Enabling behaviors can encourage unhelpful habits and behaviors, even if it’s unknowingly. But supporting behaviors can empower a loved one to recover.

If you love someone with a mental health condition or substance use disorder, you may feel as though you’re doing everything in your power to help them, but it’s just not working.

Oftentimes, when a loved one is ill or in recovery, it’s difficult to find a balance between providing support and giving space. You may even find yourself struggling with the desire to control their behaviors.

The person you love may begin isolating themselves and withdrawing from social contact with you, making it more confusing and challenging to know what to do next.

Boundaries begin by recognizing the difference between enabling and supporting someone. Maintaining boundaries between enabling and supporting may be key to helping friends, family members, and loved ones.

According to a 2021 study, support from family, friends, and other people in a social network can be helpful for people coping with practical and emotional consequences of mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

The study further demonstrates how having strong bonds with others encourages and supports a person’s quality of life.

Another 2019 study found people undergoing treatment for substance use disorders can benefit from building and maintaining positive relationships. The study further suggests that including families in the treatment process can help to improve outcomes.

Positive relationships provide social support. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines social support as:

any form of assistance, help, or comfort to someone to help them cope with health conditions or social stressors.

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Enabling isn’t supporting. Enabling behaviors ultimately perpetuate the problem by protecting or safeguarding a person against experiencing the full consequences of their actions. Supporting someone empowers the person to take active steps in their recovery.

Enabling behavior is a common coping mechanism seen in families living with mental health conditions or substance use disorders. Researchers suggest people engage in enabling behaviors in an attempt to:

  • try to change the unfavorable situation
  • regain control
  • increase stability

From afar, these types of behaviors may appear supportive, but enabling behaviors serve to contribute to and reinforce problematic behaviors.

While anyone can be an enabler, the APA explains:

it’s most often an intimate partner or close friend who passively and unknowingly encourages negative behaviors to continue.

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People who engage in enabling behaviors are aware of the destructiveness of the other person’s behaviors and try to do what they can to prevent further issues. They may also feel powerless.

Enabling may be part of a larger codependency issue taking place in the relationship. This may look like a loved one over-functioning to compensate. While this may seem supportive from afar, it actually creates and increases dependency.

In this scenario, the person with a mental health condition or substance use disorder loses their independence and isn’t empowered to recover or make necessary changes.

A 2021 study found the risk of becoming codependent is 14.3 times more likely if the family or loved one lacks coping resources. This study suggests enabling is disabling.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a leading nonprofit provider of inpatient and outpatient care for people with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, says codependent and enabling behaviors in families with substance use disorders can include:

  • efforts to protect your loved one from experiencing consequences that could promote growth (e.g., paying outstanding debts)
  • keeping secrets about their drug or alcohol use or making excuses for their actions
  • blaming other people for your loved one’s challenges
  • trying to gain control over things outside your control
  • avoiding confrontation or topics surrounding drug and alcohol use
  • listening to them
  • offering words of encouragement
  • being a resource to them
  • avoid trying to solve all of their problems
  • not taking on their recovery as your responsibility (you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself)

A small 2021 qualitative study states that mothers of teenagers experiencing substance use challenges face hindrances in family resilience due to:

  • limited financial resources
  • lack of family cohesion or feeling of togetherness
  • lack of family support

The same study suggests families can support without enabling by trying to incorporate more religious values that can help strengthen their families.

A 2020 literature review suggests additional ways to support without enabling include providing:

  • empathy
  • respect
  • encouragement

If you’re not sure if what you’re doing is enabling or supporting, you may want to consider whether or not you’re helping your loved one help themselves. It may be helpful to express honest concerns in a direct manner or to answer questions honestly when safe to do so.

Helping friends, family members, or other loved ones who are experiencing mental health conditions or substance misuse can be challenging and confusing.

You may want to try to control their behaviors or help by giving money and bailing them out of trouble. You may have noticed this isn’t working well.

When you’re not sure if you’re doing the best thing or what to do next, try coming back to the concept of boundaries. Enabling behaviors lack boundaries and perpetuate the problem. Supportive behaviors empower a person to make choices toward their recovery.