What does "enable" really mean?


100% better than I was but not at 100% yet
From Partnership for Drug Free Kids Website

I hate the word enable.

“He wouldn’t be in so much trouble if his parents didn’t enable him.”

“She’s an enabler.”

“I feel sorry for that family – they’re constantly enabling her.”

They are harsh words, often spoken with a slight hint of scorn. They are words of blame, words that carry a heavy load of shame. Too often we use words without thinking much about their implications, so let’s take a closer look at using the word enable.

Enable means to allow, facilitate, permit, make possible. Allow means to let, to permit, agree to, consent to, tolerate. Facilitate means to make easy, make possible, smooth the progress of, help, aid, assist. Permit means to authorize, sanction, give your blessing to.

Enough already.

I am here to speak for parents of kids who are struggling with drugs – as well as for the wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles of people who have substance use disorders. They may not all agree with what I have to say, but I suspect most will.

We do not “consent” to the pain and misery, the shame and fear, the destruction and despair of addiction. We do not seek to “aid” or “assist” addiction in its efforts to destroy our loved ones. We do not “make possible” this disease nor do we “tolerate” its horrors.

We do not authorize addiction to walk into our homes, we do not sanction it, nor do we give it our blessing.

We simply do not know – not in the beginning – how to fight back.

Addiction enters our lives with stealth and cunning. It disguises itself, talking back to us in ways that make our heads spin. It tortures our emotions so that we begin to believe that we are the ones at fault, causing us to doubt ourselves, encouraging us to cover up, to protect and defend, to run screaming with our hair on fire to the hills.

Addiction takes our hearts and twists them.
It takes our thoughts and contorts them.
It takes our souls and fills them with dread, shame, guilt, and burning fear.

The word “enable” only adds to our guilt and shame and makes us hide in fear and self-loathing from the very people who might be able to help us.

We see the people we love in trouble. At home. At school. In the office. With the law.

Because we love them, because it is our job to protect the people we love, we try to help them. We don’t know, not at first, that they are suffering from a chronic, progressive, deadly disease, and once we suspect it, we cringe from the very thought.

Because addiction is not like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or asthma. Addiction, like the word “enable,” is whispered.

When our family members are sick with a substance use disorder, friends don’t bring us home-cooked meals or fresh-baked cookies. We don’t open our mailboxes to find heartfelt sympathy cards. No one sends us flowers. Other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends sometimes hint oh-so-subtly that our family’s “problem” stems from ineffective or even abusive parenting. Insurance companies inform us that they don’t cover addiction treatment – or if they do, they often dictate the terms of treatment or “cap” the amount. Counselors and health care professionals often tell us we are “overreacting.” Doctors prescribe pills to help us calm down, relieve stress, get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes the people we turn to for help look at us sideways, barely able to hide their contempt.

Perhaps contempt is too harsh a word. But that’s what it feels like. Disapproval. Condescension. Disdain.

So what are we, exactly? What words should be used to describe those of us who struggle to do battle with this disease? Flawed. Imperfect. Struggling. In need.

In need of what? Help. Hope. Understanding. Compassion.

The irony, I suppose, is that we have compassion aplenty. We remember the old days, when we thought this could never happen to us, the days when we, too, wondered what was wrong with those families whose kids smoked marijuana, snorted coke, or injected heroin. Those days when our children were young and fresh and innocent.

Once upon a time, we, too, thought that we were immune.

Now we know better.


Well-Known Member
I just saw that article too and teslly liked it. It is so easy for other people to just say you are enabling him. It often isnt that simple. I think the key is finding the balance and doing what you can live with. I know for us our line is we are willing to help hin when he is helping himself...when he is not then we dont. So we have let him be homeless and he has lived on the streets which is awful for us. But if he is working on getting his life together we help him.


100% better than I was but not at 100% yet
I just saw that article too and teslly liked it. It is so easy for other people to just say you are enabling him. It often isnt that simple. I think the key is finding the balance and doing what you can live with. I know for us our line is we are willing to help hin when he is helping himself...when he is not then we dont. So we have let him be homeless and he has lived on the streets which is awful for us. But if he is working on getting his life together we help him.
That's exactly how we feel. That is exactly how we will move forward. I'd do that with my other kids also that do not have this disease.

I just like the whole article in a nutshell!!

