What is tough love, detachment, enabling etc?


Well-Known Member
Hi Everyone,

I have been hanging out more on the SA forum rather than here.... but see that there is more discussion here, so here I am!! In reading another thread there are comments about tough love and detachment and it strikes me that we may not all mean the same thing when we talk about these terms... Or maybe we do and just disagree.... but I thought it might help if we clarified what we mean.

I bring this up mostly because some have said they dont agree with some of the ideas of tough love. I have heard this elsewhere as well.... and it has made me think about what do I mean by the term. What does it mean to me??

So for me tough love does NOT mean turning your back on your adult kid and saying dont call me until you are clean and sober (or whatever version of having your life together). There may be situations where that is necessary but I have not done that. For me tough love means letting your adult child face natural consequences for the choices they make. For me it has meant a whole lot of things, like not bailing him out of jail, not paying for a lawyer (although I have also done that), not letting him come live at home, not rescuing him from being homeless. To me all those things were very tough to do and hence to me it felt like tough love. However I have also always let him know that I will help him when he wants help.... and we have paid for lots of treatment, gotten him transportation to treatment.... when he was homeless I did get him a sleeping bag and warm boots etc. I have always tried to let him know I love him and am there for him if he is getting help..... and honestly that process has often gotten him to the place where he wants help.

Another term that is used a lot and I think means different things to different people is detachment. To me that does NOT mean cutting off all contact and having nothing to do with him. To me it means setting some boundaries and realizing his decisions about his life are his decisions.... and not having my life and well being totally dependent on how he is doing. And yet I can still let him know I love him and support him. But it does mean taking care of myself in this horrible process of dealing with a kid with addiciton issues.

And what do we mean by enabling? Well I think that means different things to different people and whats enabling to one might not be to another. I think for me it means helping him to continue to make the bad choices that are self destructive. Now there have been times I have skated that fine line... like the time he was homeless across the country in the middle of winter and he asked me for the sleeping bag for his birthday! I could have said no..... but bottom line I was not willing to pay for a hotel room but I did want to help him stay warm and so I got him the sleeping bag. I will not let him live at home because he would then continue his drug use and my guess is if we had let him do that, he could be dead by now from it..... and my daughter would have had to live with the trauma of watching his really bad behavior to all of us. I might have put up with it myself but had to protect her too.

Anyway those are some random thoughts on the subject. Those of you who dont like the idea of tough love or detachment, I am wondering what your definitions are.


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Well-Known Member
I'm on my tablet and really hate writing with this, so I may come back later to this. But now shortly, I think I was the one who said I don't believe on these things. Okay, maybe bad choice of words, we aren't talking about Santa Claus here, so of course I believe these things exist, and at times can be advisable choices.

But I too have never seen any real definition for enabling. Which is one of my problems with it. It seems to mean whatever people want it to mean when they either criticise other people choices or explain their own choices to themselves or others. And real research I have seen extremely little, only tons and tons of popularised books. And research I have seen related to it, seem to hint that often things that are often called enabling in those books seem to lead better outcomes. I have seen this kind of research a lot especially when it comes to juvenile delinquents etc. Things like parents being there to support their errand kid (and often in the studies they go up to 25-year-olds etc. So not just the minors), hiring lawyer, visiting often in prison, letting kid move back home after release etc. seem to lead to less reoffending than many practises recommended in the name of tough love, not enabling etc. There are similar findings with young addicts. Strong family support seem to indicate better outcomes than detached parents. Of course one has to take into account that numbers are likely skewed some because it is difficult to make a difference in those studies with loving detachment and parents who just don't care. And one can imagine that if parents have never cared much, it does have a negative effect.

There are also research that indicates that 'scared straight' and typical tough love treatment RTCs are not effective and only give very short term results, if even those. Softer, community centric treatment models s3m to be more effective.

Detachment (again this word seem to have as many definitions as it has users) I see something, we sometimes have to do, to keep our own sanity. However I don't see it an only way to handle issues with your troubled loved ones or believe it has any tangible positive effects to that troubled loved one. But as I said, at times it is an only way to keep our sanity and keep going on. However I don't like how it at times seem to be pushed as something you just have to do because it is 'a right thing to do' here. It is a choice of handling difficult situation and while someone may feel it works for them and want to recommend it to others, and that of course is okay, telling others that it is something they have to do, or that they are hurting their family or even their troubled loved one if they don't, is not okay to me.

