Monday, 14 March 2016 23:34

Enabling: Cause or Effect?

2ff2ba0051687eef5ca0459cf942940c LBy Gregory Rennie, BSW, RSW, ICADC | Hasu eCounselling

A family member is impacted by the disease of chemical dependence (addiction) just as much as the person with the dependence and more often than not, harder hit. Family members seldom get professional help because it is thought that the problem is alcohol, drugs or gambling and if the person simply stops, things would be back to normal. This is a common misconception.  Often, the families need support once the individual is in recovery.

Supporting family members impacted by someone’s chemical dependency, I’m often asked about enabling. Unfortunately, the true meaning of the word is often distorted by the media.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines enabling as a verb, “to provide with the means or opportunity or to make possible, practical, or easy.” Unfortunately in the media, the family member is seen as someone who has caused the person to drink or use drugs. No one is the cause of someone’s dependence on a substance or behaviour such as gambling. Chemical dependence is a brain disease. I have worked with many family members and have yet to meet someone who is the cause of someone’s chemical dependence.

Often a parent or spouse will get resistance from the individual if the use of their drug of choice is interfered with or blocked. If you are a family member of an alcoholic or addict, you already know what I’m referring to. The individual’s behaviour is highly persuasive and manipulative. Their actions encourage a reaction that make it possible or easy to continue using.

In the following examples, the individuals are at risk of experiencing a negative consequence as a result of their chemical dependence. Unknowingly, the family members in these examples have enabled them to continue using and experience the consequence.

In the first example, a son is at risk of being charged with possession of a controlled substance. His mother finds a large amount of marijuana in his bedroom and is worried that if he uses it in public, he will be charged although she does not want him smoking it in the house either. Telling him this will certainly result in resistance. He yells at the parent and starts an argument and perhaps brings up the fact that the parent used to smoke when she was younger or that Dad likes to have a couple glasses of wine at dinner and an argument starts.

It is much easier for the parent to give in or negotiate than stand her ground. Her reaction to his behaviour can unknowingly lead to providing him the opportunity to continue using. The son’s behaviour has put the wheels in motion. The mother agrees that he can continue using marijuana but only in the garage. At school the next day, they find a large quantity of marijuana in his backpack and he is charged with possession.

In the next example, a husband with dependency on alcohol is at risk of losing his job. His wife wakes up in the morning to realize he spent the night in the basement drinking, is intoxicated and not able to go to work. He was previously warned by his employer that if he is drunk at work one more time, he would lose his job. Concerned that he will be fired, she calls his boss and tells him that her husband is in the hospital and won’t be at work. The next day he goes back to work and is found drinking on the job and is fired.

In an effort to protect someone from negative consequences, a family member often reacts by intervening. It makes perfect sense to protect a loved one but working with individuals with chemical dependence, I’ve realized none of them would have sought out help if it wasn’t for some type of consequence in their lives. If their lives are not in an immediate danger, don’t intervene, even if it may result in a criminal charge or loss of job. It may be the moment of clarity they need.

Often, families seek help for the individual but not for themselves. Commonly, the focus is on the person with chemical dependence and when they get well and are in recovery the expectation is that everything will be fine. Yet years of reactionary behaviour can have an impact on the family member. Roles change in the family dynamic when the person is in early recovery. It can be difficult to cope with change especially if enabling behaviour has gone on for a number of years.

Issues discussed with the family member in counselling are enabling, codependency, issues of trust, control and fears of relapse. It takes time for a family member to understand chemical dependence. Educating yourself is the first step. There are a lot of great resources on the internet for family members. I recommend the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario at or in the United States, the National Institute on Drug Abuse at

In my experience, many family members recover from the impact of chemical dependence. If you have any questions regarding enabling or if you are interested in talking with an addiction therapist, contact us at Hasu eCounselling at 1-844-669-4278.



About the author : Gregory Rennie

Gregory Rennie has been an addiction therapist since 2005 and has also worked at agencies in Southern Ontario as an outreach worker and concurrent disorders specialist.

Last modified on Sunday, 18 September 2016 22:58