By Jeffrey Foote, PhD, Co-founder and Clinical Director at Center for Motivation & Change
If you are a partner, parent or child of someone struggling with substance problems, and you live in America, you’ve probably heard this word “enabling” (possibly many, many times). And you’ve probably heard this described as central to your interactions in helping your loved one. Mostly, you have heard “DON’T DO IT”!, and if you are like most concerned family members, you feel vaguely guilty for doing something you’re not even sure you are doing (but you must be, right?).
By way of quick review, “enabling” actually means doing positive things that will end up supporting continued negative behavior, such as providing your child with money so they won’t “go hungry” during the day, knowing they use it to buy pot. Another example is going to talk to your child’s teacher to make sure she doesn’t get a bad grade, even though her bad test score was due to drinking. Or calling your husband’s work to explain he’s sick today, when he’s actually hung over.
These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that actually (from a behavioral reinforcement standpoint) might increase the frequency of the negative behavior, not decrease it. The logic: if they act badly and nothing happens, or something good happens, this behavior is encouraged, even if what you are doing is “nice”. This IS enabling, and this is not helpful in changing behavior in a positive direction.
But everything nice is not enabling! And that’s the quicksand we have developed in our culture. Staying connected, rewarding positive behaviors with positivity, being caring and loving; these things are critical to positive change.
So what’s the difference? Positive reinforcement is doing “nice” things in response to positive behavior. Simple as that. When your loved one wakes up on time in the morning, when he takes his sister to school, when she texts you tell you she’ll be late, when he doesn’t smoke pot on Friday night, when he helps you make dinner instead of going for a quick drink with the boys on the way home. These are positive actions, and acknowledging them, rewarding them, being happy about them, is a GOOD thing, not enabling.
Enabling is a meaningful concept. It’s just overused to the point that families often feel their loving and caring is the problem. IT’S NOT! Caring about and staying connected in a helping way with someone dealing with substances is not only helpful, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for change.
To restate the slogan: Attach with love — just love the positive actions and step away from the negative.
The Center for Motivation & Change (CMC) is a unique, NYC-based private group practice of dedicated clinicians and researchers providing non-ideological, evidence-based, effective treatment of addictive disorders and other compulsive behaviors. CMC’s treatment approach is informed by a strong commitment to both the humanity and the science of change, providing a unique, compelling, and inspiring environment in which to begin the process of change. Staffed by a group of experienced psychologists, CMC takes pride in their collective record of clinical research and administrative experience but most of all are driven by an optimism about people’s capacity to change and a commitment to the science of change.
Learn more about Center for Motivation & Change and read about our unique and effective approach to treating addictive disorders, and meet CMC’s directorial staff and clinical staff. To find more resources for families, please see our Parent’s 20 Minute Guide, and our Family Blog. And to learn more about CRAFT, see our CRAFT Family Services page. Find us on Facebook and Twitter for additional content and the latest updates.
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