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For me it has meant allowing my son to live his own life, make his own choices and deal with his own consequences, without trying to interfere and step in and solve all his problems or try and make him lead the life I think he should be leading. It's letting go of all those hopes and dreams I had when he was growing up, of what he would do with his life, and just accepting how things have turned out. It's actually more about loving him unconditionally now than it was before, as now I love him just the same but don't fret and judge and soul-search continually. It is what it is. He lives as he lives. I'm his mother just the same.


Well-Known Member
Well, enabling and detaching are two different things and doing something nice for a grown child is not enabling. And I don't think it matters if it is well defined or not. We do what we have to do to survive and we all may have our own take on enabling.

One day, Suzir, perhaps you will go into more detail on what you would do if your son was choking you, assaulting you, stealing from you (in large amounts), cussing you out by using female body parts, spitting in your face (36 did this to me), continuously doing illegal activities, and blaming you for it constantly. Because I don't think you have those issues and I find it offensive that you keep criticizing our methods without telling us what YOU would do so that we can get alternative ideas. Our grown adult children don't listen to our suggestions. In fact, most of them don't want much to do with us unless we shower them with money. Some of us don't even HAVE money. You have said you do and you are fortunate, but some of us barely make it week to week.

Often the grown child may hurt us verbally or physically for even suggesting anything that may help them. I know you do have problems with a mentally ill son and it sounds severe. But he does not appear to be doing any of those things to you. If any of us had an adult child who was willing to get help, do you think we would not help him/her? If so, you are mistaken. Do you feel we should be assaulted, stolen from, our property destroyed, constantly hearing how we are a female part, etc. just because it is a grown child who did it/said it? Do you feel our hearts are not as big as yours? Are we mean? I hear your criticism. I don't hear what other options we have. If you have any, I am all ears. It is one thing for a young child to hit us...I had that and of course never thought to withdraw in any way from him as a child. Now he is a foot taller than me and much heavier and muscular. Do you feel it's the same thing?

To Lucy, detachment to me means in no way do I never talk to my son. He calls me often, more than most sons call their mothers. It means I set boundaries. He can not scream at me (and when I say "scream", I mean scream as in a toddler's scream), call me names especially the female body parts, and he can't tell me how stupid I am or what a moron I am either. I've listened to that forever and I'm done. I will hang up. I will talk to him anytime he wants to air anything in a respectful voice and is not attacking me or the rest of his family. I'm lucky in one way. 36 does not talk about his horrible childhood because he doesn't think he had a bad childhood. I feel for those who have to hear nonstop garbage about what a lousy childhood they had, when it isn't true and the other children they raised don't agree. Boundaries are a big part of detachment to me. That puts the ball in his court. He knows my boundaries and can choose to talk to me. He knows I am there. But he knows if he doesn't act with the respect I show him, he will not be able to talk to me.

Another issue is getting caught up in 36's drama, of which there is much. I choose to listen rather than give suggestions, which only set him off and make him cuss me out and hang up on ME. I've learned to just be a silent listener. There is nothing I can do to make it better. I used to run to school for him (probably too often) to get angry at teachers who complained about things he did. I would stick up for my son. I'm sorry I didn't listen more carefully to what they said. But, that is the past. I can't go stick up for him anymore. He is 36 and nobody will listen to me. He has to do things himself. And he has to make his own decisions and is unwilling to listen to an ything I say anyway. So I have learned to be a good listener unless he starts rarising his voice and cussing me out because of whatever. Never know what may set him off.

36 could never live with me again. When he did, I was divorced and he was scary, often backing me into a corner, spitting at me, threatening to hit me. My oldest daughter claims he was sexual and I will leave it at that. He racked up huge bills on our credit cards by ordering porn movies. I do mean huge (he is bright and memorized all of my credit cards, which I had at the time). Things did not really improve when he lived with his father. He shoved him around too and my ex has always been physically ill and very weak. He broke the law and the cops were at the house a few times for ex. 36 and I will never live together again and I'm rather glad he is a few states away.

Tough love means really that you either follow the rules or you can't stay here anymore and the bank has dried up. It's usually simple rules: Be respectful, don't cuss us out, help around the house, either go to college after high school or get a job, maybe pay some rent, don't break the law and don't assault anyone in the family. That leaves it up to the adult child whether or not he lives at home or leaves the home. If you think about it, it's amazing that most of them can't live up to those simple rules. Even my daughter, during her drug years, did not cuss me out, push me, attack anyone and she had a job. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I think her experiences with 36, which I didn't know about at the time, contributed to her drug use. She cleaned up her act and is the best kid a mom could ask for and we are very close. Detachment doesn't have to be forever.

