What is “enabling”?
“Enabling” used to be a positive word - it described giving someone the means to do something. Nothing wrong with that, right? Then, a few decades ago, things changed. “To enable” nowadays refers to a scenario when family members excuse or justify someone’s bad behaviour. The act of enabling allows that person to avoid facing the consequences of his or her actions, and to continue their misconduct. The typical enabling parent will remove anything that stands in the way of the child’s success, to the point of inadvertently disempowering them and making them less mentally resilient.
What, then, is “support?
So with that definition in mind, what is the difference between supporting and enabling our teenagers? Dr. David Anderson from the Child Mind Institute says that the purpose of supporting the teenager is “to build up resilience and develop coping strategies.” In other words, support should empower your teen to grow in confidence and become more independent. When you support a person, you work with them to acknowledge difficulties along the way, help them manage their fears, and ultimately to cheer them on as they conquer obstacles.
But are we talking about extra maths classes, teaching our teens to use public transport, acing a job interview, filling in an IRD form, or what? Yes to all of the above, and more.
Let’s consider Laura. In order to take History in Year 13, she needs permission from the Head of the Department. Laura doesn’t know the teacher and feels shy to approach him. If you agree to speak to the teacher yourself, you are enabling Laura to rely on you next time she needs to deal with a person in authority: her boss about annual leave, a policeman about her stolen bike, a doctor about that persistent headache. If, however, you encourage Laura, help her practice what to say to the teacher, and refuse to act on her behalf, you’re setting her up for success.
Our second example is Victor. Victor is bullied at school and takes it out on his family. When called out on his rudeness, he says that it’s his way of coping with depression, and it’s either that or he’ll hurt himself. While it’s helpful to understand his actions in context and to have compassion for what he’s going through, it is not constructive to tolerate his rudeness – that would be enabling his future bad behaviour. Your best way of supporting Victor is to make sure he gets professional counselling.
Getting the balance right
It’s totally natural to want to protect our children from pain and failure. Our job, though, is to prepare them for adult life. We need to progress from doing stuff for our children, to coaching them how to do it, all the way to making them self-reliant.
Goodtherapy.org has this advice: “When you stop enabling, this does not mean that you stop loving the person. It does not even mean that you cannot help him or her. There is a difference between healthy help and enabling. Healthy help involves providing information, encouragement, and coaching to your loved one.”
Of course, if your teen is suffering from learning difficulties or mental health issues, they might not be able to be as self-reliant as their peers. Their therapist will be able to advise you what you can reasonably expect in terms of behaviour and independence in your specific case.
One final thought
In its mild form, enabling may lead to our teenagers acting spoiled, entitled or downright rude. In the most extreme scenario, the enabled person may continue to make poor choices with addictive substances, dangerous driving, money management or the type of friends and romantic partners they prefer.
By Yvonne Walus