Stephen R. Honaker, LMHC, QS, Family Counselor, Headwaters at Origins
I was recently speaking with a former patient, who is a first-time father to a nine-month-old daughter, about the strength of parental love. As the conversation progressed, I described to him in some detail the birth of my daughter (who is now thirteen years old) and an immediate realization that I had after only five minutes of her young life. As I held my daughter for the first time, gazing into her beautiful brown eyes, I knew that I would not hesitate to step in front of a moving train if that became necessary to protect her. The power of parental love had overtaken me (just as my mother warned me it would). The bond of love between parent and child is an amazing and sometimes scary gift. This gift allows the parent to hopefully nurture the child into becoming a healthy and well-adjusted adult. But what happens when the strength of that love actually becomes a significant deterrent to the adult – child’s health and well – being? Welcome to the world of toxic enabling.
Symptoms of Toxic Enabling
As a family counselor at Origins, one of my primary roles is to assist the family in learning how to support their loved one in treatment in a healthy way. When working with parents of adult patients suffering from a substance use disorder, toxic enabling is often the number one barrier that I have to overcome. While toxic enabling can manifest in numerous ways, frequently the symptoms are as follows:
- The inability of the parent to allow their adult child to have anything but a “soft” landing.
- Fear that the adult child will be angry with them (or reject them) if they say “no” or set a boundary.
- Constant “walking on eggshells” around the adult child out of fear that they may cause the adult child to relapse.
- Taking responsibility for the problems of the adult child, solving the problems of the adult child and/or offering solutions to problems that the adult child may not have even thought about, realize they have or even care about.
- Allowing their fear or guilt to be used as fuel for manipulation.
- Becoming overly controlling out of fear of what will happen (something terrible) if they don’t.
- Confusing “love” with “rescuing.”
Love as the Foundation for Toxic Enabling
While parental love is primarily the catalyst for toxic enabling and the foundation that it is built upon, several other factors construct the walls. Those walls, if not torn down, often create a prison that traps the adult child and makes it incredibly difficult to escape the confinement of addiction. These other factors are as follows:
- Lack of accurate information – Often parents simply lack the information necessary to make healthier choices as it relates to their adult child. While this is (in my professional opinion) the least likely reason for enabling, certainly educating family members regarding how to support their loved one in a healthy manner is vital for change to occur.
- Fear – Frequently parents of adult children struggling with addictions are paralyzed by fear. This fear drives them to engage in enabling behaviors as a means of staving off catastrophe. Enabling behaviors also temporarily lead to a reduction in the fear of the parent. Those behaviors, unfortunately, also trap their adult child in the cycle of addiction.
- Guilt – There are times when parents feel guilt around past decisions that they have made that they feel (correctly or incorrectly) have harmed the adult child in some way. Engaging in enabling behaviors with their adult child leads to a temporary reduction in their guilt. Unfortunately, similar to fear, it also supports and reinforces the cycle of addiction.
- Unresolved Family of Origins Issues of the Parent – Finally, when parents have unresolved issues from their own past that they have not dealt with, it makes avoiding toxic enabling almost impossible. Parents may still be trapped in a childhood role (hero, rescuer – placator, etc.) from their own family of origin and/or are attempting to resolve family of origin issues in their adult child (trying to save their own alcoholic father or mother by saving their adult child). Until the parent is willing to engage in work on their own core issues, it will be virtually impossible for them to support their adult child in a healthy manner.
In closing, equipping parents with new and healthier ways to love and support their adult children suffering from a substance use disorder can be a challenge. Parents must be willing to not only gain new insights and challenge old patterns of thinking (and behavior) but also have a willingness to engage in their own clinical work when needed. Only then can both the parents and the adult child have the opportunity for a healthy and fulfilling life.
Origins Behavioral Healthcare is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance abuse, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 561-841-1296.