The only alternative to detachment and tough love is to put up with it, ruin your own health, destroy the lives of yourself and anyone else in the family and live in fear. 36 was my first child. He was my only child for six years. He was a wanted child and doted on. I would not hear a bad word against him (such as from school). I was in serious denial that things were that bad until he decapitated daughter's doll (see the incident that shocked me out of my complacency). That wasn't until he was maybe eleven. I still never gave up on him. I did not know what was going on with his sister, who is seven years younger than him. I put him in a hospital for children at age twelve. He talked me into getting him out and, like always, I did. It broke my heart to hear him crying.

We can not do for our legally grown kids what we tried to do for our younger ones. We have no say. And as our grown kids grown older and stronger and we get older and weaker, we need to protect ourselves. 36 is not the only person in my family and he can not take up all my time anymore and I'm way out of the denial stage. All of his siblings want nothing to do with him. When ex and I are gone, he will only have his son. And, yes, I worry about my grandson, but legally there isn't squat I can do about him or his crazy ex-wife who is as bad.

We are not our children and they are not us, and nobody should be abused.


Well-Known Member
Oops...one last thing.

Nobody is telling anybody here what to do in their situation. We are sharing our experiences and opinions. We aren't professionals. Often professionals did not help our children or the rest of us dealing with the behaviors so we lean on one another and for some of us that works well. Some of us are also in therapy (like me).

Nobody is forced to read our opinions and ways of coping at all. Nobody even has to come here.


Well-Known Member
My son is only 17 not an adult yet except when it comes to sentencing in the judicial system.

I practice "tough love". This he means that you follow house rules, obey the law, and treat me with respect. If you choose not to follow house rules you will begin to be stripped of privileges. These can be earned back. He broke the law and is now having to deal with the natural consequences.

Would I kick him out? I can't at 17. I think that kicking him out when he becomes an adult would depend on what he was doing at the time. I know that I will not put up with being abused. I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

I am detaching from him. To me this means my emotional well being is not dependent on his emotional well being. I will not rescue him from his bad decisions. He will deal with the consequences. I will not put my financial security on the line to keep him from learning from his mistakes. Will I help him if he wants help and is willing to do the work? Yes

Will I refuse to speak to him or see him? That will depend on his behavior toward me. Will I let him know that I love him? Always


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I have also seen research saying tough love is not the best approach....and that love of family is really really important in outcomes of recovery. The problem I have is I do not see those two things as mutually exclusive.... and I think tough love has come to mean to some, something different than it means to me. I think I have gone to every court appearance my son has had, and he has had many. I want the court to see he has the love of his family and it does help. I dont call that enabling. I have visited my son in jail and at one point I thought to myself the only thing keeping my son from becoming a hardened criminal might be the love of his mother!

Now that my son is in treatment I drive an our each way every week to go to the parent support group and to see my son. I really am so there for him..... yet I still think we have practiced what to me is tough love.

We had to kick him out when he was 18.... and really it was his choice, not mine. He would not follow our very simple rules. He threatened me. I had a daughter who was 15 at the time and had experienced enough trauma from all the drama in the house.... I could not let that continue.
I let him be homeless a couple of different times after he was kicked out or left programs out of state. What was I do to.... get him a hotel room or apartment to trash?

So maybe I dont practive tough love or detachment the way the negative studies about them define it. It certain feels like tough love to me..... and I am definitely more detached than I was a few years ago. I now have boundaries. I now am continuing to live my life no matter where he is at. I will always always love him no matter what.


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Staff member
Many years ago my older half sister's oldest daughter, diagnosed with mental illness was wrecking havoc in my sister's family and her other 5 kids. She was destroying property, was abusive to everyone, refused to attend school, meltdowns were daily and severe, I think she was in college at the time, so she was about 20. The psychiatrist the family was seeing, after years of this behavior, finally told my sister that she had a choice, to either remove one child to save the family or continue down this road which was destroying everyone. My niece refused all help and continued with her rampages. My sister asked my niece to leave. There were no words bantered around like detachment, enabling or tough love, it was addressed simply as the only choice left to the family.

I was appalled and had major judgments for YEARS that my sister could possibly make that choice. I was adamant in my appraisal of the injustice done to my niece and the lack of compassion my sister had for her own child. I held on to that judgement until I faced the same story with my daughter. Once I was confronted with the reality of an adult who does so much damage to other family members, my former beliefs began to be challenged.

