Are You An Enabler? Identifying Early Warning Signs of Enabling Behaviors

I received an email yesterday from a parent who has read my previous posts regarding helping and enabling adult children, and is seeking help with her teenage son’s bad attitude and behavior problems. Since her child is not yet an adult, she wonders if those previous posts apply to her situation or not. I’m going to explain the problems that were told to me and what my response was, and I’m counting on you to chime in with your own thoughts and reactions, since she is interested in seeing what my readers will say on the subject.

A mother of a 16-year old teenage boy wrote to me saying that her son has become increasingly disrespectful towards her over the last couple of years, going so far as to cuss and swear at his parents over what she refers to as “trivial matters”. This mother, I’ll call her “Jane”, says that she has always prided herself on doing everything she possibly could to make things as easy on her son as possible, including preparing her son’s school lunches, doing his laundry, cleaning his room, making his bed, giving him spending money etc, but says “nothing I do for my son is appreciated, and he’s always asking for more money and telling his father and I to leave him alone”, followed by the slamming of his bedroom door.

“Jane” discussed the problems with other family members and close friends, and they have all told her that she needs to “learn to let go” of her son and stop controlling his life. She was also told by her husband that she’s “enabling” their son, and that she needs to allow their son to deal with the responsibilities that go with growing up and becoming a responsible adult. Those responses, along with being told that she is “too close” to her son, caused her to begin looking for information about what it means to be an enabler, in order to improve her relationship with her son.

Are You An Enabler?

I was very surprised that Jane continues to do these various chores for her teenage son, including making his lunches, cleaning his room and doing his laundry, even though her son is fully capable of doing these things for himself. Jane was shocked to learn that my now-grown children were taught from a young age how to do their own laundry, and that they began doing it themselves since they were about 10-years old, because I taught them how. I also allowed them the freedom to do these things on their own, so they could feel proud of themselves and their own accomplishments.

I explained to Jane that from the time my children learned how to walk, I began teaching my children everything they needed to know in order to become responsible, independent adults. Each of my children learned how to prepare basic meals, including cooking on the stove, from a very young age. I still remember the excitement in their young voices when they each learned how to make macaroni & cheese, or grilled cheese sandwiches, and the sheer glee of knowing they did it all by themselves (while I carefully observed of course). My sons were not going to grow up with the idea that cooking and cleaning was “women’s work”, and my daughter’s were not going to grow up thinking they “need a man to take care of them”.

Early Warning Signs Of Enabling Behaviors

There are times in relationships when we cross that sometimes invisible line between truly being helpful and supportive and acting as enablers, or becoming co-dependent with another person. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, in her work with families, suggests that 96% of the general population, and persons in helping professions especially, exhibit some forms of co-dependent behavior at one time or in fairly consistent patterns or both. What does that behavior “look like”?

1. Do you find yourself worrying about a person in ways that consume your time, or do you find yourself trying to come up with solutions to his/ her problems rather than letting that person do the solving?

2. Do you find yourself afraid for this person, or convinced that he/she “cannot handle” a situation or relationship without “falling apart”?

3. Do you ever do something for a person which he/she could and even should be doing for him or herself?

4. Do you ever excuse this person’s behavior as being a result of “stress, misunderstanding, or difficulty coping,” even when the behavior hurts or inconveniences you?

5. Have you ever considered giving/given this person money, your car, or talked to someone for this person as a way of reducing this person’s pain?

6. Do you feel angry if this person does not follow through with something you have suggested – or do you worry that you may not be doing enough for this person?

7. Do you ever feel you have a unique and special relationship with this person, unlike anyone else they may know?

8. Do you feel protective of this person – even though he/she is an adult and is capable of taking care of his/her life?

9. Do you ever wish others in this person’s life would change their behavior or attitudes to make things easier for this person?

10. Do you feel responsible for getting this person help?

11. Do you feel reluctant to refer an individual to a source of help or assistance, uncertain if another person can understand or appreciate this person’s situation the way you do?

12. Do you ever feel manipulated by this person but ignore your feelings?

13. Do you ever feel that no one understands this person as you do?

14. Do you ever feel that you know best what another person needs to do or that you recognize his/her needs better than he/she does?

15. Do you sometimes feel alone in your attempts to help a person or do you feel you may be the only person to help this individual?

16. Do you ever want to make yourself more available to another person, at the expense of your own energy, time, or commitments?

17. Do you find yourself realizing that an individual may have more problems than you initially sensed and that you will need to give him/her your support or help for a long time?

18. Do you ever feel, as a result of getting to know this person, that you feel energized and can see yourself helping people like him/her to solve their problems?

19. Have you ever begun to “see yourself” in this person and his/her problems?

20. Has anyone ever suggested to you that you are “too close” to this person or this situation?

If you have answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, it is likely that, at one time or another – or on a regular basis – you have crossed the line from being supportive to being an enabler or co-dependent.

Just Say No To Enabling

I am a firm believer in the old saying, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” Does that put me in line for the next “mother of the year award”? No. It only means I take parenting very seriously. It is the responsibility of each and every parent, mothers and fathers alike, to teach and train their children how to become responsible, independent, self-sufficient adults.