New Leaf

Well-Known Member
Thank you for sharing RN. Little did any of us know that we would be wrestling with addictions grip, when we were lovingly raising our children. I remember well, my first visit with a therapist. After telling my woeful tale, she looked at me and point blank said 'You are an enabler." Those words spun in my head, as I tried to swallow that word. I silently retorted "You are a labeler." I don't like labeling people. Albeit, it was a true thing, that my trying desperately to "help" my adult children and grands, didn't help them at all, and brought my house down to Jerry Springer episodes of drama and chaos. My children's descent into drug use, created a descent of my own, despair, guilt, sadness. Not knowing which way to turn. The last thing I needed was a label.
The shock of it did wake me up. I had to face it.
It is a hard, hard thing to witness adult children derailing. Our first instinct is to try with all of our might to stop the train wreck. I believe addiction entraps everyone personally involved with an addict. It is an ongoing work in progress, to disentangle. As long as my two are out there using, I have to work hard at keeping my guard up, lifting myself above the sadness, being the change I wish to see in my two.
Though the word is harsh, it was something I needed to hear. It made me look at the revolving door to my home, the craziness that had occurred there, the nightmare we were living.
I had to take a step back. I gave my two into Gods hands.
I applaud those like you, who were able to get adult children to treatment. It is a ray of hope for parents like me, who have been on this road for so long.
We can take words like "enable" and turn them around. I am enabling myself to walk daily with this, knowing that at this juncture, it is completely up to my d cs, to decide differently. To choose better. The word rehab, or shelter, was met with rolling eyeballs and upturned lip. I learned that I could not fix the mess they got themselves into.
I learned to switch focus to what I can control, my own emotions and reactions. It is a constant effort. Detachment is another word that sends a different kind of message. It seems foreign to not be attached to a child that I nurtured. There will always be a connection to all of my children.
I prefer disentanglement. We get so caught up with what our kids are doing. Basing our own ability to enjoy life, on whether they are walking the straight and narrow. What a web addiction weaves around everyone related to a using addict.
Thank you for sharing this article. I think there are many perspectives when it comes to traveling this journey.
Regaining our own lives back, no matter what any of our adult children are doing is key.
Life is full of challenges, but also countless blessings. Every day is a new opportunity to work on our peace and joy.
Love to you.


Well-Known Member
I like that word disentangle!! I remember the first time someone told me I needed to step back and not enable my son. I was so mad I remember screaming in my head, hey I am worried my son will die!!! I will do whatever it takes to save him. That was years ago. At that time I was completely obsessed with my son, his behaviors, his problems. Since then I have learned what my friend was trying to tell me. I have had to step back. I have had to disentangle! And I have learned to live and enjoy my life. However we are still helping my son out financially and emotionally....but only when he is working on himself. It has been a roller coaster journey with times of him helping himself and times of him getting into more serious addiction. At this point I know it may continue to be a roller coaster and we may be helping him on and off for a long time to come. But I am no longer obsessed with his journey....


100% better than I was but not at 100% yet
I like that word too!

We were so very fortunate that our son didn't like life on the streets and really does want us in his life. Desperately. Those two factors, I think, are key to him turning this around. I give ALL of the credit to divine intervention. I prayed so hard for so long and really questioned my faith at times. I could not believe that God could let this go on and let us all suffer so badly. I did not have a very good childhood and lost my parents young. My first husband abandoned me with a ten month old. I felt I had paid my dues so why again - why this and why now?

I am just thankful that my prayers were finally answered and my son has been sober long enough to let his brain heal. He needed time off the sauce so to speak. But how on earth do you get them to wherever that is to make that happen? It has given me a chance to heal to. To stand back and really see that this IS A DISEASE.

There is a new movie coming out - Beautiful Boy. It is based on a true story. I have read the book. The trailer is on FaceBook today and I could barely watch it. It hit home big time. I will need a roll of paper towels when I go see it. I will be a mess.


Well-Known Member
Oh wow that should be quite a movie. I read both beautiful boy and tweaked which was written by his son. So hard to read.

I think my son is finally at the point where he wants a life. He now fully admits he is an addict and is trying to build his life. He is working with a program that gives him a lot of practical support. However time will tell of he can stay clean and sober.
I really enjoyed reading that thanks.

I cringe at that word. It is a label that is far too simplistic or maybe overused. Yes I am an enabler. Guess what, many other parents would be too but they escape the title because their kids are going along the right path. One mother might give one or two chances before they cannot tolerate any more. Another mother might give 20, 30, 100 chances before she realizes it isn't going to help.

We are doing our best. Even when we feel labeled, self admonished, ashamed because we know deep down we gave the 20 bucks because it made US feel better in the moment, we are still doing what we can do. If we give a meal, allow a room forva while, pay a fine. We are only human with a limited resume of this thing called life. No one is equipped for the perilous walk on the road of drug addiction and or mental illness. We allow what we can tolerate until it becomes intolerable. Enabling is the correct word but it has many levels and facets in my opinion. Just as every person has limits, so does every relationship. It might take a while for the enabler to come to grips...to give up on their hopes of fixing someone by offering an over abundance of kindness, love, money, resources, whatever.


Long road but the path ahead holds hope.
To me it is a word it is a term and nothing more. I don't harbour resentment towards this word. Understanding enabling helped me define my love for my son and not contribute to his disease by setting good boundaries in place. No judgements we are all different and our decisions of what boundaries we choose to have in place are not to be judged by any one else.