When I signed on to the codependency program, (part of the largest HMO in the state of Ca.) I sat in those first classes thinking there has to be some other way to address all of this, that love would conquer all, that understanding, compassion, empathy and time would address the issues and make them disappear. But, then I came face to face with the other parents present who had done all the usual helping, supportive, loving things I had done and I saw their despair, their sorrow, their angers and their absolute devastation that no matter what they had done, and often for years, sometimes decades, nothing had worked.

So, I began to listen. I opened my mind up and began to see another way that the therapists, all trained in substance abuse and mental illness and codependency issues, began to teach us about.

Until I was facing my own desperation, my own realization that what I was doing was not working, my own recognition that my life was broken and I needed help, did I begin to understand the nature of the words detachment and enabling. The truth is they are only words. Words have different meaning to different folks at different times based on our own experience and our history and our beliefs. The underlying feelings of not knowing what else to do and the fear that that brings up is what brings us to our knees and often that's when we open to a new thought, a different way of seeing things. Until that point, until we face that particular fear, we really have no idea how we will respond.

I was completely wrong in my assessment of my sisters situation. But until I was faced with a similar situation, I had no way of knowing how horrific that choice must have been for her. Until we are in the shoes of another, until we are facing the worst possible thing that could happen to us, we can't possibly know what that feels like.

I know how much recovering from enabling and detaching from my daughter means to me and my granddaughter. I know how much my life has improved and how much my relationship with my daughter has improved, in fact, it made it possible for love to blossom once again for she and I, where before, because of so much pain, both of us were shut down.

My experience going from one completely different belief way over to the other side and then seeing such profound results is what makes me want to share that information with others so that they too can possibly learn a new way of thinking which may bring healing, relief, comfort and allow love to blossom again.

And, each one of us decides on the course of action we will take. We are only parents here, trying to find help and understanding where there has been only pain.

As I've mentioned before, there is a vast difference between a child who is 20 or even 25 and one who is 35 or 40. Each one of us exhausts ALL possibilities and ALL options, no matter what it costs us in time, energy, money, commitment or our lives before we consider even looking at the words detachment and enabling and tough love. We usually arrive at that point broken and devastated and with no where else to turn.

Research can be found to prove one point or another and we could certainly argue the point until the cows come home. What is important to me is that we have created a safe place for devastated parents to feel, usually for the first time, that we are not alone. That there is something we can do to save ourselves and perhaps our kids too. That, here we are not being judged and blamed and criticized for the way we have chosen to parent our adult troubled children.

Detachment is a choice we make when we've run out of choices. Enabling is what we stop doing when we learn a healthier approach and recognize that there are ways in which one can love another where that very love does more harm then good. We learn, we grow, we help one another to find a way that works. And, we make every attempt not to judge others for the choices they make...........like my experience with my sister, we don't know how we will respond until we're in the same boat.


one day at a time
This is a good discussion and worthwhile. I went and found my ToughLove book, by Phyllis and David York and Ted Wachtel. I remember first hearing about this and thinking No way will I ever do that. The book was written in 1982.

I read it, and even though it sounded really harsh, it made sense. Just like reading the posts on this site, so many, of the same thing. The same problem. The same words, even, in many cases. The same attempts we all did, over and over and over again. The same outcomes.

And then, for many of us, a new day came.

It came when we were completely spent with the old ways. We literally could not do it one more day. Either physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally or all of them. It really didn't matter IF we wanted to keep on doing it, for many of us. We couldn't. We were in the bed, not able to work, not able to smile, not able to think, not able to function. We were taking pills ourselves, drinking too much wine, talking incessantly about our difficult children, going to therapy endlessly.

We were doing all we could to keep on helping them.

I believe this is a God thing. It is a Higher Power thing. It is God allowing us to do our own free will instead of relying on Him, just as God does. He is wisely waiting in the wings. He is patient. He's always there. But he's not going to force anything. He wants us to come of our own volition.

And finally, when we have no other recourse, we say Uncle! We say, okay, okay I give. I don't know what to do. I am completely spent. I am without resources, without hope, without a single other thing to try. I give it to you, God. I give it over to something, anything, that can take this heaviest burden ever and show me some other way.

Because for years and years and years and years, what I have done has not worked.

In order to detach, use tough love and stop enabling, I believe we have to change the most. We have to first say, I don't know what to do.

And for many of us, wow, that is a huge Giant First Step. Because folks, most of us are some of the most capable people you'll want to meet. We can get it done. In a flash and with a dash of style on top of it.

Until we met mental illness. He is the 40-foot-tall Monster. He Rules. We can't beat him. We can't.

I was so sure I could beat this my way. I would just never give up. I would keep on and on and on. I would outlast them all.

