How Two Moms Stopped Enabling Their Addicted Teens

Addicted teens can be enabled by parents.
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She was late again. Kaylie had missed her curfew every night this week. But Barbara didn’t want to fight about it. Since she and her husband divorced last year, she’d tried to go easy on Kaylie. Give her space. Give her room to process the changes.

Tammy was happy to have Matthew at home with her. Since graduating last year, Matt hadn’t been able to find a job, so Tammy let him stay, rent-free. But now they were past the one-year mark, and Matt spent most of his time partying with friends. Tammy didn’t think Matt was even looking for a job or considering college courses.

Enabling: A Tale of Two Addicted Teens

Addicted teensEnabling is defined as giving (someone or something) the authority or means to do something. And when we talk about enabling teens who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s the kind of “giving” that can quickly turn dangerous.

It’s only natural that parents want to help their children. After all, family is supposed to support one another and provide support when it’s most needed…right? In truth, when one of your children is struggling with addiction, offering to help them in ways that facilitate substance use or constantly cleaning up their messes can often lead to more harm than good.

It is common for parents to believe they’re helping teenagers, when in reality, they’re actually enabling addicted teens. To truly help your addicted teenager, you have to be willing to confront them about their substance abuse, be honest about the consequences, and stand your ground.

Meet Barbara and Kaylie

Barbara wondered if she was giving Kaylie too much space. She worried she might be enabling her bad behavior instead of letting her work through it.

Barbara found a bottle of liquor in Kaylie’s room. When she showed it to her daughter, Kaylie said she had just wanted to try it, no big deal. Then she brought up how hard it had been since the divorce, and Barbara’s resolve had crumbled. She let the incident go.

Twice when Kaylie came home late, she was drunk. The following mornings, she asked Barbara to call the school office and tell them she was sick. Barbara did it.

There had been more bottles, and more late nights out with new friends, and more requests for Barbara to cover for her.

Kaylie lost weight and distanced herself from former friends and hobbies. Kaylie was digging herself into a hole, and Barbara realized she was helping her shovel deeper every day. And she had to stop.

Meet Tammy and Matt

Tammy had payed all of Matt’s expenses for months at this point. She’d also loaned Matt money on several occasions. But she didn’t want to push Matt away. She wanted to help him.

Tammy would stay up all night waiting for Kyle when he missed curfew. She knew Kyle’s eyes didn’t look right when he got home, and he wouldn’t tell her where he’d been all night. This became a pattern – a way of life for the whole family. Kyle came and went as he pleased…and his parents decided to let him. After all, he was almost an adult now. Maybe they should relax the rules a bit.

But that kind of thinking didn’t match their actions when it came to expenses. Adults pay their own way, but Kyle had racked up some serious debt lately. And his parents paid off every dime of that debt. A traffic fine. A court fee.

But they were covering for him in other ways, too. They accepted his excuses when he didn’t do his chores. They gave him money any time he asked for it. His grades were slipping, but they didn’t confront him about it.

They knew he was using drugs. They’d even caught Kyle getting high in his bedroom. But they told themselves their son would never use “hard” drugs. He knew better than to touch really dangerous drugs. This was just a phase. They didn’t want to make things harder on him.

Time to Choose: Enabling Addicted Teens or Setting Boundaries?

Addicted teensThese stories could go two ways:

  • Enabling: The parents continue to “help” their teen by allowing potentially dangerous behavior. They continue to look the other way, make excuses, and say yes to requests that don’t match their values.
  • Setting Boundaries: The parents recognize their actions as enablers. They come to terms with the fact that they’re not truly helping their teen by creating an environment that supports substance abuse.

Path #1 leads to more hurt and self-destruction. Path #2 puts healthy boundaries in place and encourages the parents to make changes that could keep their addicted teens from becoming addicted adults. Path #2 could even save their lives.

Barbara’s Choices for Kaylie

Letting Kaylie continue on this path of addiction was not loving her – it was enabling her. So, Barbara set some new boundaries and decided to stick to them…hard.

She would not be covering for Kaylie anymore. Kaylie would have to follow the rules of their household or face consequences. And the rules of the household would now include getting treatment for her alcohol abuse.

It would be a tough road, but one that would lead Kaylie back to sobriety and a better future.

Tammy’s Choices for Kyle

One Saturday, Tammy got the call she’d dreaded for months. Kyle was in the ER after overdosing. Fortunately, he was going to make it.

In that moment, Tammy realized things had to change. She had to stop protecting Kyle from consequences for his actions. She promised herself that she’d stop doing things he could do for himself.

She would support him without rescuing him from legal or financial trouble. Tammy (nor her husband) would not give Kyle money from this point forward. In short, they would stop enabling him. And if Kyle wanted to remain in their household, he would have to follow their rules and get help for his drug abuse. No negotiations.

Parenting (Not Enabling) Addicted Teens

Take a close look at your interactions with your child. Are you enabling addictive behaviors? Which path are you on right now?

Family therapy and addiction education in rehab programs can help you and your addicted teen identify enabling behaviors. Learning to set and enforce healthy boundaries can save your relationship and your child.

Call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) to discuss treatment options for your teen.

Kerry Nenn
Kerry Nenn, BSW
Expert Author, Editor
Kerry is a full-time freelance writer and author whose work has received awards both locally and nationally. Based in the Chicago area, she holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology (BSW) from Evangel University. Kerry is a regular contributor to international newsletter publications, industry-leading consumer blogs, and Christian ministries.