Enabling Troubled Teens

How Parental Behavior can Keep Teenagers From Changing

mother talking to teen daughter
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Parents may unknowingly contribute to the difficulties their troubled teen is having by enabling their behavior. This behavior is usually not intentional but it occurs when parents allow a struggling teen to avoid or delay the consequences of their behavior.

What is Enabling?

Enabling can be a tricky concept. It has roots in the treatment of substance abuse where it is a behavior commonly seen in people who care about the substance abuser.

The ramifications of enabling in this situation are relatively easy to identify. When someone makes excuses or lies to cover up an addict's substance abuse, the consequences of their abuse are delayed and the motivation to stop may not come until the addict is forced to take responsibility for their abusive use of drugs or alcohol.

By definition, enabling means doing something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves. In its mildest form, enabling your teen might include washing dishes they have left out so you can use your kitchen or buying something needed for school because they lost it and don't have enough allowance to replace it themselves.

Neither of these examples may seem like a big deal. It often seems easier to rescue a teen in these small matters than to confront the situation directly. If you are dealing with a troubled teen, however, you may need to ask yourself what message this sends and whether it is keeping your teen from learning to take responsibility or even encouraging your teen's self-destructive behaviors to continue.

How Enabling Hurts a Troubled Teen

The previous examples describe relatively minor versions of enabling and its consequences, but this behavior can become detrimental to a teen when it subtly encourages damaging behavior. To better understand the problems inherent to enabling, consider whether you have ever:

  • Agreed to lie when your teen missed school or work, such as calling in sick on their behalf?
  • Let your teen return home after running away without receiving any punishment?
  • Avoided confronting your teen when chores weren't completed due to concerns about their response?
  • Chosen to believe your teen's stories about what they're doing because you don't really want to know the truth?
  • Not expressed to your teen serious concerns about their mood or behavior?
  • Loaned your teen money knowing it will probably never be returned?
  • Ignored possible signs of teen drug use or self-harm?
  • Agreed to your teen's request to keep information from the other parent?

Understanding the Dangers of Enabling

If you answered yes to any of these examples, then your attempts to be helpful may, in fact, be hurting your teen in the long run. For troubled teens, when they don't have to face the consequences of their behavior because someone else is willing to make things easier for them, it's going to take much longer to recognize the seriousness of their problems and the necessity of making positive changes.

Ironically, a parent's loving and well-intended efforts to help can mean a teen may end up suffering more in the long term. The dangers of enabling can be difficult to digest, but parents who begin to recognize these behaviors will help their teen more by backing off and allowing the consequences to unfold in ways that will ultimately help your teen to heal.

How to Get Help to Stop Enabling a Troubled Teen

Changing this type of response is sometimes easier said than done, at least initially. If you find you need assistance in responding differently to your troubled teen, consider the following options:

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