But it doesn't work. Story after story after story I have heard in Al-Anon, in rehab parent meetings, on this site, in therapists' office, with friends. Not just one source. Multiple sources. Many sources. Only the names have been changed.

Now, does it work every single time? I would doubt it. Do people get straight and clean and well without their loved ones detaching and tough loving and stopping the enabling?

I would imagine Yes.

There is no straight line here. There is no guaranteed outcome here. My Al-Anon sponsor, who has been in Al-Anon for nearly forty years---her husband went to more than 50 rehabs. Yes, 50. He has finally been sober for 9 years and now helps many other alcoholics. She has been into the pit of hell. I don't know how she even survived all of that. But she did. She has heard hundreds of stories and helped hundreds of people. She tried it all the other way and she was literally insane with it.

Again, two insane people instead of one.

With all of that, we can only do the best we can do. We can only do what works for us. I have no idea if by my detaching from my son, and stopping my enabling, if that will be a contributing factor one day to his regaining his life. I truly don't. I don't think what I do or don't do will be the deciding factor in his life. I think it's what he does or doesn't do, that will be.

But I do know this: As much as I love him, and I'm his mother, so you know that is so very much, I also care about myself just as much. I have learned that putting him first to the slow destruction of my own self is wrong and does not help him or me. I know that goes against mother DNA, and believe me, I fought it for years. I used to think I could and would sacrifice myself for any person that I loved, and I spent years doing that. I didn't need anything, I was already strong enough for all of us.

Hogwash. Today, I know better so I am doing better. I realize something awful can happen to my son, and that is something I live with every day. If it does, I will be devastated. I will retrace every step. I will probably blame myself for a while. I will think: woulda, shoulda, coulda. But then, I will go on.

I also know that I am experiencing more contentment, more joy, more generosity, more peace and more serenity than I ever have before. I am a giver and I always will be. Now, I am also learning to receive.


Well-Known Member
I have never read (and I've read a lot, both pro and con about different treatment methods) that letting your adult child live at home, supporthing the adult financially, letting him verbally and physically abuse you, paying his baill when he is in jail for the fifth time or putting yourself at risk was a helpful method either that helped our adult children get clean. Never read that living in chronic stress is good for anybody in a family. It is not just we who suffer...it is anyone who still lives at home.

Our adult kids know we love them. Their problem is that they don't love who they are so often they take it out on us, but we can't be abused for that reason.

We do not need to be judged here. This isn't what this board is all about.


Well-Known Member
To me tough love is letting my difficult child experience the natural consequences of his actions without jumping in to "save" him.

In our situation, enabling is me allowing him to manipulate me without me calling him out on it.

And detachment is me letting go of the guilt, anger, and sadness. It's me being able to love my son as he is even if I don't agree with his choices and actions. It's me being able to live my life peacefully knowing that I've done everything I could possibly do to help him.

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One day, Suzir, perhaps you will go into more detail on what you would do if your son was choking you, assaulting you, stealing from you (in large amounts), cussing you out by using female body parts, spitting in your face (36 did this to me), continuously doing illegal activities, and blaming you for it constantly. Because I don't think you have those issues and I find it offensive that you keep criticizing our methods without telling us what YOU would do so that we can get alternative ideas. Our grown adult children don't listen to our suggestions. In fact, most of them don't want much to do with us unless we shower them with money. Some of us don't even HAVE money. You have said you do and you are fortunate, but some of us barely make it week to week.

Really?!? Are we here again?

Okay, one more time: I'm not judging anyone for their decisions for themselves. I do not have competence for that. I also totally agree that in some situations detaching (however the person defines that) is the only way to save yourself or bring peace to rest of the family. I just don't believe it does much good to person one is detaching from, or in some cases it does and in some cases it harms them more.

I will (again, maybe fifth time ) answer these (basicly) same questions:

* If my adult son, who is much bigger and stronger than I am, would cause me serious physical harm or danger, I would try to save myself any way possible. I wouldn't let myself be alone with him etc. I would probably still want to meet him in safe place if possible, though. However I would keep a distance solely for my benefit and my safety, not to teach him anything or to let him hit any rock bottoms.

* Stealing is hurtful. Mine didn't steal from me so much that it would had financially hurt me, but it hurt otherwise. If he were to continue stealing from me, I would try not to let him steal me blind, but I wouldn't necessarily 'detach' from him, just try to make it impossible for him to get to anything too valuable. Though I did it already before and that was one of the reasons why our financial losses from his stealing were not more than a grand if even that (of course letting him out of home cost us more, but that is different thing.) But then again, I try to make sure no one can steal too much from me, not even husband (who doesn't have a habit of stealing, but still making sure I'm in control of my finances is something I make sure I do.)

