Helping and Enabling – Is There A Difference?

Helping vs Enabling Is there really a difference between helping and enabling? What is enabling? What are the causes and effects of this behavior on both the “enabler” and the person being “helped”? Helping is doing something for someone else that they are unable to do for themselves. Enabling is doing things for someone else that they can and should be doing for themselves. So, why is there so much confusion between the two?

We have many opportunities in our lives to help someone else, whether it be amongst those of our own families, close friends or complete strangers. Perhaps someone you know has become ill, and you help them by arranging and bringing meals to them until they are well enough to do it for themselves again. A friend’s car may be in the shop getting fixed and you help them by driving them to and from work until their car is in good running order again.

Maybe someone you know has run into a bit of bad luck and is in need of temporary financial help to tide them over for awhile until their situation improves. Did you notice the optimal word, “until”? Providing temporary help to someone in need exemplifies kindness and consideration towards the receiver of help, but it also makes us feel wonderful inside when we are able to do so. But it is still temporary.

What then is enabling?

Enabling is entirely a different matter, but oftentimes gets confused as “help” by well-intentioned family members, friends and even neighbors. Remember, enabling is doing things for someone else that they CAN and SHOULD be doing for themselves. Many people think of enabling strictly in regards to alcoholics or drug addicts, whose family and friends make excuses for unacceptable behaviors, thus creating an atmosphere of comfort and ease for the situation to continue long-term.

Enabling vs. helping has a much broader meaning, encompassing many areas of life, including raising children to become independent adults rather than contributing to the increasing phenomenon of grown children returning home to live with their parents. When we enable addicts, children, friends or family, we are preventing them from experiencing the consequences of their own actions. We are not only preventing them from realizing they have a problem, but we are also depriving them of fully reaching their own potential.

Examples of enabling behaviors-

Sharon is an 36 year-old woman who can and should be working to care for her two small children, but she’s not. She has her own apartment that she shares with her children, and her own car. Sharon hasn’t worked a day in the last six years, since giving birth to her second child. Why? Because her mother and two sisters are paying all of Sharon’s bills, covering bounced checks and bank fees, buying all her groceries, paying her car payment each month, and even gives Sharon spending money. Sharon is not sick, she is not mentally or physically disabled in any way, but she has found a way of avoiding the responsibilities that go with being an adult with the “help” of her family.

Paul is a 28 year-old man who, although working full-time in the construction industry and making a very good income, is still living at home with his parents. All of his free time is spent watching television or playing video games, while others in the household carry full responsibility for paying the mortgage, utilities, household chores etc., while Paul remains stationery on the couch or in his bedroom. Paul is in good health, fully capable of providing for himself, but can’t think of a valid reason why he should be living on his own. His money is spent on month-long trips out of the country, purchasing movies and video games to add to his collection, and buying new clothes. Why? Because the parents are enabling Paul by allowing him to continue living with them, when he can and should be living on his own as an adult.

The Best Of Intentions Often Back-fire

Helping someone in need is truly admirable, until. Enabling someone is not so admirable, fraught with complications that can last indefinitely. Society tells us that a “good” mother or father gives their children everything they themselves never had. Society tells us to try and make things “easier” for our children, but where has this idea really gotten us?

Being an enabler has it’s own payoff, with a false sense of control over the lives of others. Well-intentioned parents, friends and even strangers can often find themselves feeling frustrated, resentful and used, but lack the will to stop the enabling. The “help” provided to those lacking the motivation and determination to stand on their own two feet has become a long-term expectation and outright demand by many. Are you an enabler?

Turning Enabling Behaviors Into Positive Potential-

Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers etc must learn to redirect their “helping” efforts with Tough Love, allowing persons to recognize and accept the responsibilities and consequences of their own choices, rather than enabling the continuance of unacceptable behaviors to the detriment of everyone involved. Take responsibility for any enabling behaviors, which is considered by some experts to be akin to abuse, realizing that creating positive change in someone being “helped” will not only have a positive impact on them but on you as well. There really is a difference between helping and enabling, but it is up to you to choose whether to continue on this path or to put a stop to it now.

A Sense of Entitlement
Children Who Refuse To Grow Up
Are Parents Helping Or Enabling Their Adult Children?
Are You An Enabler? Identifying Early Warning Signs of Enabling Behaviors
How to Stop Enabling: When Our Grown Children Disappoint Us
Support Groups for Parents with Grown Adult Children Living at Home with Parents

Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children As long as we continue to keep enabling our adult children, they will continue to deny they have any problems, since most of their problems are being “solved” by those around him. Only when our adult children are forced to face the consequences of their own actions—their own choices—will it finally begin to sink in how deep their patterns of dependence and avoidance have become. And only then will we as parents be able to take the next step to real healing, forever ending our enabling habits and behaviors.

