Enabling is defined as the act of helping someone in such a way that rather than solving a problem, it instead delays and perpetuates the problem. People who enable behaviors aren’t trying to extend problematic behavior, but their actions have the potential to create, encourage, and support unhealthy behaviors and patterns in others because problems are never identified and improved upon. Enabling often begins as an effort to support a loved one who may be experiencing a difficult time — like doing your child’s homework for him because he is studying for a test in another class — but what usually happens is the opposite of what was intended. In this example, the child may perceive his homework as being unnecessary, or he may think why bother doing homework when mom and dad will always do it for me. As you can see an unintended consequence occurs where less effort, not more, will be given in the future because of parent enabling. While enabling comes from the heart, the surprising reality to many is that an intended warm gesture often turns into something completely different than intended, and if done over time can have a negative effect on a child’s mental health.
Examples of enabling
Many parents enable their kids without even realizing they are enabling, nor do they think much about the long-term effects from their enabling. Enabling comes in many shapes and forms as the following examples will show:
- Providing the school with an excuse so your child can skip class, claiming that he is sick when really he is simply tired from staying up late gaming the night before.
- Paying a person’s rent rather than expecting the person to get a job and pay rent himself.
- Lying to people about a loved one’s substance use and claiming he has just been working a lot.
- Bailing a person out of jail, paying fines, or doing other activities to help a person get out of trouble without owning up to what got him in trouble in the first place.
- Doing house chores your kids are expected to do.
As you can see enabling can happen in many different situations of varying levels of seriousness. In fact, we even see enabling behaviors in youth sports when parents do the following:
- Telling your child a bad play on the field that she made was another kid’s fault and not hers.
- Suggesting that your child didn’t make the all star team because of vague “politics” rather than acknowledging that she did not have a season worthy of being an all star.
- Overlooking your child’s lacking efforts and instead claiming his poor game was due entirely to bad luck.
- Blaming outdated equipment, poor fields, and bad officials for your child’s on-field mistakes.
While it is admirable to see a parent attempt to protect their child, the previous examples of enabling only lead to bigger future problems when the child does not having a realistic understanding of the world around him, nor where he needs to improve in order to experience future success. If every difficult moment in life is perceived to be the fault of someone or something else, how can a child ever understand the importance of responsibility and fairness, or the value of hard work? Setting up false expectations through enabling only hurts — not helps — kids and their mental health.
Tips to help
Telling your child he did poorly on a school exam because he didn’t study may be accurate (and not fun to hear), but it is also important to tell your child your comments are specific to the exam and that he is still a great kid! Parents can help kids understand that accurate feedback, even when negative, does not reflect on the person’s overall value, but instead an evaluation about one very specific task. Often kids take to heart constructive criticism and erroneously believe they have completely let their parents down, when in fact the the focus of parent feedback is designed to help with a specific task. Fortunately, when parents budget time to tell their kids that feedback, even when unsolicited, is only meant to help with a specific challenge and not serve as a reflection of a child’s overall being, kids can then begin to make the important differentiation that feedback is healthy and not a way of parents saying they do not love their kid!
Parents who enable their kids are not bad parents, but actually very loving parents who want the best for their kids. On the surface, protecting your kids from bruising their ego and losing self-confidence may be a nice safety measure, but what works in the immediate may have unintended, negative consequences later. When kids are steered away from reality and led to believe other people and situations are to blame for all their issues, the result is less responsibility, poor future focus, and inevitably less resiliency —– all qualities that hold kids back from being their best. Help your kids through love and specific feedback designed to help their self-esteem, confidence, and chances for future life happiness and success.