* Cussing at me using female body parts I mostly ignore. Though he doesn't do that so often nowadays because he knows it doesn't get a raise from me. And when gets pushed too much into the corner and really lashes out, he is much more hurtful than just cussing or using naughty words. I tend to avoid pushing him into the corners that much. Does no one any good.

* I think he hasn't actually spit on me in quite some time, he outgrew it quite a long time ago. I would be worried if he regressed like that. And let's face it, he doesn't tend to be that confrontational. He acts out behind your back. So slashed tires in your car or your favourite skirt cut with scissors or your hard drive wiped clean or something you value getting 'accidentally' broken is much more like him than actually being confrontational in your face (though none of that has happened in couple years either, just few accidents or 'accidents' with things that are important to me or 'forgetting' this or that which has caused me lots of trouble.)

* Continuously doing illegal activities. Well he isn't doing that so much at least right now to my knowledge. This of course would depend from the actions. Some I would feel need to report, some I would just keep myself out from.

There are reasons that would make me take some distance to my kids and I would be more than ready to protect myself. You can call it detaching or you can call it protecting yourself or whatever. I can totally see myself doing it in some cases and would advice others to do so. I just simply don't see what it has to do with this 'enabling' and why people seem to consider it is something they do for the person they are protecting themselves from and not for themselves.


Well-Known Member
OK So I think I probably have missed some past discussions about this topic since I have been hanging out at SA and not here. However this discussion is exactly why we need to be clear what we mean by enabling or detachment etc.

It means different things to different people. I dont think detachment necessarily means creating distance or turning your back on someone. And in general I think detachment is not only good for the person detaching but is good for the person being detached from. The reason being is that it is setting good and healthier boundaries, it is realizing that you cannot control anothers actions, it is showing the other person you will not accept their abuse.

So I disagree that detachment is not necessarily good for the person being detached from.

Now in the process of detaching other things may happen that may not be good for the other person. For example I am guessing that my son being homeless or in jail was not good for him. I dont think either of those things helped him, and they may have made things worse. To be honest I dont completely know because there is a lot I dont know. But my son was not homeless because I developed detachment, he was homeless because of choices he made (ie leaving a program he was in and choosing to hitchhike to Denver where pot was legal)!

I cant imagine that my getting him a hotel room would have helped him in any way.

I guess my issue with the terminology is that when one person says that tough love is not good, or detachment is not good for some reason I want to scream and say just like MWM is saying well what would you do in my position.... because really I have done everything possible to help my son.... and bottom line is if he wont help himself then I cant help him.

Those statements feel like judgement even if they are not intended that way... and ultimately I think part of the problem is in the very blurry definitions.

I read some things from someone who didnt like the "tough love" approach... but they had the experience of someone telling him he should have no contact with his son until his son was clean and sober for a year and anything else was enabling!! Well gosh that sounds crazy to me, I would never do that and that does not feel like tough love to me at all... that is something else.

I think ultimately it is about having healthy boundaries... and when you are dealing with substance abuse or mental illness it can be very hard to figure out what good healthy boundaries are. And of course they differ from situation to situation.


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Suzir, it is one thing to project about what you might do if...and another to be living through it. You have no idea what you'd really do if your son spat at you at his age or hit you or got thrown in jail or became a drug addict. You can not guess what you would do. You simply do not know. I did not know. I did not think any of this would happen.

Your son has other issues which I would have handled much differently than you did, but I did not bring it up because I don't believe this board is to try to undermine what we as warrior parents are doing for our adult children (or did for them when they were small).

You and I don't know what one another would do, unless we walk in one another's shoes.

I'm honestly glad what you do works for you and your beloved son.


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Definitions of these concepts are certainly not clear, partly because of lack of scientific research on them and partly because they tend to be popular buzz words that many authors etc. like to use. And they can mean very different things for different people. And yes, they can be very emotional words and can be considered hurtful even when not meant to. For example saying someone is enabling something basically means you blame them for making that thing worse (if the thing they are enabling is considered to be bad.) So telling someone they are enabling their child when they are for example paying that motel room, is basically telling them they are making their child worse and it is their fault child has not hit that rock bottom yet and got better. That can be hurtful if you assume that 'enabling' parent loves their kid.

