Wondering how to help without enabling


Active Member
My 18 year old son is still in jail & facing several years in prison now for robbery and probation violation. He calls me every night, & all he can talk about is coming home. I just don't understand him. Last time he got out, he was free exactly 8 days before he got in trouble again. I actually gave him money the day he got out of jail, which he agreed to pay back when he got a job. I gave him money so he wouldn't steal anything. I just don't get it. We have a beautiful home, he has his own room, nice clothes & shoes. He wasn't taking drugs (his drug tests were negative), so I can't blame it on that. He has everything he needs, but wants to live like a thug. I asked him why he continues to do these things & he said he doesn't know what is wrong with- him. He will be doing time & I am praying he stays out of trouble when he gets out. I just don't know how to help him. I spoke to our family counselor & told him I think my son has a lot of the characteristics of anti-social personality disorder. He said he doesn't think so, he believes my son is too kind hearted & is just struggling right now. I'm not looking to label him, just searching for the right "diagnosis" to try to find help for him.


Well-Known Member
Is he facing enough years that he can access services from within the prison system? like mental health evaluations and such? It would help HIM to know why he does some of this stuff.


Well-Known Member
Staff member
It's so hard Sherril2000, we want so much to understand, to get it, to wrap our brains around it. Your son is so young, he may indeed be struggling to find out who he is, where he fits in. At that age, fitting in is ALL important, being accepted, being a part of some group......even if that group is a a bunch of "thugs." There is still time for him to pull it together.

Have you tried contacting NAMI? You can access them online and they might be able to give you some insight, guidance, support and information. They have parent courses which are excellent. It may be a place where YOU can find some solace. I found them very helpful and my daughter never had an official diagnosis, it didn't matter, I was still struggling and they helped me.

Right now he is "somewhere" as COM puts it. While he is there, do your investigations into helping to find resources for him, but don't forget to take care of YOU too. Don't serve his time with him. He is there and you are here. You have a life that requires attention and care so don't neglect it. Make sure to do kind things for yourself, you deserve that.

When I was in the throes of insanity with my daughter, a therapist told us that the difference between enabling and loving kindness is that you feel good with loving kindness and generally, you feel resentment and anger with enabling......a sense of being squeezed as opposed to feeling expansion. I found that to be a good indicator. I found it a good practice to wait too. To "refrain" from action for a day or so, and when I did that, the enabling part would settle down, the dust would clear a bit and I would have more clarity to act and respond in a different way.

None of this is easy Sherril, it is in fact, the hardest thing I've ever done. However, with each step, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to detach with love and how to accept what you can't control......you learn how to live in the present moment and how to let go.

Hang in there. We're here. We understand. Sending warm wishes for peace.


Active Member
Thank you both so much. I will contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I would appreciate any assistance they can provide. I'm hoping to get an evaluation done on him while he's there. & yes, he could be there as long as 8 years. More than anything, RE, thank you for sharing your experiences. It helps so much to hear from someone who has been there & doesn't judge .


one day at a time
Sherril...I'm so sorry. I am just thinking and feeling along with you about your son.

My son is now 26, but there were many many times when I wondered exactly the same things you wrote. Why in the world? In my son's case, he was addicted to prescription drugs and continued to get into all kinds of legal trouble associated with drugs. A to Z. Also, he can't drink alcohol and that was one of his gateways to the Rx. He also smoked pot.

The downhill steep slide started (to my knowledge) at about age 19. First semester of college. Flunked out. My son had it all too, youngest of two, with every privilege you can think of, also with requirements and consequences, all along. He was privileged but we expected them to do their part, and that didn't mean just sitting around playing video games all day long.

One thing my son said that still echoes in my head: I don't want to grow up. He started saying that as a little boy and continued saying that into high school.

I think he has been afraid of responsibility, adulthood. He is anxious and has had some depression. He is a very hard worker and smart (both book smart and common sense smart) but I think he doesn't feel like he is good enough or fits in. I think substances helped him feel better about himself and the world around him. At the same time he was grandiose---he would say he was going to be rich and live in a mansion.

All classic addiction behaviors and thinking.

I don't think there is anything, short of locking him in a cage, that could have stopped what he decided to do. He had to go the whole distance. He wouldn't listen to anybody.

So, to your question---how to help but not enable. Your son is now 18 years old, an adult in our world legally, but you probably realize, like I did, that chronological age and really being mature were two very different things.

My son was just a kid at 18, and in many ways still is. But that doesn't mean he's off the hook, from an adult standpoint. Society expects a lot from people over 18 and the consequences of not delivering are harsh.

I don't think we can do it for them. We can't talk enough, reason enough, sit on them enough...to get them mature. I think they have to experience life on life's terms, and again, that is some harsh stuff, sometimes, IF THEY CHOOSE to go down that road. Your son appears to have chosen the road, for now.

I would suggest just loving, encouraging and supporting him. Not with empty platitudes, "you're great" but with real encouragement when he begins to show more mature behavior and thinking, i.e., "I like what you just said. That makes good sense." That type of encouragement.

Tell him you love him.

If he says he might try an AA meeting in jail, say: "I think you might learn some good things there."

If he wants books, I would send those. I sent books at the beginning, the first handful of times he was in jail, but finally I stopped.

I would put some money on his account, I believe. Not a whole lot, but a little bit from time to time for essentials.

With my son, I put money on the account for a long time, but then I learned he was using it for winning and losing while playing cards in jail, so I stopped.

I wrote letters and postcards, and over time, I learned not to preach about what he needed to do in those letters. I just wrote what I was doing and what was going on in my life. I always said I love you and I'm hoping for the best for you.

Your son will learn a lot about life and about himself where he is. If he can gain a good perspective, he can learn a lot of valuable lessons.

I got the point where I was actually glad my son was in jail when he would go back to jail (was in 8 or 9 times). At least he wasn't homeless. At least he had 3 meals and a place to sleep. At least he wasn't using drugs (theoretically). At least...

I could relax when he was there. It was better for me than the alternative. Although at first I thought I would die the first time he went there. It felt awful to me.

Hang in there Sherril. We can't know his journey. His journey is his alone, and IF HE CHOOSES, he can turn it all around and have a great life.

We're here for you. We know how hard this is. Try to use this time to focus on YOU. Warm hugs.


Active Member
Thank you for this. It helps so much to hear from others who have been there & understand. I hope your son is doing better now. I hate to say it, but yes sometimes it is a relief when he's in jail. Like you said, at least I know where he is & he's not high & has a roof over his head. I'm trying to be supportive by putting money on his Canteen & phone accounts, & visiting him every Sunday. As crazy as it sounds, I even tried to lock him in at night to keep him out of trouble by changing the code on my security system. Of course he still found a way out & got in trouble again.

You're also correct in saying we can't do it for them. I know I've always been too quick to jump in & fix everything for him. I realize that's classic enabling, so that's why I'm trying so hard to be supportive but no longer enabling. Your suggestions mean a lot to me. From a mother who's been through a similar situation, looking back, your advice really helps.