The School for Parents, LLC
Parent Education and Consultation

Cindy S. Miller LCSW, Psychotherapist

Phone: 201-783-2424


Below you will find today's featured article, which was published in my newspaper column, Candid Conversations.  Hope it inspires you to have a candid conversation of your own with people who matter to you,    Cindy




Candid Conversations:   When enabling becomes disabling – Part 1


By:  Cindy S. Miller, LCSW


Volunnteering to help a friend, coworker or family member enjoy an opportunity that would otherwise be a difficult is a contribution that makes us feel good.  Taking care of a child so that a parent can attend a school conference, offering to cover a nursing shift so that a coworker can take a needed day off, babysitting a grandchild so that a parent can go back to work or to school, are all good examples of ways we make every day contributions in our relationships. 


Helping means to assist someone by doing something for, collaborating with or providing guidance and support to another in a situation for which they are not equipped to handle alone.   


When we use the term enabling, however, we’re not generally talking about helping.  We’re talking about a pattern of doing something for someone else that they should be doing and are able to do for themselves.  An enabler encourages (often unknowingly), supports and allows inappropriate behavior to develop, grow and continue. 


Over time, enabling can become disabling.  Meaning that, the individual stops taking ownership of his responsibilities, denies accountability and fails to learn to solve his own problems appropriately.    


Being excused from experiencing naturally occurring life consequences stunts our emotional, social, behavioral, academic and vocational development.  For example, not doing homework typically results in receiving poor grades, being disrespectful towards parents results in the removal of privileges, showing up late for work results in being fired, mistreating or neglecting a love interest results in a loss of the relationship. 


Enabled individuals are denied these valuable learning tools.  There is always someone (most often parents, spouses or partners) who interferes with their opportunity to learn these crucial life lessons, by making excuses for them and protecting them from consequences.  The result can be that instead of becoming a productive and responsible adult, they grow into dysfunctional and emotionally disabled people.


The most common enabling relationship we are familiar with is that of a substance abuser and his family.  The enabler makes excuses and takes responsibility for the things he should be doing for himself, enabling him to remain locked in his addiction and in a pattern of maladaptive, dysfunctional behaviors.  The same pattern occurs in an abusive dating/domestic relationship, where one partner is permitted to continually abuse the other emotionally, financially and/or physically while being denied the opportunity to experience appropriate, natural consequences.  


Here are some signs that you may be enabling a child or a partner (note, they are written in the masculine, but apply to females as well):


1 – He lacks empathy, meaning that he neither demonstrates understanding nor does he act as if he cares about how you or other family members feel.  Do you find yourself minimizing his lack of caring and respect?   


2 – He is self-centered, self-serving and irresponsible.  Do you recognize this behavior when you see it?


3 – He is manipulative and takes advantage of others, getting his way when he has not earned it.  Do you find yourself giving in to his requests and demands more than you think you should, perhaps feeling poorly for doing so repeatedly? 


4. Is he aggressive, either verbally or physically?  Are you intimidated by him, even if you haven’t fully acknowledged it?


5.  Have you:

            - Paid for things he is supposed to pay for himself, without being reimbursed?

            - Censored your conversation so as not to upset him?

            - Come home to find him sleeping when he’s supposed to be working or studying?

            - Carried his backpack, done his homework for him, called the school to complain and make excuses as to why he should not be held responsible for missing work or bad behavior?

            - Often said no, but then said yes, giving into his pleas, demands or outright defiance?

            - Bailed him out of jail?


            - Become accustomed to his bad behavior: yelling, profanity, arguing, throwing temper tantrums, violence, defiance, lying, stealing, cheating, general irresponsibility and refusal to be held accountable, etc.?


In the next of this two-part series, we’ll take a look at the role we play in enabling bad behavior and explore some of the things we can do interrupt the pattern.  This may be a good opportunity to consider starting a candid conversation about enabling behaviors that may be present in your family, romantic or other relationships.