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50 Responses to “Helping and Enabling – Is There A Difference?”

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  1. Andrew Benn says:

    I have a 30 year old son who often finds himself in disruptive relationships.
    He recently got married to a woman he met 12 months earlier. Two months after
    they began to talk about desolving the marriage. She made a scene on his work,
    both lost their jobs, He was there 6 years, she 9 months. He called us in tears, asked what to do
    and proceed to annulment of the marriage. The wife complied with the action to desolve the marriage
    but start over their relationship.

    I wrote him a letter advising him to be careful reentering a relationship without counseling because the woman has admitted to erratic mood swings. and had fooled all of us before. He took offense and sent me a email with cussing and calling me out of my name told me in essence to leave it alone. Prior to this we had a good relationship. I am surprised by this. I want to write him back, telling him its unacceptable etc. Or should i simply ignore him and say nothing? Thanks for any suggestions.

  2. jackie carty says:

    Hi ,I have a 19 year old adult son, who smoke cigarettes and marijuana and also drinks alcohol ,and heaven knows what else he does. I don’t know when all this started. My husband and I told him, he is following other boys on the street. Because we don’t do those things in this house. But he keep on telling us he is his own man. And he is not following anyone. and how, he is the leader not a follower. We sent him to school to get his G.E.D so he can get a good job. He now has his G.E.D. which is a good thing, but he is depending on his father to help him with getting a job. he will work if there is a job waiting for him. but he will not go out on his own to fine a job. He will sit home and watch TV all day and leave his room untidy and leave his dirty laundry piled up on him, and go to his father draw and wear his clothes. It came to a point that we had to hide his father clothes to show him we mean business. When we tell him to do chores around the house he would tell us the others are there, why not tell them to do it . that’s when the argument would start between us . There has been time when he would start arguments between his 10 year old brother. Just because he would look at him. Threaten to beat on him and calling him a punk. Just because he can not manipulate him. When we tell him we don’t want him treating his siblings in that manner he will get so mad with us and said we don’t understand. I agree with him we don’t understand him but we love him very much. And want to help him. so we put him out of the house. I am worried about him and wondering if he is ok. He have seizure once in a while. It happens when he don’t get to eat on time. just the other day my husband saw him walked by the house he looked at the house for a while and then went on his journey . I ask my husband what he think and he said he is hungry. Or looking for him to hire him as an employee. my heart sunk, when I heard that. I wanted to help him. but I know if I do, I would hurt him more than I would help him.
    P.S
    he raised his hand at me twice. and when we put him out he told us we will not see him again we lost him forever. He is now living with one of his street buddy. That what we didn’t want. I want to know what must I do? Help me please???? Crying. we want to know what happen to sweet spirit that he had.

    Sorry for the rush writing but I need help. thanks hope you understand what I wrote. And thanks for your help. and May the creator bless you greatly.

  3. Hat says:

    I really appreciate this article. My husband and I have struggled to know what to do for his 23 year old sister who has no life or social skills to speak of. She has been raised by their grandmother who has completely enabled her. Not only has she enabled her, she has filled her full of fear and dread regarding the outside world. His sister is intelligent and healthy, but her fears totally handicap her. She does not drive (she took drivers ed. at age 21 and failed), she has never “hung out” with friends, she barely gets by or fails classes in college, and she sits around a trash filled, filthy house all day with out lifting a finger (her grandmother would probably scream at her if she tried to do anything anyway). As a way of coping and also escaping her depressing situation, she is addicted to gaming on the computer, which she is in total denial about. Their grandmother is now in very bad health, recovering from cancer and honestly will most likely not live much longer. I want to help, but I have four little children of my own to take care of. I DO NOT want her to live with us. I fear that I will end up hating her and resenting my husband. I can’t help but feel guilty and wonder if I am being totally selfish though because I know her situation is not all her fault. She never knew her father, her mother died when she was 6, and she been raised by this emotionally and verbally abusive controlling grandmother. I just want to tell her, “Okay, time to learn how to use the bus system and work your way through school”. That’s what my husband did. It took him 10 years to get his bachelors and and 2 more years to get his masters, because he worked full time and went to school part time while raising a family. I would greatly appreciate any advice . Thanks!

  4. Diana says:

    My son is 25 years old and the most he works in a job is three months always asking for money,he call and he wanted to move back home and I told him no now he mad at me and said what mom would let her child in the street for the first time I have stood up,

  5. Lil says:

    Interesting post, which I came across as I was googling the difference between the two, and thinking of exactly this.

    I do question your example of the mum of 2 however. What would one say if it was a partner or husband paying bills rather than her? For me, given the research we know about the critical importance of aged 1 to 5, and the relationship to a secure attachment-figure, choosing to stay with children rather than work is not an enabling decision but a decision in the best interests of the children, provided the carer is able to be fully present, does not have PTSD or other issues. Where we say, staying with your children is by definition enabling not supporting, that seems insane to me.

