Enabling is a topic I deal with frequently. Whether I am working with a family for an intervention, or just working toward getting healthy in general. This is also a behavior that is not exclusive to parent-child relationships, but often something I see with couples and friends.
For parents, there is a very thin line between parenting and enabling. We do a lot for our children as parents. Making sure their needs are met, they are fed, they take their vitamins, we drive them to work, school, and social functions. So at what point are we enabling?
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Is this something he/she could do for her/himself?” If the answer is yes, then let them do it. Offer guidance and support and be their leader, but allow them to take the action and do things for themselves. We are not doing them any favors by doing everything for them, all we are doing is keeping them from learning how to live life and navigate the world.
As an example, if your child needs to go get an eye exam before she/he can take their driving test, allow them to make that appointment and follow through. This is something they can easily do for themselves. It is perfectly fine to provide the name of the doctor, even provide the phone number if you want to. But allow him/her to take the initiative by making the call and setting up the appointment. Maybe one gentle reminder when the appointment is approaching, but allow them to make time in their schedule, coordinate a ride, and show up for the appointment. If they want that license badly enough, they will make it happen.
Another way to look at it is regarding consequences for choice. If my spouse is drunk and misses work or a family function and I step in to protect him, cover for him, and make excuses for his actions, then I am protecting him from the consequences of the choices he made. This does not allow someone to learn accountability and responsibility. Essentially, I am making that person comfortable to continue making bad choices. And I don’t think that is what any of us want.
As people, we need to feel the rewards of our choices or the consequences of our choices. If I forget my phone at home three times a week and you bring it to me every time, then there is no reason for me to take action to stop forgetting my phone. It is my responsibility to make a note for myself or set an alarm on my phone, or put my phone next to my car keys, or whatever I need to do to not forget it. It is not anyone else’s job to drop everything and correct my missteps.
The key is to be supportive and empathetic, but allow people the opportunity to troubleshoot their own problems and figure out solutions. This is imperative as we all grow and evolve because this is how we learn to face life, this is how we learn to be resilient and creative with solutions, this is how we learn to keep trying even when things are not easy. Ultimately, I think this is what we all want as individuals, but especially for our children. Confident and prepared is what we want them to be.