Very young children can and need to be taught how to pick up after themselves; putting their clothes and toys in their proper place; how to make their bed; how to wash dishes; how to dust and vacuum; how to properly clean a bathroom; how to cook or prepare basic meals, etc. But most importantly, parents must allow their children the needed age-appropriate independence, in order to have pride in their own achievements. When children have learned how to do these basics of living, parents must learn to let go of any controlling tendencies, such as not criticizing their children when chores aren’t completed “perfectly”.

My advice to Jane was that she immediately stop the enabling behaviors, and allow her teenage son to do for himself what he is capable of doing, as well as lovingly teach her son the life-skills that he may be lacking. Looking at the situation from a teenager’s point of view, I can see how Jane’s son might feel oppressed and angry by his mother’s efforts to make things as “easy on him as possible”, and I believe his angry outbursts and door slamming is his way of acting out his frustrations of being controlled. He’s growing up to become a man, and he needs to know that his mother and father have faith and trust in his ability to handle the many responsibilities of being an adult.

Now it’s your turn to add to the discussion by leaving a comment below. Do you have a personal story about helping vs. enabling? What age did you begin teaching your children how to do certain things for themselves? Do you perhaps see yourself as being an enabler? What advice would you give Jane?

Further Reading:

Parenting Without Pressure
Helping and Enabling-Is There A Difference?
Are Parents Helping or Enabling Their Adult Children?
Children Who Refuse To Grow Up
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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68 Responses to “Are You An Enabler? Identifying Early Warning Signs of Enabling Behaviors”

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  1. Suzanne says:

    Hi Betty,
    I have thought about you often and hoped the situation had gotten better. Through counseling, I have learned my kids are not lazy, and neither are your husband’s sons. His kids expect money because that’s what he taught them. As long as he continues to get into his pocket they will continue to accept. My kids and I are all in counseling trying to undo the mess I made thinking I was “helping” them. It is going to take very drastic action on your part to change your situation. I don’t think your husband will ever see the error of his ways. The only thing you can change is you. Go to counseling and if he won’t go with you, go by yourself. You don’t have to be second to his children, especially 2 grown men.

  2. Betty says:

    Dear Lin,

    You are right on, as usual. I suggested two jobs to make ends meet, but these two want to work in their chosen fields. Unfortunately, that isn’t very realistic right now. There certainly are jobs out there. People just have to be willing to do anything it takes to make it. I remember in 1972 when there were aerospace engineers driving cabs because of a downturn in the business and they made it. Maybe if these guys had families they would be more serious. Don’t know. I know the younger son is VERY discouraged right now. He may have thought he could find a job right away. If he had graduated when he said he was going to (2005), he would have had a good job now. There was one waiting for him, but he didn’t graduate in time to take the job. The same thing happened a year ago. It’s too bad he waited so long to get serious about school.

    Not everyone should go to college, but most people can at least go to a trade school! There isn’t anything wrong with having a trade. I have a great deal of respect for people who do that. They usually work hard and generally do well.

  3. Betty says:

    Hi Suzanne,

    Thanks for the good advice. I have thought very seriously about the two of us going to counseling. I know my husband will go with me. I also know he wishes he had been more specific about his expectations when his sons were growing up (before the divorce). He really thought they would go to school like he and his ex-wife did. My hindsight is wonderful, and I didn’t even have to go through what they did! Sometimes it’s difficult to see what we SHOULD be doing at the time. We have talked about this many times. I am quite simply a more positive person so saw my divorce (ex-husband’s choice) as a new beginning even though it was a very difficult divorce. My kids suffered a lot, and it still shows sometimes, but they do their best. That’s all any of us can do. My brothers and I did it after our parents’ divorce. Life sucks sometimes. My husband’s sons don’t seem to be able to move on. Maybe that’s what’s holding them back. Their negativity and self-pity. All need counseling. Wish me luck.

  4. Suzanne says:

    Hi Betty,
    I do wish you the best of luck and say prayers for you too. I am so happy to hear your husband will go to therapy with you. I learned when I first started going that I had put it off because it was an admission on my part that I had done something wrong in my parenting and it was a form of denial in keeping on blaming my kids. That took the blame off me. Once I was able to say I had been the biggest part of the problem, things got better.
    I’m sure the guys do want to work in their field, but so do 2.5 million other people. Tell those freeloaders to get a life and flip burgers if they have to and get off their father’s back!

  5. Betty says:

    Thanks, Suzanne! Glad to see you’re doing so well. I just hope that hearing from an objective person will help my husband to see that he isn’t really helping his kids by doing so much for them. It may be a matter of keeping them needing him. It may be that he’s trying to get them to like him and not blame him for their mother leaving like they did for many years. They were rough on him. Just another way to keep from maturing. The blame game. That’s just my theory.