And if detaching is just about having healthy boundaries, why there is so little talk about detaching from your perfectly loving and stable loved ones? Or from your work or eating, when it comes to it? Those healthy boundaries are just as important in all relationships and also in other things. Taking care of and keeping healthy boundaries are things many people struggle in many different parts of life. Keeping healthy boundaries with troubled loved one can certainly be challenging, but most literature I have seen about detaching seem to go little further with detaching from troubled loved one than they assume you would detach from untroubled loved on.

There seems to be also some ready made lists of dos and don'Tourette's Syndrome that one is expected to follow in name of detaching or not enabling while one is not expected to follow those same guidelines with their other loved ones. If you for example tell someone they should not financially help their addicted loved one, while it is okay to help their unaddicted loved ones, you are not telling them to have boundary for them self, instead you are telling them, that by giving financial help they are making the addiction worse. And how is that not blaming? Especially if one doesn't have undisputable evidence to back that claim up.

MWM: You are of course right. I can't know how I would react if my son would beat me to pulp. It is possible I wouldn't try to protect myself but would let him do it again and again. And I could of course be pleased if he spat me on face instead of more negative reaction. I do have my doubts about that, though. But you are right, I can't know for sure. I kind of hope I don't have to find out either. We have enough troubles as it is, thank you, without adding physical violence or bodily fluids in anyone's face.
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difficult child spat in husband's face....we will never forget that. We had moved past it, then things went south again (and again, and again) and we always remember. I was not present, but it is right up there... near the top of the list...


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I think the reason there is not talk about detaching from our stable and loving loved ones, is the boundaries are probably already more healthy. I think when you are dealing with a person with an addiction, or mental illness or an abusive partner (as another example) then boundaries are difficult. They are difficult because the other person does not tend to respect or get boundaries and they get more confusing for us too. I dont even have to think about boundaries with my husband or my easy child daughter because they are naturally there. I will say my getting clearer about boundaries with my difficult child has helped me at times be clearer about boundaries with my daughter as well. My difficult child on the other hand always pushes my boundaries and often asks me for things that I am uncomfortable with and then have to think about his reaction before I respond.... because his reaction is often out there.

I agree I dont like lists of dos and don'Tourette's Syndrome around enabling. To me the key is following your own instinct and gut and thinking about how it makes you feel. However having said that I think giving a drug addict cash is almost always a mistake becuase they will use it for drugs. That has been my experience and is what you hear over and over again from people with experience with drug addiction. However I have bought groceries... and I did get him a sleeping bag and boots through a store.... and some would consider that enabling but it made me feel better to do something to help him stay warm when he was homeless in winter.

And even with my comments about motel rooms I have at times gotten my son a motel room for a night..... but it was not an open ended deal. Once was when he was waiting the weekend to turn himself into probation so I got him a room for two nights... but then he was headed towards doing the right thing.

So in my mind it is not a black/white thing.

I also think getting to the point of not enabling is a process.... the first step is recognizing it and at times I think it helps to have a caring and compassionate person point it out.

For me I will help my son do the next right thing... and I will not help him or support him in doing self destructive things. Often it is a balancing act.


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toughlovin: I think I wouldn't give my addicted child cash either (but like MWM reminded, I of course don't know what I would do, my difficult child has not been active addict so that I would had known he was) but that is based simply my version of common sense. I don't have any evidence to back up that opinion, so it is not my business to say anyone they are making a mistake if they give money. And again, giving groceries or even helping with rent etc. are things there you never know what choice is best, especially in other people's situations and even with your own it is often just a hunch how you feel is best to do.

My dad has been long term alcoholic and addict though nowadays he is mostly moderate drinker. Some would likely call my mom's almost daily pot use and occasionally heavy drinking and harder drugs addiction too, though I don't think she was ever really addicted. With them I have been through about zillion times of deciding when to help and when not and doing different things with different results. Sadly my mom passed away because of skin cancer over a decade ago but my dad is living and kicking. I doubt my dad would be doing so (and having currently have quite a good time with his art and even financially just now) or my mom living as long as she did and accomplishing what she did, if someone had forced them to 'find their rock bottoms' etc. And they were being kept housed and fed many times by the 'enabling' of others, even I tended to buy some of my dad's art when she was in more desperate points even though I did know he likely drank big part of those money.

These are not easy decisions and I simply don't believe there is some one truth that works in every situation like 'stop enabling and detach.'

