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Supporting Troubled Teens vs Enabling Substance Abuse or Bad Behavior


It’s only natural parents wants to help their teens and prevent or alleviate suffering or negative consequences. But in parents’ efforts to help, they often end up enabling substance abuse, bad behavior, or other problems, the precise thing that’s causing their adolescent suffering and consequences.

Parents that enable their teens may do so with a multitude of problems ranging from unhealthy eating habits or failure to do homework to substance abuse or stealing. Enabling parents believe they’re supporting their teens. But what they’re really doing is enabling substance abuse or whatever the problem their adolescent is experiencing.

To understand enabling, think of it this way. Support means ‘to bear or hold up.’ When your teen cannot do something on his own, you may need to hold him up or support him. For example, if your teen has a broken leg, you may need to support your teen by driving him to school rather than requiring him to walk a couple of blocks to get there.

Enabling, in contrast, is ‘to make possible or easy.’ Let’s say your teen doesn’t have a broken leg but refuses to walk to school. If you accommodate him, you’ve made it easy for him not to get to school on his own. That’s enabling.

Parents that enable do so in a variety of ways. Denial and justification are common enabling behaviors. Often, parents disregard the obvious, opting instead to deny (both to themselves and others) that their teen has a problem, such as substance abuse. To the extent that enabling parents do acknowledge it, they may find excuses, such as ‘he’ll grow out of it’ or ‘I drank when I was his age, and I turned out okay.’

Enabling parents also repeatedly come to the rescue or bail their teen out of trouble rather than allowing their teen to experience natural consequences. If your teen goes to jail for drinking and driving, you bail her out. If she blows all her money on an expensive wardrobe then can’t pay her car insurance, you cover it for her.

Enabling substance abuse or bad behavior can also be seen in the blame game. Rather than helping teens take responsibility for their actions, enabling parents join their teen in blaming others for the adolescent’s problems. Alternatively, parents that enable may blame their teen for substance abuse or another problem and cop a negative attitude toward their adolescent, which only makes things worse.

Other things parents that enable do include:

  • taking on responsibilities for their teen
  • accepting excuses
  • trying to control the behavior
  • minimizing the problem
  • blaming themselves
  • lying to others to hide the behavior or protect their adolescent

To truly support your teen requires changing your patterns and making a conscious effort to stop enabling. You need to discontinue empowering the addiction or problem behavior and instead empower your teen.

Supporting your teenager involves assisting them with things they’re not capable of doing themselves. It means helping them to develop coping strategies and build resilience. In supporting your teen, it’s crucial to acknowledge their difficulties and feelings, so they feel understood and validated.

But it isn’t your job to eliminate your teen’s troubles. Such a disposition would feed into the concept of potentially enabling substance abuse, bad behavior, or whatever your teen’s problem. Instead, work with your teen to help her find and acquire the tools and skills needed to develop the power to change and overcome her difficulties.

Rather than threatening, pleading, shaming, or offering incentives, offer your love and attention as well as praise for taking steps toward change and small achievements.

Don’t ask for promises from your teen, particularly if the problem is addiction or related to a mental disorder. Not only will this likely anger your adolescent, but addiction is too powerful for an addict to be able to make guarantees. Supporting teenagers requires accepting they may falter.

If your teen is in treatment, whether outpatient or at a residential treatment center, learn about your teen’s addiction, disorder, and/or treatment. By learning what you can about the problem and what helps and hinders, you’ll have the tools to be a more supportive parent.

Finally, to be a supportive parent, you must prioritize your own wellness. Caring for a teen with a mental health condition, addiction, or other problems can take a real toll on your emotional and physical health. You may tell yourself your child comes first. But if you don’t take care of yourself, how will you adequately support your child? So, when life feels overwhelming and you’re tempted to let your own needs slide, remind yourself that caring for yourself is an essential part of caring for your teen.

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