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How to tell you're enabling your child instead of helping

Diane Viere and her husband, Gordy, are life-long residents of Minnesota (but plan to one day soon be snowbirds). They are the parents to three birth children and have parented 21 foster children during their 35 years of marriage. Diane has partnered with author Allison Bottke and is the Director of Group Communications in Setting Boundaries, LLC. In that capacity, she joyfully helps parents of dysfunctional adult children find hope and healing through the 6 Steps to SANITY and 12 Weeks to Freedom: SANITY Support Program.

DianeV.bmpAn insidious thing happened on the way to my son’s 18th birthday—he learned to believe that I was responsible for his life.

He was born with learning disabilities, and I advocated for him at every turn. When children teased him at school, when coaches didn’t let him play, when doctors and teachers seemed indifferent – I did not rest until the wrongs were made right. It was my purpose and my passion.

In spite of my good intentions, I never allowed my son to learn how to fail while living in the safety of our home. He had learned as a child that Mom and Dad would bail him out of any situation. Why, then, was I shocked when he began to live irresponsibly as a young adult?

“How did this happen?” As a SANITY Group Facilitator, I am asked this question often when I meet with parents. “We only tried to help her,” they tell me. “How did he miss the importance of responsibility? We have worked tirelessly to help him!”

To understand the answer to this heartfelt question, we must first understand the critical difference between helping and enabling.

In Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents, author Allison Bottke defines this critical difference:

Helping is doing something for someone that he is not capable of doing himself.

Enabling is doing for someone what he could and should be doing for himself.

An enabler is a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet continues to enable the person with the problem to continue with his detrimental behaviors. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which our adult children can comfortably continue their unacceptable behavior.

What does enabling look like when you are the parent of an adult child?

• Being the Bank of Mom and Dad.
• Loaning money that is never repaid, buying things for them they can’t afford and don’t really need
• Continually coming to their rescue so they don’t feel the pain—the consequences—of their actions and choices.
• Accepting excuses that we know are excuses—and in some instances are downright lies.
• Blaming ourselves for their problems

What does enabling look like when you are the parent of a minor child?

While the circumstances for younger children may be different from adult children, parents still enable when we find ourselves:

• Up until the wee hours of the morning, long after our procrastinating child is sleeping, finishing their homework
• Paying fines for overdue library books, movie rentals, or the overage fees for their cell phone charges
• Softening the blow of the natural consequences when our young children make poor choices (“I forgot my homework at home”)
• Making excuses for their poor behavior (“But, deep down, he’s really a good kid!”)
• Blaming ourselves for our child’s bad behavior (“The divorce really threw Johnny off course.”)

No matter the chronological age of our children, it is never too late for some preemptive strikes against this silent epidemic:

1. Remember the difference between helping and enabling. When in doubt, remind yourself that you can tell you are enabling when YOU are paying the consequence for your child’s unacceptable behavior.
2. Reexamine excuses that keep you ensnared in the enabling trap.
3. Resist the temptation to soften the blow of the natural consequences your child will experience due to his/her unacceptable behavior. Start early! This only becomes more difficult as your child gets older. Give real value to these life lessons even while your child is young.
4. Reinforce the principles you want to extend to your children by giving them the opportunity to learn them through pain when necessary.
5. Resolve to help (not enable) your children of any age develop wings to fly on their own.

You can reach Diane at
You can also follow her on Twitter @PartnerinSANITY

Allison Bottke discusses the subject in this video.

Categories: Family Issues (231), Guest Post (79), Teen (158)


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About the authors
Gretchen Day-Bryant has a son in high school and a daughter in middle school. She’s lived to tell about the struggles of juggling little kids and work.
Joy Oglesby has a preschooler...
Cindy Kent Fort Lauderdale mother of three. Her kids span in ages from teenager to 20s.
Rafael Olmeda and his wife welcomed their first son in Feb. 2009, and he's helping raise two teenage stepdaughters.
Lois Solomonlives with her husband and three daughters.
Georgia East is the parent of a five-year-old girl, who came into the world weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces.
Brittany Wallman is the mother of Creed, 15, and Lily, 7, and is married to a journalist, Bob Norman. She covers Broward County government, which is filled with almost as much drama as the Norman household. Almost.
Chris Tiedje is the Social Media Coordinator and the father of a 7-year-old girl, and two boys ages 4 and 3.
Kyara Lomer Camarena has a 2-year-old son, Copelan, and a brand new baby.

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