struggling with a drug habit but needed extra help from Mom and Dad, that would probably be okay, if the end result was the son or daughter getting into treatment.

But when a parent provides support or assistance to an addict, makes excuses for an addict, gets an addict out of trouble, etc., without getting the addict into treatment as soon as possible, the parent is merely making it easier for the addict to go on using drugs and alcohol, and to go on being an addict.

What Should Parents Do, Instead?

Parent intervention

The parents of addicts likely have the hardest job of them all. They have to walk a thin line. It's the line between continuing to love their addicted kids despite every reason their kids give them not to but to do so without making it easier for their kids to use drugs, and to do so whilst constantly insisting that their son or daughter get help.

In an article titled, “Can You Really Help an Addict Without Enabling Them?” one of our staff writers talks about real-life scenarios where parents have had to “draw the line” with their kids. That is often called “tough love.” It essentially means that a parent must commit to refusing to support an addict’s habit. The parent has to commit to only supporting efforts and activities in the individual’s life that take them closer to positive change through addiction treatment.

Here’s an example: If an addicted son asks Mom and Dad for a ride across town to “meet a friend,” that would be something to say no to. However, if that same son asked for a trip across town to visit a treatment center and talk about treatment options, and if that son wanted Mom and Dad present for support, that would be something to say yes to.

Parents have to get really good at understanding what parts of their parenting and their actions with their kids support positive behavior within their kids and which ones flow power to negative behavior. That can be a tricky distinction to make. But parents have to learn how to make the distinction. If they continue to offer unlimited and unquestioning “help” to their addicted sons and daughters, their kids are not going to get better—in fact, they're going to get worse.

Parents should avoid threatening their kids, delivering ultimatums, or supporting their addiction, but there is a fine line between help and harm when it comes to having a son or daughter who struggles with a drug habit. As a rule of thumb, parents should pursue any and all activities that lead towards their kids getting better. That is a safe, sensible course of action. Parents have to insist that their kids get better. Such is the best help they can give them.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.