Are We Enabling? Walking the Tightrope

photo (6)Have you heard the word enable yet in regard to parenting?  If you find yourself wondering what enable means, according to Khaleghi, enabling means “… lending a hand to help people accomplish things they could not do by themselves.  More recently, however, it has developed the specialized meaning of offering help that perpetuates rather than solves a problem” (2012).  Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about whether or not I enable as a parent until it was brought up at a support group meeting for families affected by mental illness.

There I sat at the meeting an exhausted and heartbroken parent with my shoulders slumping forward as if gravity had wrapped around my shoulders like a shawl and attempted to pull me down with the guilt of unsuccessful parenting.  Whatever my husband and I were doing, at the time as parents, didn’t seem to be helpful to our daughter in regard to her behavior.  At the peak of her illness her behaviors seemed out of control.  For instance, she self-medicated.  Even though we tried to stop her from abusing substances it didn’t seem to matter.  Try as we might, and try we did, it seemed that we were ineffective as a parents.  It was confusing because we have two other children that we seemed to raise just fine.  However, with my middle child, we were faced with challenges that we did not expect.  When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder we had to figure out what that meant.  We had so much to learn.  It seemed that we were in survival mode.  We didn’t even think about our parenting skills.  It didn’t come to mind in the beginning.  Why would it?  We were busy trying to figure out what type of help would benefit her, what type of medications she needed as well as how to cope with her symptoms and the ramifications of her illness. Our parental skills were the last thing on our mind and yet how we parent has become such an important tool as we journey forward with her.

In regard to the meeting, when the word “enable” was said it got my full attention.  I sat up in my chair, leaned in towards the group and intently listed.  As a result, I learned that enabling our loved ones can actually do more harm than good.  Tom Smith, President of the Karla Smith Foundation, noted in his article “The Fine Line: Between Supporting and Enabling a Loved One with a Mental Illness” that enabling can interfere with self-sufficiency (Smith, n.d.).  Temporarily, the weight of parenting a loved one with bipolar disorder lifted.  It’s as if I tossed the heavy, gravity laden shawl of guilt I was carrying on my shoulders aside.  When I heard the word “enable” I thought, “Maybe this is what we’ve been missing all along.”  I felt excited for the first time in a long time because I realized that there was still hope in regard to our parenting abilities.  Perhaps we were enabling our daughter’s behaviors.  I found myself thinking, “That’s it!  That’s the answer!  We’ll stop enabling her behaviors, and things will get better!”  However, since that “aha!” moment things haven’t really gotten any easier.  In fact, I think it actually got a little tougher because now we have to think about how we are going to approach certain situations in regard to our loved one’s behavior and whether or not the boundaries my husband and I set either enable or support her.

As a consequence, knowing whether or not we enable our daughter feels like walking a tightrope.  As we attempt to balance our parental boundaries we find that we are still left wondering whether or not we are enabling.  If we lean just a little one way we could lose our balance and potentially create a situation for our loved one that may be harmful.  On the other hand, if we lean to far the other direction we could be helping her greatly.  There seems to be little room, if any, for inconsistency.  To tell you the truth, knowing whether or not we’re enabling her behavior seems difficult to say the least.  One way that my husband and I stopped enabling certain behaviors includes the fact that we stopped the flow of money.  Without realizing it we were actually supporting our daughter’s self-medicating behavior.  Each time we handed her money it allowed her to self-medicate.  Thus, we were in essence saying,”Don’t drink, but here’s the money you asked for, so go for it!”  How confusing is that?  I know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, but we were so overwhelmed by her illness and just trying to survive as well as keep her alive that the concept of enabling escaped us.

Since that meeting, we have approached parenting our daughter a little differently.  We now ask ourselves, “What is in the best interest of our daughter?”  And, “What might be the consequence if we support her actions or draw the line?”  Usually, what helps us make a decision is that we also ask, “Will our actions hurt or help her?”  For us, asking ourselves the question, “Are we enabling?” hasn’t made parenting any easier.  We are making progress though!  I guess that’s all we can do as parents.  And so, we continue to put one foot in front of the other as we walk the line together.

If you would like more information about enabling I encourage you to check out Tom Smith’s article “The Fine Line.”  You can access it on the Karla Smith Foundation website at:


Khaleghi, K. (July 11, 2012). Are you empowering or enabling. Retrieved from

Smith, T. (n.d.). The fine line: between supporting and enabling a loved one with a mental illness. Retrieved from