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I have interpreted detachment as how I think about the situation inside my own head. It doesn't mean I don't have any contact with my son, but it has made the contact much healthier. I am able to deal with things by creating an invisible fluffy protective blanket around my worst sadness, fear and distress. It's not allowed to affect every aspect of my day-to-day life any more. I see the detachment as a metaphor for my mental separation rather than a physical separation. So I can listen to him and be objective with my responses. I can love him without conditions attached about the way he is living, because I can't do anything about that anyway and he doesn't want me to interfere. He just wants me to accept him as he is. So I have. But I also don't fund his lifestyle any more because he is a grown-up and I wouldn't expect him to fund my lifestyle. And I don't drop everything to run and sort out his problems, because he is a grown-up and I wouldn't want him to come and try and sort out my problems. Balance is the key to a lot of things in life, and I'm far more balanced now. He has to find his own balance, I was making that worse before I detached. I can see that now.


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I think the definitions are really rather unimportant. They are starting points so that we (one another) know sort of what the other person is talking about. In our journey, what words we use are not as important as what we do. Did I detach from Daughter when she was heavily into drugs? Yes and no. I did make her leave. I stopped the money train, but that had happened long ago, when I first found out about the drugs. I was very relieved in secret that her brother S. (not 36) reluctantly offered to let her live in his basement in another state, where she could get away from her "friends" who kept pushing her to keep using drugs and selling them.

In Daughter's case what is called detachment worked really well. She had nothing to do at her brother's house and had hours to sit around and think. He was such a law abiding rule follower that she knew one wrong move and he'd throw her out and in Daughter's case she decided she did not want to be homeless so she followed his rules. She walked to and from work. She did chores. She paid rent. She detoxed on her own in the basement. She has been straight and sober for ten years now. She has told me that she never would have been able to have gotten clean if she hadn't left the state and had alone time, although it was painful. So in Daughter's opinion, what is called detachment TO ME worked well, at least if you ask Daughter.

I never stopped talking to her. I just stopped giving her the things that you give to a minor child and she was smart and cared enough about herself to use her own tools to change her life and, trust me, she is very grateful for the life she now has. She has been able, since then, to get help for and work out her being sexually attacked. We have talked about that often. She did not let that destroy her. She is a strong young lady. And very bright. And full of insight. All these things helped her.

Not all difficult children have these tools in their DNA. 36 does not. So what I call detachment (in reality I probably speak to him more than I do any of my other kids put together as he is so needy), did not work well for him. But lemme tellya, it worked very well for the rest of our family. Since I talk to him a lot (until he starts swearing or cussing me, which is a boundary I have placed), I do broach him getting help, maybe even at a free clinic. He usually screams, swears and yells about having no money (not true...he just bought himself a new house and makes good money). He chooses to spend it on material goods rather than helping himself. I cared once desperately. I no longer am emotionally invested in whether or not he goes to therapy. It is good for ME that I no longer give a fleep about that. He is a 36 year old man. By his age I had three kids, no parental support, and was divorced and taking care of my kids on my own and not screaming, swearing or abusing my own parents who were far less kind to me than I was to 36. There comes a time when you have to give it over to your higher power...or, if you don't have one, just let go. My higher power though has helped me a lot. I find it helpful that I am far from an atheist...maybe there is a difference as to how you feel if you are. I feel like God is always with 36 so he is never alone.

To me, detachment and no longer enabling is for the worn out, normally later-in-life parent who can't do it anymore. In a healthy family, kids start to sort of worry about their parents when they reach their 50's and 60's. I know I get annoying "be carefuls" from sweet, sweet Julie and even Sonic and Jumper. Usually the middle age children start to want to take care of the older parents. Julie will say, "Don't take any silly chances, Mom. I want you around to dance at Kaili's wedding!" That is how the cycle often goes. And I am still fit and capable!!!!

difficult children often do not change. They can be the way they have always been all their lives. They can be 50 themselves and living with 80 year old widowed mom and still be abusing her and insisting on money and a mother who feels it is her duty to care for her "child" forever may do it. I don't want that to be me. I enjoy my life and challenges don't stop me from having fun, good times. You all know my life bringing up my children was FULL of challenges, but the healthy ones grew closer and love to pieces.

To me detachment means 36 and his continuous string of dramas, in which he often threatens suicide, is not going to rule my life. I do what I can. I call 911. Then once I get off the phone, I am able to move on with the good things in my life. Selfish? I would have thought so when I was thirty. Maybe forty. But I think of it as self-preservation now. There is nothing I can do to save 36 from himself. So I listen to him, unless he crosses one of my boundaries, and then I say a prayer when I hang up and ask God to watch him for me. But I am actually in a very good place in my life and I fought very hard to get here. Nobody is going to eat up the rest of my life.
I am done chasing after endings that I can't control.

Well, off to work :) I'm on an every other week schedule, but love the job. Life is good :)