Don’t call me an enabler. Or anything like it.

Let’s talk about enabling.  Or rather, let’s talk about being accused of it. Happens quite often to parents like me.

The first time I ever heard the word “enabler,” and later its sister words co-dependent and over-controlling, was early in my son’s mental health journey.  He was doing progressively worse each day, exploding over minor things, threatening to hurt himself daily and I went looking for support and help.  I made a long series of calls and finally got what I thought was a sympathetic and wise person on the phone.  She listened, asked a few questions, then pronounced that I was an enabler.

My son was 7 years and, as it turns out, about to have his first psychiatric hospitalization. What I needed was help, not a label.

It also turns out that she knew diddly squat.  It took me a while to figure that out.  I took that word out and turned it over and over and even shook it a few times to see if it would change into something else. It didn’t.  It stuck in my mind, adding to my doubt in those dark moments when I wondered if I could parent my son with his enormous needs.  It undermined my pleasure when I found a moment, all too rare, when I sat with my son and we both enjoyed the moment, the hour or the afternoon.

About a year later, I found a group of parents who all had children like mine.  Some had teenagers (and their stories scared me), some had girls, some were strict and some weren’t.  At a meeting, I told my story of the phone calls and being called an enabler.  They laughed, they scoffed and they said it had happened to them as well. I felt a weight lift and some of the guilt leave.  I wasn’t ready to laugh along with them though.  The woman on the phone had been so certain.

What I had started to do from the very beginning was use a mashup of techniques that actually work for those of us trying to parent a really challenging child.  I was letting behaviors go that weren’t absolutely necessary to deal with right then and there. I was trying in a thousand ways to accept and support a son who the world was rejecting when they saw him in his bad moments.  I was adjusting to our new normal. The lady on the phone asked me what I did when my son had meltdowns and I told her I was letting the unimportant go and accepting my son no matter how he behaved.

When you parent a child with mental health needs, you are very focused on finding what works for your child.  You can’t afford a lot of trial and error and it may look controlling when you say no to things you’ve tried before or you just know are unlikely to work.  You also learn how to manage the details.  My son would have a meltdown if we walked through a store with images of zombies or monsters on t-shirts, DVD covers or books so we got good at avoiding those sections.  Sometimes his younger brother would walk 10 steps ahead and turn over the images so we could only see the backs of those items.  Yep, you bet we controlled the environment and even where he walked sometimes.  We made it easier on him, but also on us.

Enabling is described as excusing, justifying, ignoring and smoothing things over for a person who is addicted, has a mental illness, has out of control gambling and so on.  The enabler thinks things like, “If only I can keep this person going through their current crisis, it will buy us another day.” If I had been asked if that definition or self-talk fit, I would have raised my hand in a heartbeat.

When I stopped talking (much) about the details of my son’s life to people who didn’t know us, or had little expertise in children’s mental health, I stopped hearing words like enabler. The therapists, psychiatrists and special education teachers who had experience with mental health issues in children simply got it.  They were using the same techniques I was and comparing notes with me.  My hard won knowledge and experience in what works were seen as just that – expertise.

I’m pretty sure, however, if I looked at the notes from the early IEP meetings or therapy visits, I’d see a word like enabler in there somewhere.  And that’s the problem.  Those words get put in the notes and the next person sees them and maybe wonders or believes it to be true. One casual observation from someone who has a little knowledge and more judgy-ness can have an outsized impact.  So, please don’t call me an enabler.  You’ve got that wrong.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t call me an enabler. Or anything like it.

  1. Boy did this ring true for ma. Maybe not the actual label, but the labeling. I was ‘giving in to all his demands’, letting him be a ‘prince’ (ruler) in our home. How little those who said that knew. Thankfully I have a high opinion of myself, and knew that others who said that just didn’t know what was really going on (I kept much of what happened to myself).
    Just to let you know, it also happened a lot with my neuro-typical daughter when she hit the ‘dis-respectful’ growth stage. Some people are just clueless about what really matters in a child’s life, and I don’t have the time to teach them all.
    Suffice to say that we all lived through those periods of life, and my now adult children are doing well. Not always well by society’s standards, but well by my standard of being able to feel like they are contributing to the world and care about themselves. Things that I do not take for granted.

  2. Great piece. The language of “enabling” (which I have often heard as well) carries an inherent assumption of the parent’s individual, personal responsibility for the child’s behavior. But when we meet with other parents in similar situations we learn that it is not a case of personal fault at all– here are other kids similar to ours, with different parents, who are struggling in similar ways. The light bulb goes off: maybe it’s not my fault after all! This is why parent support groups are crucial for any population of parents who are routinely blamed for their children’s problems. I often think of Ross Greene’s observation (paraphrased): “For kids who are struggling, parents get too much of the blame; for kids who are thriving, parents get too much of the credit.” Amen.

  3. Important topic, thanks for bringing it into the light Lisa. Akin to what you shared, I’ve also been shamed as an enabler because I have an only child. Regardless of her age, parenting one wasn’t enough experience to not enable, according to a toxic school psychologist.

  4. Great blog Lisa as always! I remember the early days when the school would blame me for not getting services & then
    after we got services they blamed me for the services. Yes, there were things that went wrong
    but they were resolved.
    Over the past four years his psychotic episodes have increased and his therapist at one point kept saying you need to call the Crisis Team! I knew by the time they would get to the house the episode
    would be over and they would do nothing. Then one day on our way to his therapist he was
    about to have an episode. He kicked in my side mirror as he got out of the car swearing. I picked up the mirror and brought it into her office. He continued to escalate and I waited thinking and praying
    go ahead call the Crisis Team but she sat there not doing much of anything. I thought see he is now cleaning up her office and it was over! Easier said then done. I too had learned as long as we weee both safe he would calm down and we could move on. It has not stopped some saying do X, Y or Z but what they don’t understand is he is now 26 and his own legal guardian. There is only so much I can do. That said if he was a real threat I would do all I could to get him the help he needed.

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