How to Stop Enabling an Addict

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When you love someone who struggles with alcohol or drug addiction, you want to help them. But it’s crucial to understand the difference between helping your addicted loved one and enabling their behaviors.

In this article: 

Enabling vs. Helping

If you want to know how to stop enabling an addict, you have to recognize the difference between helping and enabling. When we talk about enabling someone with an addiction, it means performing tasks for your loved one that they would be able to accomplish alone, if sober. It also includes making excuses for someone or protecting them from the consequences of their drinking or drug use. For example, you may call your loved one in sick to work if they are too hungover to attend. In contrast, helping someone with an addiction means performing tasks that they could not do alone, even in sobriety.

While the distinction may be blurry, there’s one crucial difference. Enabling someone who struggles with addiction protects them from experiencing addiction consequences. This could make it easier for them to avoid seeking treatment for addiction and getting sober. When you help your loved one instead, you may bring them closer to seeking addiction treatment.1

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47,300* People Addicted
23,100* Getting Help
8,209* Deaths
*Statistic from 2015

Signs You’re Enabling Addiction

Doing any of the following could mean you’re enabling your loved one’s addiction.

Excusing or Ignoring Poor Behavior

Many people who struggle with addiction make excuses for their behavior when drinking or taking drugs. If you accept their excuses or blame their addictive behavior on external factors, that could be a sign of enabling.1

Picking Up the Slack

Many people who struggle with addiction can no longer meet their regular responsibilities. If you agree to give a loved one money to pay his or her bills, take on extra work assignments for a favorite co-worker, or offer to help with childcare, you could be enabling addiction.1

Offering Too Much Consideration

If you put the needs of an addicted person above those of your own or before those of other friends or family, that could be enabling behavior. If you neglect or endanger your own financial, social, or employment needs to help a loved one who struggles with addiction, that could be enabling.1

Avoiding Confrontation

When you’re too worried to tell your loved one how their addiction is affecting your life, that could be enabling behavior. Because it shields the addicted person from seeing the consequences of his or her actions, it makes it easier for them to keep drinking or using drugs.1

Joining in the Substance Use

You might think that you’re protecting your loved one by providing company when they abuse drugs or alcohol. Maybe you used to be drinking buddies, and now you think you can go to the bar together and prevent your loved one from going too far with their addictive behaviors. In reality, participating in the addictive behaviors in any way enables that addiction.1

How to Not Enable an Addict

If you’re worried you may have been enabling your loved one’s addiction, change is possible. While you can’t change other people’s behaviors, you can alter your actions. In that way, you can help your loved one without making it easier for them to continue abusing drugs or alcohol.

Stop Helping the Behavior Continue

Don’t pay the bills if your loved one lost their job because of addiction. Don’t let them move in with you if addiction caused them to lose their home or apartment. If you don’t want to enable an addicted person’s behavior, you shouldn’t act as their safety net.2

Don’t Loan Money

While your loved one may ask for money for food, rent, or even clothes for their children, you cannot agree to help. If they are struggling with addiction, that money will likely fuel this habit, so helping an addicted person with money perpetuates the problem.2

Don’t Be the Bail Call

If your loved one’s addiction places them in legal trouble, don’t step in to cover bail or offer other legal assistance. By doing so, you’re only helping them avoid facing the consequences of addiction.4

Do Not Acknowledge Bad Behaviors

When your friend or family member has a drug or alcohol-fueled event, showing any kind of reaction gives them a chance to fight with you about your response. That can deflect attention away from the negative consequences of addiction, allowing them to continue their troubling behavior by blaming you instead of addiction.

Even if you harshly criticize the behavior, you could still be enabling addiction. By showing negative emotions, you may give your loved one an excuse to drink or abuse drugs again—they can blame their substance use on the emotional pain of your critique.2

Establish Boundaries and Stick to Them

While you can’t control your loved one’s addiction, you can control how it affects your life. Setting boundaries such as “there will be no drinking or drug abuse in my home” helps you avoid enabling an addicted loved one. These boundaries can shield you from some of the negative consequences of your loved one’s addiction. This may even encourage your friend or family member to seek help for addiction because they will see that their addiction is not welcome in your life.

The boundaries you set will depend on your situation and relationship with the addicted person. Whatever limits you decide to set, make sure they are clearly communicated. After they have been established, don’t cross those lines, even if someone you love asks you to make an exception. Doing so would be enabling behavior rather than helpful behavior that could encourage your loved one to begin the recovery journey.3

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Concrete Ways to Help an Addict

The following suggestions can provide productive support for you and any friends or family members who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction.

First, Help Yourself

One of the best ways to help an addicted person is to get proper support for yourself. Peer support groups, such as Al-Anon, provide friends and family members the chance to talk about how loved ones’ addictions affect their lives. This can help you remain firm in your boundaries and minimize the impact on your personal life.

Peer support groups can also provide you with constructive ways to help your loved one who struggles with addiction. By learning from people in similar circumstances, you’ll better understand useful ways to offer support. You can also learn from other people’s missteps and avoid actions that may enable or unconsciously support addictive behaviors.3

Stage an Intervention

You can’t force another person to seek help for addiction, but you may help an addicted person understand how their substance use is affecting you and encourage them to seek treatment. Research suggests that brief interventions (between 5 and 30 minutes in length) can help someone who struggles with addiction understand the need to seek further treatment.5

The goal of an intervention should be to provide constructive feedback to your loved one, helping them understand the serious impact of their addiction. You may then offer suggestions regarding treatment options and encourage them to find help and enter recovery.5

Provide Assistance for Those Who Attend Treatment Sessions

Earlier, we mentioned that you may enable addiction by doing things for your loved one that they would be able to do alone, were it not for drug or alcohol use. For that reason, even after holding an intervention and discussing treatment options, offering to look up meeting schedules for peer support groups or to call addiction specialists could be considered enabling behavior.

If, however, your loved one is unable to drive themselves to a meeting or therapy session, offering a ride is a productive way to help an addict. The same is true if your loved one is trying to get a new job, but needs help getting to an interview. Because these tasks couldn’t be accomplished without assistance, offering your support is a productive way to help your loved one.4

Do you have a friend or family member who is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse? When discussing treatment options with them, suggest calling (800) 407-7195(Who Answers?) today to find a rehab nearby. Addiction specialists are ready and waiting to take their call.


Resources

  1. Adorno, E., Chassler, D., D’Ippolito, M., Garte-Wolf, S., Lundgren, L., & Purington, T. (2013). Predisposing, enabling, and need factors associated with addiction treatment among Massachusetts Puerto Rican drug users. Social Work Research, 37(3), 195-206.
  2. Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social Work in Public Health, 28(3-4194–205.
  3. Al-Anon Family Groups. (n.d.). I Don’t Have to Accept Unacceptable Behavior.
  4. Haverfield, M. C., Theiss, J. A., & Leustek, J. Characteristics of communication in families of alcoholics. Journal of Family Communication, 16(2):111-127.
  5. Jhanjee, S. (2014). Evidence based psychosocial interventions in substance use. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 36(2):112-118.

the Take-Away

As the loved one of someone struggling with addiction, the way you act toward them has an effect on their recovery. Enabling allows them to continue their behavior, which is not helpful to you or to them.