Tag Archives: enable

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

August 24th, 2018

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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