A "Crash" Course on Enabling

What is enabling? We may often hear the term when dealing with matters of addiction, alcoholism or substance abuse. But do we really understand it’s meaning and implications? A brief and simple explanation will be provided here. First, a definition. Enable: to give (someone or something) the authority or means to do something. Another definition: to not allow another person to experience the natural consequences resulting from his or her behavior. This relates quite simply to the dynamics often seen in relationships with addicts, alcoholics or substance abusers.

For example, a teenage substance abuser gets into a car accident while under the influence. He or she is taken to jail and has totaled their car. Response: the parents immediately bail the teen out of jail and shortly thereafter purchase him a new car. Lessoned learned: none. Alternative lesson learned in this case, “If I use drugs or alcohol and get into a car accident mom and dad will quickly come to the rescue.” The chances of repeating said behavior: high. Why? Because the teen was never given the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of his behavior. The behavior in question, alcohol and drug use, still remains mostly pleasurable and rewarding. So, the thought for the user is “why stop?”

It really boils down to rudimentary learning or behavioral principles. What motivates behavior? Rewards! Human beings as animals (mammals to be exact) are fundamentally driven to engage in and repeat behaviors that are rewarding. This is part of a basic survival mechanism. This is why eating and sex are pleasurable. To increase the chances of repetition and as a result increasing our chances for survival individually and also increasing the chances of survival for the species (procreation). All of this is well and fine at its most basic form. Conversely, what ceases behavior? Answer: negative reinforcement (i.e. consequences, punishment, absence of reward).

It gets tricky.. Enabling typically comes from a loving place. Parents, spouses, family members etc., are hardwired to protect their loved ones. Most enabling behaviors are designed with this in mind. The thought is, “How can I not bail her out of jail? She’s my daughter!” Or, “If I don’t call the school and say my son is sick (really he has a hang-over) he’ll get suspended!” Thus, the appropriate response in many of these scenarios is counterintuitive. It does not feel right and may feel as if we are going against the grain. However, if we really want to help the addict, alcoholic or substance abuser in our life, we will allow them to learn from life. The ultimate teacher. Sometimes, being a good parent or spouse looks different. Sometimes helping looks different.

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