Just my 2 cents.


New Member
I think we all enable in the beginning because we don't know what we're dealing with until it blows up.

Hindsight is always 20/20. I did alot of things years ago I would do differently now. I though I was just dealing with regular teenage stuff- my actions changed as my denial subsided and I realized what was really going on.


Well-Known Member
Similar to addiction...I have been more than casually familiar with the stigma that comes to the family when your child is mentally ill. The harsh and unjust assumptions and criticism.

“Disentangle” is a great word!!!!!!

“Enable,” certainly can seem judgmental and I can see where some might use it like a weapon.

Does anyone remember years ago on this board the discussions centering around “give to get?” Also “meet me halfway?”

Discussions within this thread took me back...


Well-Known Member
Staff member
I think enabling is rescuing our substance abusing loved ones from the consequences of their addiction.


Well-Known Member
I think Kathys definition is the bottom line definition.... but it can mean a lot of different things at different times.... what bugs me is when it is used in an accusatory tone by people who really have no idea what you are dealing with or going through..... like “you are just enabling him!!”. Somehow the idea that if you stop enabling them they will get stop using or that your enabling them means their using is your fault which of course is a bunch of hogwash. I think most of us enable our loved ones at some point in time and the process of detaching and stopping enabling them is just that a process of figuring that out.. And it is a different process for all of us, and there is no right answer for all of us on each situation.

For some stopping all contact and all support is the right thing to do, for others it is not. Here is a good example... I have had people suggest that there is no way I should pay for my son to have a cell phone. I get their reasoning. I do. In some ways it is totally enabling him... expecially when he was not doing well and was homeless but at the time it was also the only way at times I could be sure he was alive and that helped me sleep at night and so for my own peace of mind we kept paying for his phone. I didnt care if was enabling or not, I did it for me. And it is one thing not matter how he is doing, even if he really goes down hilll and totally relapses I will continue to pay for a phone..... because it helpe me.

So at this point I try not to do things for my son he can do for himself, we help him when he is helping himself and we do not when he is not. He has been homeless before and he knows he could be homeless again. I would not prevent that from happening. However I also do try to think about what gives me peace of mind and take care of myself in the process.

I have come to realize at least with my son this is a long term process..... in which he seems to be maybe slowly making progress.



Well-Known Member
I remember the first time someone told me I needed to step back and not enable my son.
For some of us addiction is secondary to mental illness or early trauma or chronic illness or developmental disability of our kids.

So, for us, the calculus about enabling gets way more complicated.

For us, it is not so much that the drugs have caused the mental illness or vulnerability or disordered thinking of the child. It may be the other way around: because there has been early vulnerability, our child has predispositions as an adult. And we are vulnerable, because we identify with our child's vulnerability. And feel so compelled to assist, and support, and rescue--i.e. enable. And so, to deny support, is to exacerbate the problems, for the child and us. Because to support, has become essential to our identity, has become a part of us. And to withdraw support may in fact be cruel and rejecting to our child, or it may feel so, to them and to us.

The problem here is that parents' control is quite limited or non-existent, even when the child is disabled.

And the effects on the parents, of constant crisis, and the inability to really make a difference, need to be considered too. Our lives matter.

For us, constantly intervening, if not by deed, but psychologically--ruminating, worrying, suffering, not only takes a toll, but becomes a type of addictive behavior in itself, which compounds and worsens the problem. The family system becomes one of a designated "problem" with the whole family out of control and out of balance, as all of its emotional, social and financial resources come to be directed one way. How is this good for the "difficult" child?

To me, this is enabling. And I raise my hand. Both hands, actually.

There is a level of unfairness to the child, that stuns me, when I recognize it. How compassionate is this, to single out one family member, as dysfunctional, as helpless, as so incapable of making proper or correct decisions, that their mother needs to hover, to monitor, to devote life and energy to "saving" him or her?

This kind of reaction by any person to another is dysfunctional or destructive in its essence. If a creature in an eco-system took over the functions of another creature in that eco-system, not only would the eco-system become vulnerable or even die, we would call that taking over a nasty word like symbiosis, or parasitical. Which is another way of saying "free ride," or blood sucking, or invader.

That one person does this to another person is deeply disrespectful and invasive. It is also hostile and destructive in the name of "love." A nicer word to call this is "enabling."

Because of our own out-of-sync ness we scapegoat the child. We project onto him or her our with our own problems and dysfunction: lack of control over our behaviors and emotions, our inability or unwillingness to take responsibility to make ourselves and our lives our focus of control. We are the problem, people. I am the problem.

It is my addiction that is the primary problem here. My addiction to living my own life vis a vis my child. This is enabling.