  6. Suzanne says:

    Hi Betty,
    I think you hit the nail on the head! He feels guilty for their mom’s actions and they are using guilt as manipulation. That is exactly what was going on with me. Now, I’ve learned to tell mine that their father (mom in your boy’s case) was in control of his relationship with them all along. No matter how they resent me for him leaving, he left the 3 of us. Not just me. He could have seen them anytime he wanted to. I gave them everything known to man to try and mend their broken hearts and make-up for the dirty deal he dealt them. As long as I had to do that, they couldn’t live without me. Boy did that one ever bite me in the you know where. And it crippled my kids. It robbed them of self-esteem, the pride in accomplishing doing right and taking care of themselves. Their right of passage to adults. I don’t want them to be in their 40’s still needing me to pay for necessities such as food or clothes! It’s going to be a tough road ahead when your husband admits the damage he’s done. My son is 24 and in prison, and my daughter is 22 and one step away. They are young enough to turn their lives around, but I’m there for moral support only. And it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I met with my son’s probation officer and even SHE expected me to pay his fines for him so he could get out of jail! When I explained to her the counseling I’m we’re in, she was the first one to throw it in my face that I’d done it before and now he doesn’t know howcome I won’t pay the bill. I taught him this is the way it goes. I was ashamed of myself and was crying and asked to tell him I’m sorry, but it’s over and walked out. I went down the street to an empty parking lot and cried until I could drive home and then really let go. My counselor tells me I’m doing what’s best for him, not what’s easiest for me. I take it a day, a crisis, a fit, at a time. But I keep telling myself when they were little I made them pick up their toys, make their beds, come in before dark, couldn’t play with certain kids ect. and I didn’t care if they liked it or not. Now it’s the same thing. I’m the parent with the checkbook and the answer is “no”. I hope you share this with your husband. It’s heartwrenching for me. Other people act like it should be a piece of cake. One thing that’s interesting, there’s a 72 year old woman whose appt is right behind mine. I sat down to tie my shoe and she told me she wished she was young (52) like me so she wouldn’t be where she is now. She’s got a son 54 years old who stole her ss check for drugs. Never had a job in his life. So we all make mistakes. Keep in touch and don’t quit.

    • Lin says:

      Wow Suzanne! Even your son’s probation officer put the guilt trip stuff on you??? Ouch! I don’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned this to you before, but I also have a son that’s in prison and I’ve had zero contact with him for the last 4-5 years. Verrry long story and it doesn’t really apply here. But I can soooo relate to your anguish and hurt about that. I can also relate to the difficulties in the relationships with the father. My eldest son (29), who just got in town here Friday night, has in effect “divorced” his father and is in process of moving here from Chicago. I helped him find an apartment that he can afford on his own, and helped him do a comparison of electric companies for him to choose from, but the damage to the relationship between the two of them is very very obvious and will take a very long time for my son to recover from (if ever).

      Hang in there girl, you’re doing what you have to do.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Hi Lin,
    yes, you told me your son was in prison and I’m so sorry for what has happened. It happens to the whole family. I see and talk to my son every week and send him some $ for commissary, but I want to do that. He doesn’t ask. I hate to think of the damage your son that just came home has gone through. How do we as mom’s know what to do? My son is in jail because his dad’s girlfriend said he robbed her of $32k and he had only seen them a few times. Every time I visit him he cries like a little boy and says “How could he do this to me”? He swears he’s innocent and I believe him. The girlfriend dipped off and has a new cadillac, but either way I think the damage done to my son will last the rest of his life. And now I’m saying no on top of it all. Thanks so much for sharing and taking the time to respond, you and this site and closing the bank of mom and dad is what got me started on the road to recovery. Words cannot express. I have lost the only 2 friends I had over cutting off the money to my kids. But I pray and each day I re-commit to really doing what’s best for them.

  8. Betty says:

    Dear Lin and Suzanne,

    Thanks for all your help. I just feel so badly for you and everyone else who has to go through so much pain as a parent. I just can’t believe that a so-called professional like a probation officer took sides like that! That person must have some problems of her own to act like that. You would think she knew better! I have only talked with my daughter’s public defender and she is great. I hope that when my daughter is ready for a probation officer, that person has a good head.

    It is so difficult to be a parent today. It seems like society isn’t with us, and certainly our ex-spouses are not usually a help. They can be part of the problem. Men like they are who put themselves before their children are so selfish and self-centered! Unfortunately, they often choose new partners who are like they are. I saw that happen with my own father and my ex-husband. They married materialistic, selfish, vindictive women.

    It also makes it difficult without having family near and having fair weather friends. We all need support in times of need. Makes it more bearable.

    Best to both of you. I’ll keep you posted on what is going on with us.

  9. Suzanne says:

    Hi Betty,
    You have sure endured your share of pain. You are so right about the ex’s picking new partners like themselves. Each one he’s had is worse than the last. I just wonder when they will get their’s.
    Yes, the po shocked me when she asked for money. She was right, I have taught him to expect it but I told her it will never change unless I stop the money train. I’ll be on the street with him if I don’t.
    As far as the friends, I’m more hurt than anything because I stood by them when I didn’t agree with them, but I was still their friend and there for support and to listen. So now I pay a counselor and get unbiased advice that is working. But it’s the best money I’ve spent. Many days I feel so alone but I know God is always with me.

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