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Enabling vs Helping and How to Set Boundaries

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Having a family member or loved one with a substance use disorder is difficult, and it’s not always clear how best to help them. Parents want to protect and help their children. Siblings don’t want their brothers or sisters to get into trouble. And as friends we don’t want to overstep our bounds.

According to the American Psychological Association, enabling is “a process whereby someone (i.e., the enabler) contributes to continued maladaptive or pathological behavior (e.g., child abuse, substance abuse) in another person. The enabler is typically an intimate partner or good friend who passively permits or unwittingly encourages this behavior in the other person; often, the enabler is aware of the destructiveness of the person’s behavior, but feels powerless to prevent it."[1]

Enabling behaviors can remove the desire to seek treatment.

Put simply, enabling behaviors can remove the desire to seek treatment. Enabling behavior can range from pretending there isn’t a problem to providing money to your loved one for drugs or alcohol to taking on their responsibilities.

If you apply enabling versus helpful behavior to other chronic diseases the delineation becomes clear. If your loved one has diabetes, are you helping with positive physical exercise routines and healthy eating habits, or are you providing meals and foods not in line with your loved one’s diet restrictions?

With chronic substance use disorders, examples of enabling behavior include:

  • Ignoring the problem or downplaying the severity;

  • Allowing substance use;

  • Providing money not earned;

  • Protecting the individual from the consequences of their behavior;

  • Keeping secrets about their behavior from others;

  • Making excuses for their behavior with criminal justice authorities, employers, friends and other family members;

  • Fixing their problems, from paying debts, hiring lawyers, providing jobs; and

  • Completing tasks that the individual is expected to do for themselves.

Setting Boundaries

If you recognize enabling in your own behaviors, the next step is to decide how to modify the ways you support your loved one. Mental health experts recommend you begin by having a clear conversation about your concerns around their substance use and go over the boundaries you are setting from that point forward.

Boundaries are a critical step in addressing enabling behavior. You don’t have to accept bad behavior and while you can’t control the behavior of your loved one, you do have choices when it comes to what you find unacceptable.

Boundaries are rules and guidelines that we establish to protect our own well-being.

They draw lines in the sand to ensure that you are not unknowingly shielding your loved one from the consequences of their own actions.

Sample Boundaries to Set

  1. Be clear they cannot drink or use around you.

  2. Do not allow drugs, alcohol or drug paraphernalia in your home.

  3. Do not lend or give them money or pay off their debts.

  4. Do not lie for them.

  5. Do not allow for abusive behavior, whether verbal or physical.

  6. Let them know you will help them get better.

  7. Always follow through with set consequences and boundaries.

An excerpt from Navigating Addiction and Treatment: A Guide for Families, Addiction Policy Forum, 2020.


A Note From Addiction Policy Forum

Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.

Help is Here

If you have questions or need to speak with someone for support, call or text (833) 301-4357 today. Our staff of trained counselors at Addiction Policy Forum provides free, confidential support to anyone in need of help with a Substance Use Disorder issue, including patients, families and healthcare providers.

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1) American Psychological Association. Enabling. Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from


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