Are You an Enabling Parent?

I’ll never forget the moment I stood in the delivery room holding our baby boy in my arms for the first time.  He stared at me intently as if to ask, “What the heck just happened?”  I stared back at him with an emotion I had never quite experienced: the incredible hope of a parent.   I thought about all the things he might do one day.  The basketballs he would dribble, the fish he would catch, the books we would read together, and even the passion and faith I believed he would develop.  Maybe he would be a charismatic leader in business.  Perhaps he would do something that would greatly improve people’s lives or that would provide help to people in need.   In that moment, I had an incredible hope that my boy would do awesome things with his life, but that more importantly he would grow up to be a good man.  Then almost in an instant, fear set in.   I started to think about how messed up our world had become and about all the crazy things that could prevent my boy from realizing his potential.  And it seems like I have been fighting that battle between hope and fear ever since.  I have two more children now, and I still find myself deeply holding hope for their future but scared to death that the world will beat them up and prevent them from fulfilling their calling.  

After years in the clinical office talking with hundreds of parents, it is clear to me that while this battle between hope and fear is “normal”, it can also be the catalyst for a major parenting problem: parental enabling.  Enabling is an ineffective strategy designed to protect our kids from the brokenness of our world by saving them from the things that might hurt them or just be difficult for them to deal with.  Enabling parents have good intentions, but they end up making decisions out of fear.  Fear that their kids might get hurt.  Fear that their kids might not be successful.  Fear that their kids might not realize their potential.  And in the process of this enabling fear, parents actually prevent their children from experiencing the natural consequences of the choices they make in life and in many ways they prevent them from actually being successful.  When the 10 year old doesn’t start his science project until the night before it’s due, the enabling parents fix the problem.  They stay up until 3:00 in the morning finishing the project so that there is no risk that their child has to deal with the embarrassment of getting an F.  While this is a great short term strategy that does indeed help your 10 year old avoid pain, it is a horrible long term strategy because it will ensure that your child never learns good study habits.  Enablers are not comfortable with the reality that life is sometimes hard and in the process they end up robbing their children of the opportunity to learn how to deal with everyday challenges.  The bottom line is enablers become disablers.  They disable their children’s ability to feel confident and competent to deal with the world.  It’s probably worth mentioning that many mental health diagnoses are facilitated by enablers, not the least of which is dependent personality disorder and alcohol and drug addiction.  In fact, most of the people who enter our partial hospitalization rehab at Florida Counseling Centers have someone in their life that has enabled their addiction.  So clearly, the stakes are high and it is important for every parent to guard against becoming an enabler.  

If you want to make sure you aren’t enabling your children and are doing your part to set them up to succeed by experiencing the natural consequences of their choices in life, try these strategies:

  1. Learn the difference between enabling and helping.  

Most parents want to be a resource to their children and to help them in any way possible.  That’s healthy.  Remember, helping involves empowering your child to learn how to deal with life and offers the promise of learning, improvement, and development.  Helping looks for teachable moments and for opportunities to give away responsibility and decision making at appropriate times.  Enabling is any behavior that makes it easier for your child to continue down a path that deprives them of responsibility for their choices.

2. Give up on being your child’s pal.  

It’s natural for parents to want to be liked by their kids, but some parents let a desire to be friends with their children drive some pretty unhealthy behavior.  Maybe some of us are making up for not being available to our children or blaming ourselves for critical times in our child’s life when we were absent.  If this is you, you may think you are earning brownie points for being a buddy, but avoiding the conflict that is created when you don’t enable your child will only set precedents for the future.  Learn to say “no” even when it’s not popular and trust that you are providing powerful lessons about how the world works.

3. Never make decisions out of fear.

It’s important to normalize the battle between hope and fear, but it’s critical that decisions about your kids are never made out of fear.  Yes, the world is a crazy place and bad things do happen to good people, but our job as parents is to equip our kids to learn how to cope with the challenges of life and to believe that they can handle whatever life throws at them.  That is the essence of Hope as a parent and it is the very strategy that will allow you to surrender the outcomes and set your children up to live their dreams.   

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