Enabling vs. Helping: How to Handle a Loved One’s Substance Abuse

mother having conversation with daughter

What’s the best way to handle a friend or family member’s substance abuse?

Your first impulse may be to try to “save” your loved one, but there’s a fine line between helping and enabling. Understanding how to avoid enabling will make it easier to encourage your loved one to get the treatment they need.

Acknowledge the Problem
Enabling: Denying that your loved one has a substance abuse problem.
Helping: Confronting your loved one about the behaviors you have witnessed or planning an intervention to encourage them to seek treatment.

Acknowledging that a loved one has a substance abuse problem can be difficult, but it’s a necessary part of the recovery process. If you continue to ignore the issue or make excuses for addiction-related behaviors, the situation will only get worse.

The best approach is to confront your loved one about the behaviors you have witnessed, planning a formal intervention if necessary. Addiction is a chronic illness, but help is available and there’s always hope for recovery.

Stop Making Excuses
Enabling: Justifying your loved one’s continued substance abuse by saying it’s a response to stress or necessary for dealing with chronic pain.
Helping: Talking to your loved one about what’s bothering them and urging them to seek help.

Substance abuse does often begin as a response to stressful situations or a way to self-medicate chronic pain. However, this doesn’t mean that the behavior should be allowed to continue indefinitely. As the addiction progresses, the negative consequences of substance abuse will greatly outweigh any initial benefit the person experienced.

If you believe your loved one is self-medicating, don’t make excuses for their behavior. This promotes a victim mentality and encourages feelings of powerlessness. Instead, talk to them about why they are turning to drugs or alcohol and what might be more helpful in dealing with the issue that’s triggering the substance abuse. Stress the need for professional, evidence-based addiction treatment.

Don’t Allow Substance Abuse in Your Home
Enabling: Allowing substance abuse in your home because you believe it’s less dangerous than letting your loved one abuse drugs or alcohol in another location.
Helping: Making your home a substance-free zone and acting as a sober role model for your loved one.

Allowing substance abuse in your home is dangerous, as well as potentially illegal. The best approach is keeping drugs and alcohol away from your home.

Show your loved one that you don’t need addictive substances to deal with stress, have fun, or enjoy life. Acting as a part of a sober support network can help encourage your loved one to continue with recovery efforts.

Don’t Give Yourself Extra Responsibilities
Enabling: Taking over household chores, parenting responsibilities, or work-related tasks that a loved one is unable to perform due to substance abuse.
Helping: Allowing your loved one to experience the repercussions of their actions, while continuing to stress the need for treatment.

It’s often said that the primary difference between helping and enabling is that helping involves stepping in when someone can’t perform a task and enabling involves performing tasks a person can and should be handling on their own. If you don’t allow your loved one to experience the consequences of substance abuse, you make it easy for them to continue to deny the existence of a problem.

Someone with a substance use disorder has a biologically-based illness, but their illness doesn’t excuse them from needing to handle everyday responsibilities. Encourage your loved one to seek treatment, but don’t swoop in and take over responsibilities on their behalf.

Set Clear Boundaries
Enabling: Telling your loved one that this is the “last time” you’ll allow their substance abuse to continue—even though they’re already have a multitude of second chances.
Helping: Setting clearly defined boundaries and sticking to them.

Believing in second chances is commendable, but your loved one will take advantage of your generosity to allow substance abuse to continue. Addiction’s grip is just too powerful.

To help someone with an addiction, you need to set clear boundaries regarding the terms of your relationship. For example, you should not loan money or pay bills when your loved one can’t meet their financial responsibilities due to addiction. You’re putting your own finances at risk and preventing your loved one from feeling the natural consequences of continued substance abuse. In this case, saying “no” is an act of love.

How We Can Help

St. Joseph Institute for Addiction’s Pennsylvania substance abuse treatment center offers family programming to help concerned individuals learn how to best support their loved one’s recovery efforts. We’ll help you learn to set boundaries, avoid the trap of codependency, and continue to encourage the development of a foundation for lasting recovery.

To learn more about SJI Pennsylvania residential addiction rehab, and our programs, please contact us at (888) 352-3297.

Leave a Comment