    I also wonder about the cultural context of enabling, and whether some cultures would view behaviour as normal that others would view as enabling. Particularly as regards adult children. In the UK for example, the attitude tends to be, once children are 18 they should immediately leave home and become independent. In some parts of mainland Europe however, including where I am, it is normal for children to stay at home until after university or further training. Again, am interested in the brain science of this, because studies show that the brain does not fully mature until 26, a lot older than we previously thought. Have been wondering about implications of this.

    This feels like an issue I need to get clarity on, not least given my background as an ACOA.

  6. Sammy G says:

    Thank you for this insightful article! I am just now realizing what an enabler I am, and it is like a slap in the face. I thought I was helping. Right now, I’m so pissed off at my husband, because of his eating habits and exercise, he expects me to motivate him. I’ve been doing his chores and making excuses for him, and now, I’ve realized I need to let him work on those issues himself. His parents were (and are) enablers, never giving him chores, never making him take care of his own lunches or anything. Now he is responsible for a lot more, and constantly whining about it. Now I know that I’m not helping him, I’m hindering him in growing up. Also, my family is incredibly co-dependent. My mom wants me to “help” her all the time, and listen to her problems, but I’ve been slowing weaning myself from that toxic situation. I feel so responsible for my siblings, who are being robbed of an education, but it’s my parent’s responsibility, not mine. I feel guilty letting them continue what they are doing, but if I get involved it will hurt everyone. I’m the oldest, if you couldn’t tell, and I raised my siblings for as long as I lived there. Thank you for such helpful information. I’m going to start raising my awareness, and ask myself “can this person do it for himself, and if so, why am I doing it?” If the answer is a good reason, and not an excuse, than ok. But hopefully this will help me realize my own motivation, and help me stop enabling my husband, and let him be responsible for his own time and body.

  7. jane says:

    I sit here tonight reading all the posts and am not even amazed we as parents are so stupid! My 29 yo son has been with me since Feb. I raised him to speak his mind but lately he has become increasingly disrespectful, verbally aggressive and even physically threatening. I admit that I do not stand and be cursed at without , throwing something, or cursing back, and it has become a vicious cycle. He has not contributed to the household and while he does not often ask for money, he is adept at putting me in situations where I have to bring him gas or spend money on him. He takes my things like they belong to him and becomes upset when I remark on it. Today I told him , not for the first time, that he had to get out of my house, but this time, I followed through. I purchased an old trailer a couple of months ago and although he told me he did not want it because he thought it rundown and not good enough for him. My object was to enable (that word) him and his wife and daughter to get back together, and I know that he has $600 coming out of his check for child support of 2 other children. And thought if he had something to fix up he would not have t pay rent, just utilities. Long long story but he had quit his job when he moved in due to a move, and then went to work on commission, but that did not work out, and he and his wife are separated. I understand he is depressed, but see where he is doing this to himself. Have told him so, and all I get is yelled at. Couple of weeks ago he stayed on the couch ( he has no private room here) for 3 days, and told me he was depressed. I finally got him up with a little water and threat of a whole glass, and told him I did not care -to get up and do something. I am talking in circles: So upset, but knew he had to go before one of us got seriously hurt. He has never offered to physically hurt me before, much less put me in a chock hold. He is Out in his trailer on the back of the property, with no lights, and not sure if he has the water there yet. trailer has been there a month now, and he keeps going in circles and not finishing anything.

  8. Greg says:

    I guess I know the answer to this question before I start.

    My wife and I have 2 sons from prior marriages, mine is out on his own and her son is still with us at age 20. It took everything to get him through high school, they wanted him out badly. I went to a psychiatrist because my dad, mom and sister all died within about a year and I was pretty depressed.
    In all the conversations with him, he said “the breaking point in your life will be your sons and wife’s relationship”. I thought he was crazy with that off the cuff statement.

    So in high school she told him not to go to a rock concert one night because of his bad grades, and if he went he could not come back and had to go live with his (strict) father.
    He went to the concert and did not come back for 3 days (stayed with different friends). My wife cried all 3 days. I knew this was the breaking point, either she held firm or caves to him (later she begged him to come back)

    Now at 20 he sleeps until noon, his buddies pick him up to get high, then he comes back and gorges himself and sleeps until 3pm, then out all night and getting home around 4am. Then it starts over the next day.

    Of course the regular stuff, not looking for a job, doing nothing around the house at all,
    (Zero, dishes piled up in his room) he stole all of our medications and sold them etc.

    So I gave my wife the enabling blog the other day and asked her to read it. She did. This morning she said that she was trying and that she would not make her son move out. If I did not like it she and her son would move out.

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