Due to the patience and kind heartedness of so many people here, I see this, finally. (Which is not to say I am not prone to relapse.)
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Well-Known Member
There is help for disabled adults. If they dont chose to accept that help, that is on them not us. My son has a nice two bedroom apartment, SSI, two part time jobs that still dont take away all his SSI, a case manager, Medicare/Medicaid, a payee which he is working hard not to need (this was court ordered), food share, we also drive him to an awesome food pantry near us, and a psychologist. He has a comfortable life bevause he accepts the help. He has frie ds and plays a few sports. He has autism. From a young age we made him do things for himself so he always did.

If we ask him to shovel our walk or do chores we give him a little money but he doesnt demand any.
He is very kind and giving and good to his family.

Any adult, disabled, can do what my son did. He was slso adopted and born with crack in his system but does not hate his birthmother or hate anyone, really.

I am not comparing Sonic to J as a person. So ic is very easy going and dislikes conflict and wants the comforts of life. He could never survive the streets. He us too naive. But his easygoing personality makes life eadier for him than for J. He goes with the flow.

J may be ashamed of accepting community help. Perhaps he feels it demeans him. Maybe he feels it is more socially acceptable for your mom to help you than society.

That doesnt change the fact that he is making himself more vulnerable by refusing Section 8 and other services. Livi ggi doors even in a not great neighborhood is more comfortable and safer than the streets, you would think. J doesnt have only two choices....20th or the streets. He has the X factor in Sevtion 8 or subsidized housing, which Sonic has. Sonic is in a decent neighborhood too.

I never did much of what is called enabling because we didnt have much extra money and because I wanted all of my kids to live independently from us. And to feel they could make it. Without us.

J CAN use SSDI services. He isnt totally needy even if he is disabled. He has options. One day he may choose to use those options. To me it seems that for all his complaining he is not that overly anxious to change his life. Some like the lack of structure, the lack of demands and the often close friendships on.the streets. Copa he has YOU as well but so far has missed your meetings. If he felt desperate to be there, wouldnt he have gone to them on time? You know him best.

I hope next time you can connect and that the meeting will conclude with a solution that will ease your heart :)

Love hugs and Starbucks!!
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Well-Known Member
Thank you SWOT.
Maybe he feels it is more socially acceptable for your mom to help you than society.
Since he has been gone this time (now going on 6 months) he has asked for nothing.
Some like the lack of structure, the lack of demands and the often close friendships on.the streets.
This is my son.
If he felt desperate to be there, wouldnt he have gone to them on time?
I think he does not want either conditions or to put in one iota of commitment. He wants to present himself here, without intention, without structure, negating any legitimate expectations on my part. Like he emerged from the womb, born adult.

All he wants to do is go around all day into the night with no expectations of himself, and none at all by others, of him. And that is his life. His wants are limited: caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, supplements, his cellphone to surf the net and minimal social interactions that present no pressure to him. That's it.

I find myself asking why, despite the fact it leads nowhere good. He was not this was at 18, even at 20 or 24. Is it his lifestyle or his psychology that his led him to spiral down to this, to such a minimal existence, and strive only to maintain it?

It is a moot point. Because I know I have no legitimate place to stand to critique this, to offer solutions or even to have a point of view. We are two adults.

I have to say that in the near 5 and a half years since my mother died I have lived an equally aimless existence, which I have been climbing out of.

I need to accord my son the same respect and space to climb out on his own terms.

And I need to devote my energies to my own life. I know this and I am doing it. Little by little so far. But I believe the velocity will be increasing this year. Substantially so.

Thank you.


Active Member
My take on enabling, in this context, is as has been said, doing for them what they should be doing for themselves, not holding them accountable for their behavior, bailing them out and picking them up when they screw up so they don't face the natural consequences of their actions. I am guilty of all of the above for all of my son's childhood and most of his adulthood. Yes, these kids have disabilities, maybe not officially, that make it difficult if not impossible for them to thrive and become independent adults. But when I was a baby, the youngest of three with a big gap between me and my older sister, I started walking later than some babies because there was always a "big kid" or adult to carry me around and so I didn't have to worry about, literally, standing on my own two feet. And when my sister was a baby, she would point and grunt at something she wanted and my mother gave it to her until her doctor said she would never learn to use words at that rate. So although we don't "allow" the addiction we facilitate it by allowing the behavior that does not force the addict to get clean or face the consequences of the addiction, just as my mother facilitated me not having to walk any time soon or my sister to not have to use language to express her needs and wants.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I would never be disdainful or judgmental about enabling behaviors, especially with our kids, grown or otherwise. It's human nature for parents to want to protect their kids from harm and difficult to let them go out on their own, knowing they will end up falling off the bike and scraping their knee until they master their riding skills. (I was never pushed to learn to ride and after two falls I gave up and that was the end of that. To this day I can't ride a bike, where if my parents had make me keep at it, I probably would have eventually)