Supporting Vs. Enabling In Addiction Recovery

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on December 29, 2021

Understanding the differences between enabling and supporting a loved one in recovery can be an important tool for friends, family members, and other loved ones. Finding the best way to support your loved one in addiction recovery can help you be an ally while setting crucial boundaries.

Supporting Vs. Enabling A Loved One In Addiction Recovery

Loved ones of those with substance use disorder, such as family and friends, can be an important source of support during the treatment and recovery process.

When a person is struggling, loved ones can feel powerless. They may blame themselves, or feel responsible for saving or “fixing” the person with the drug or alcohol problem.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to what’s known as enabling. Enabling behaviors can appear similar to offering support—with some key differences.

Understanding these differences can be an important tool for family and friends who are looking to support someone on their recovery journey.

Learn more about helping a love one struggling with addiction

What Is Enabling?

Enabling is a pattern that can essentially condone or support problematic behaviors of a loved one to the detriment of their progress in treatment or recovery.

What this can look like:

  • allowing substance use (i.e. not part of their treatment plan)
  • turning a blind eye to it
  • protecting someone from the consequences of their actions
  • using coercion or force

Enabling isn’t necessarily something that is done with malicious intent. On the contrary, loved ones in particular usually have good intentions.

But it’s important to recognize that enabling ultimately hurts, rather than helps. And there are ways to support someone without enabling disruptive or destructive habits.

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The Difference Between Enabling And Supporting

Enabling is, essentially, a form of mitigation. That is, it will often delay or reduce the impact of harmful behaviors or consequences. But it can also prolong, or stall, a person’s progress.

Characteristics of enabling include:

  • coercion
  • force
  • punishment
  • shame
  • denial
  • self-sacrifice

Support, on the other hand, is often helping someone in ways they cannot help themselves.

Or, encouraging someone’s own efforts to help themselves through the use of supportive skills and strategies.

Characteristics of support include:

  • encouragement
  • motivation
  • empowerment
  • compassion
  • understanding

What Are Examples Of Enabling?

Enabling a person in early recovery from addiction can keep them from understanding the gravity of their situation and from facing the consequences of their actions.

This can hold a person back in the recovery process, and can prolong or be a detriment to their progress.

Examples of enabling behaviors include:

  • justifying non-recovery-oriented behavior (e.g. drug use)
  • lying to cover up for their actions
  • taking over their responsibilities
  • overlooking a person’s actions
  • not setting or enforcing healthy boundaries

Finding the fine line between enabling and supporting can be tricky. Sometimes, enabling can feel like a form of support.

But if it allows, or supports, actions that are not conducive to their recovery, this is a sign of enabling.

How To Support A Loved One In Addiction Recovery

Ceasing enabling behaviors can be important to a person’s recovery. But what does supporting a person look like?

Essentially, supporting someone is helping them with things they can’t do while sober. Or, facilitating actions that will propel them forward on their recovery journey.

How to support a loved one:

  • create clear boundaries (e.g. no substances in the home)
  • enforce those boundaries
  • listen to them
  • encourage them in their recovery efforts
  • educate yourself about the recovery process
  • provide transportation to treatment (if they cannot do so on their own)
  • attend family or couples therapy with them
  • consider joining a family or friends support group

What to avoid:

  • making excuses
  • lying or hiding things from others
  • casting judgment
  • speculating rather than talking to them
  • forcing them to attend treatment
  • drinking or drug use around them
  • scolding or punishing someone for a slip

Support During Addiction Treatment

There are a variety of ways that family members, friends, and other loved ones can support someone through the treatment and recovery process.

How to support a loved one during drug addiction treatment:

  • Family therapy: Consider participating in family therapy sessions during a loved one’s rehab program, if it is offered and desired by your loved one.
  • Support groups: Attending a family or friends support group can help you find tips for supporting your loved one and connect you with others in a similar boat.
  • Education: Don’t rely on your loved one to make you an expert on addiction, treatment, and recovery. Take time to educate yourself and learn more about what you can expect.
  • Boundaries: Setting and enforcing boundaries is one of the best ways to take care of both your own needs and support a loved one’s recovery-oriented actions.
  • Self-care: Taking care of your own physical, mental, and emotional health puts you in the best position to play a supportive role in your loved one’s recovery.

Supporting Your Loved One After Addiction Treatment

Inpatient and residential rehab programs commonly last 30 to 90 days. Outpatient programs last three to six months, on average. But this isn’t where the journey ends.

Both during and after a person has completed a drug rehab program, having the support of those around you can be important to a person’s success and their continued motivation.

What support for someone after treatment can look like:

  • honoring their boundaries
  • avoiding treating them like an “addict”
  • avoiding triggers
  • encouraging their hobbies and interests (i.e. not substance use)
  • recognizing their successes and strengths
  • making them feel heard

Acknowledge that this process is difficult. Recognize and own that. But also remember and remind your loved one of their strengths. The only way out is through, and with a little faith.

Get Help For A Loved One With Drug Addiction

If you’re struggling with how to support someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, it may be time to seek help from a substance abuse professional.

Call our helpline today to find more information about drug abuse treatment, recovery, and how to find treatment options for yourself or a loved one.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on December 29, 2021
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