How to Support Without Enabling: A National Recovery Month Resource

Elizabeth Grobstein

How to Support without Enabling

“Make a habit of two things–to help, or at least to do no harm.” - Hippocrates

You can help support family and friends dealing with addictions without enabling them. When supporting someone dealing with an addiction you want to make sure you are paying attention and actively helping without causing harm to yourself or the recovering person. However, you also want to support this person without enabling them to do more harm to themselves. When we care about someone we can run into the issue of how best to help them.

What is Support and How Does it Differ from Enabling?

Support is comprised of two aspects - paying attention and active listening. For example if I wanted to pay attention to a friend who wants to stop smoking I would listen to them talking about the cravings and how they are coping with the cravings. If I wanted to actively help them I would inform them about tobacco control products/programs. The aspect of support - paying attention would be not likely to prevent negative consequences from occurring. 

An image of two hands, one reaching down and the other reaching up 
One hand reaching down showing support and the other reaching up accepting that support.

However, it is not likely to cause harm if I were to suggest alternative activities or listen to the ups and downs of the change process. It is encouraged that significant others still pay attention even if they are cut off from helping in other ways. Active help, however, can either support or enable the recovering person. This genuinely depends on the recovering persons’ intentions and the specific situation, however, intentions can be difficult to judge. 

This is why accessing behavior becomes important - if I knew for certain that someone was on the path to recovery it would make the process way smoother while preventing old problems from affecting the present. Relationships are about give and take and you will want to support recovery without enabling the problem. Start off by offering a little bit of help then stop and observe the effects, and if all goes well try offering a little more help. Keep in mind it is often easy to distinguish whether you are helping or enabling.

How to Distinguish between Support and Enabling?

If you find yourself having difficulty determining whether you are supporting or enabling someone with a substance use disorder - there are a few questions to consider

  • Are my personal morals, abilities, and well-being compromised?
  • Am I making excuses for the actions of my loved one?
  • Are there certain questions or actions I fear to point out because of a possible reaction?
  • Are there things I have done for my loved one that I have hidden or lied about to others?

If the answer was yes to any of these questions then you have crossed over the line from supporting to enabling. However, do not fear this does not mean that you cannot cross back over into supporting. You just need to set some boundaries with the loved one dealing with the substance use disorder, and if needed seek support yourself from your friends and family or a professional. Make sure to consider yourself when dealing with the balance of supporting and enabling. This does not mean that you should stop giving love and support to the person suffering, but be sure to take care of your own mental well-being. 

These types of disorders progress over time and a lot more is taken when you give more in order to “fix” a person or the situation. Remember that your loved one is ill and some of these actions are outside of their control, so be sure to treat them with kindness and love. If needed, seek out support groups of others dealing with helping a loved one through a similar journey and be ready to aid your loved one once they decide they are ready to seek treatment and start their journey of recovery. At Transformations Care Network we strive for the highest quality care within a calming environment with supportive staff. These are just a few things we demand in our vision for care into the future. 

Image containing 10 Tips for talking about addiction.
10 Tips for Talking about Addiction with someone who is struggling with it. Image courtesy of Mental Health First Aid.

Talking about Addiction

You may find yourself in a situation with a family member or friend dealing with a substance use challenge and want to help but are unable to figure out what to say or do. One of the most important first steps would be starting a conversation and creating a safe space for that person to feel comfortable sharing their experience. In order to showcase your support, you must be an effective communicator. 

Once you know what to say and what to do, you can make a difference for your loved one and help guide them towards recovery, and if needed point them to an appropriate professional or peer and self-help strategies. 

Keep in Mind these 10 tips for talking about addiction in order to keep the conversation as effective as possible. 

  1. Talk with them in a quiet place
  2. Let them know you are concerned
  3. Consider their readiness
  4. Identify and discuss their behavior
  5. Express your point of view
  6. Listen without judging 
  7. Treat them with dignity and respect
  8. Do not force them to admit they have a problem
  9. Do not label or accuse them of being an “addict”
  10.  Have realistic expectations of them

Talking about addiction can be difficult since it may not be well received at first, but do not get discouraged. Recovery is possible and your willingness to help start a conversation is a step in the right direction. 

Supporting a Loved One Battling Addiction

It is important to show your support for a loved one battling addiction since it is a disease not a choice. There are a bunch of things you can do to show your loved one how much you care about them, as well as things to avoid that may upset them.

An image of a man and a woman sitting while holding hands.
A man and a woman sitting and holding hands showing support in a loving way.

An important first step when starting to deal with any issue is having a deep understanding of it. In order to show your loved one that you understand what they are going through would be to research it. You want to focus more on their reasons for addiction and less on how often they take it. 

Remember it is important to not assume anything since your loved one may not outright say they are struggling. You can start by looking into symptoms of drug abuse then move to researching any potential treatment options. Their understanding is more important than your understanding and the first step on the path to recovery is admitting there is a problem.

Approach the Problem Carefully

Make sure to approach the issue of addiction carefully while taking cautious consideration on what you will be saying to them. Possibly consider talking with a professional before talking to your loved one. You owe your loved one the respect to not ignore the problem or worse, enable it by providing them with money. 

Addiction is very serious and it will not help your loved one if you deny they need help in the first place. The decision to quit must be their own idea and you should try to avoid arguing with them during this time. Understanding the issue and offering support is much more important than tough love. A healthy support system is essential to their path to recovery. Make time to spend with them while being persistent in contacting them, even if they try to put distance between you. 

Remember to make sure they are taking good care of themselves, since some of the time people dealing with addiction may forget to sleep or eat. Your loved one is going to need a lot of your ongoing support. Be sure to look after yourself too, since overcoming an addiction is a long process for anyone involved. Offer your own support as well as encouraging them to talk with a professional. 

In the end, all of the hard work will be worth it since you will get to see your loved one overcome their addiction and they will be proud to have you at their side.

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