Actions that may be thought of as helpful or supportive can actually enable a teen’s substance use. Learn how to stop enabling your teen.

As a parent, one of the most basic instincts is likely to protect your child. While the instinct to protect is often positive and rarely problematic, when it comes to teen addiction, there is a fine line between protecting and enabling. The impact of substance use on each member of the family has led to it often being called a family disease. Enabling addiction can be hard to spot–especially from the inside–but it is critical that it is identified and stopped. Enabling a child’s substance use often prevents the child from experiencing the natural consequences and other situations which may ultimately lead to healing and recovery.

What is Enabling?

To avoid enabling the drug addiction of a loved one, it is important to first clearly understand enabling behaviors. To do this, we must first answer the important question: what is enabling? Enabling has been defined as a pattern in which a person or people “excuse, justify, deny, and smooth over” the behaviors and consequences of another person.

In the context of substance use, enabling refers primarily to actions which prevent the person using substances from experiencing the full impact and consequences of their use. Unlike helping or supporting, enabling behaviors allow and assist irresponsible behaviors.

While there is no clear line as to what is considered enabling, there are some specific behaviors that frequently are displayed in enabling relationships including:

  • Avoiding confrontation to “keep the peace”
  • Minimizing, justifying, or denying substance use
  • Rescuing from situations that are a direct result of substance use
  • Providing the means necessary to continue using substances
  • Making decisions based on fear
  • Difficulty saying “no” or putting self-care first

If more than one of these behaviors is present, it might be time to consider whether the relationship is helpful or harmful.

Ways You May Be Enabling Your Child

Parents enabling their child are most often acting out of love. They do not want their child to struggle or experience pain. Very frequently, enabling addiction may be internally rooted in a fear of losing a child, whether as a result of overdose or a child cutting off contact. Some of the most common signs of enabling behavior and the ways in which parents enable their children include giving them money, lying for them, fulfilling their responsibilities, not following through with consequences, and justifying behaviors.

Giving Them Money

A common fear for parents whose kids are on drugs is that if they do not provide their child with money when asked, that their child will resort to other means to continue using substances. While in some cases this may be true, not every child will resort to illegal actions to fund their substance use.

Regardless of what a parent is telling a child, if they are funding their teen’s drug use, they are sending a message that using drugs is okay. Moreover, in some cases, if a teen is unable to afford to use drugs they will cut back their drug use. In instances where a teen does resort to illegal means to obtain substances, legal consequences may be imposed which could motivate a teen to stop using drugs.

Lying for Them

Lying for a teen is never the right strategy. Parents might feel compelled to cover up their substance use or prevent their children from experiences consequences relating to their substance use. But this is ultimately a self-defeating strategy. Some of the most common lies parents tell themselves about their child’s substance use may not seem to have major consequences but when it becomes a pattern, it can send a clear message of impunity.

Covering up their actions only exacerbates the long-term consequences; it reinforces the notion that a teen does not need to take responsibility for their actions while preventing natural consequences from being experienced.

Some common lies may include providing excuses for absences and tardies at school, keeping substance use a secret from other family members, or calling a teen’s job saying they are sick – when in fact they are absent due to their substance use.

Fulfilling Their Responsibilities

Enabling parents frequently take on the responsibilities of their children to prevent their child from experiencing negative consequences. This may be done in small ways such as dropping a book off at school that was left at home or in more major ways such as completing a teen’s homework or community service hours.

While occasionally helping a teen to fulfill their responsibilities may not be harmful, doing so on a regular basis when their irresponsibility is a result of substance use is dangerous. This is yet another way in which a parent can remove natural consequences and send a message to their child that their substance use is not a problem.

Not Following Through With Consequences

Consequences are often given with the intention of following through whether it be grounding a child, giving additional chores, or taking away a privilege. Occasionally, situations may occur where the consequence is either not given or is reduced. When parents consistently give consequences without following through, it prevents a child from learning the intended lesson. Instead of learning that a certain behavior is not acceptable, a child will instead learn that consequences do not apply to them.

Justifying Behavior

Justifying bad behavior can take many forms such as dismissing teens substance use saying things like, “they are just being teens,” “they are only doing this and other teens are doing that,” “I drank alcohol when I was in high school too,” or any other type of excuse. Justifying and excusing a teen’s substance use sends a very clear message to them that their behavior is acceptable–or at least not that bad.

How to Help Your Child

One of the most critical ways to help a teen and encourage recovery is to stop enabling. Some simple ways to stop enabling and hold a teen accountable include:

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries and stick to them. Determine the consequences of negative behavior and rewards for positive behavior ahead of time. Communicate these consequences and follow through if a rule is broken.
  • Allow natural consequences to occur. It may be difficult to watch a child’s grades decline or see them lose a job but these experiences may be the catalyst necessary to motivate a change in behavior.
  • Learn to say “no” and avoid giving your child the means to continue using. This includes giving your child money, paying for their car, or any other behavior which makes it easier for them to get and use drugs.

Once enabling behaviors have stopped, it is important to be aware of common signs of drug use in teens to monitor whether or not these efforts have been sufficient. Once a teen has stopped using drugs, it may be easier to notice a return to using than it was to recognize their initial substance use.

Be mindful of any sudden behavior changes such as performance in school, social relationships, being secretive, mood swings, or irritability. Knowing what drugs a teen has used in the past can further inform what to look for as a sign of the return to use.

If enabling behaviors have stopped and teen substance use has not improved or a teen has returned to substance use, it may be time to consider teen drug rehab. It can be difficult to send a child away to treatment but this decision can be lifesaving.

If you are considering treatment for your teen, speak to a representative today to learn about teen drug treatment programs. The Recovery Village offers programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs of teens and help them get the support they need.

Daron Christopher
Editor – Daron Christopher
Daron Christopher is an experienced speechwriter, copywriter and communications consultant based in Washington, DC. Read more
Denise-Marie Griswold
Medically Reviewed By – Denise-Marie Griswold, LCAS
Denise-Marie Griswold is a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist. She earned her Master's Degree in Substance Abuse and Clinical Counseling from East Carolina University in 2014. Read more

King, Kyle S. “Enabling 101: How Love Becomes Fear and Help Becomes Control.” Good Therapy, October 18, 2013. Accessed August 13, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.