Dear Coach Michelle,
My adult son is dealing with some major issues right now in his life. He is asking me for money, a place to stay and other things to help him get out of this hole he has gotten himself into (and this isn’t the 1st time). I want to be a supportive, loving mother but I have been told by friends that if I help him, then I am enabling him. At the same time I don’t want to abandon him in his time of need. How do I know if I am enabling him? And if I am, how do I help him without enabling him?
Sincerely, Loving Enabler
Dear Loving Enabler,
I am glad you asked this question. I have a feeling you are speaking for many loving parents when asking how to support those you love without enabling them and reinforcing behavior that is not serving them.
The key difference between effectively supporting someone you love vs. enabling them is independence vs. dependence. You become an enabler when your actions teach the person that is asking for help to become more dependent on you to solve their problems. So giving your son money to “bail him out” without him learning what he could do differently in the future is enabling. You are teaching him that you are the source of his good and he can’t do it himself. Though him needing you is a nice boost to your Ego, it does not serve him or you long term at all.
Your actions become supportive and productive when that action causes the person that is asking for help to become more independent and helps them learn how to solve their own problems. So this often looks like education and encouragement. Teaching your son how to budget and make wise choices with money is a wonderful supportive and empowering action you can take. Also encouraging him to find the resources he needs to get himself out of this situation is another supportive and empowering action.
Now that being said, this does not mean you should never give a loved one money or provide a temporary home. If they are clearly taking empowering steps towards change, are being respectful and appreciative of what you are offering and have a plan in place to pay you back, then supporting them financially or otherwise may feel very good and may be a wonderful supportive action.
On the other hand, if they are not appreciative or respectful of what you are offering. If they are not interested in learning how to use this situation as a learning opportunity and just want to stay in victim mode. Or, if they are saying all the right things but their actions are not matching their words, then they may not be ready to take the healthy support that you are offering. In those situations, the best thing you can do is love them unconditionally, make it clear the ways you are willing to help them and the parameters they need to meet for you to be able to provide that support (listed above) , and then surrender the whole thing and trust their path will bring them to you when they are really ready to make permanent change.
This is never an easy change to make if you have practiced being an enabler for a long time, but you can do it. And when your Ego kicks in wanting to rescue them, remind it that your goal is to truly help them when they are ready, not perpetuate the situation. Then get a support system in place to help you reinforce this new perspective.
Namaste, Coach Michelle