Strained Relations

Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens

What’s “enabling” and why is it harmful?

Posted by Marcia on May 22, 2010

I don’t follow a lot of celebrity gossip but sometimes hear about something that strikes me, especially when it pertains to my interest in dealing with difficult offspring.

This week I was channel surfing and landed on a Larry King show about Lindsay Lohan. I’ve seen her in a couple of movies and this is a talented young woman. She could have a long future in the entertainment business if she survives this stage of her life. She’s apparently had a lot of different problems, and because she is famous, it unfortunately plays out in a very public way. I suspect that compounds the access to trouble and it’s immediately noted whenever anything questionable arises.

The guests on Larry King said she is estranged from her father but close to her mother. Apparently, her father had his share of problems and is now clean and sober. He has been asking for help, asking his daughter and the courts to send her to a treatment facility, asking that the family go to therapy together. The guests indicated that the mother is not on the same page.

I’m sure someone out there follows celebrity gossip and knows more, but only the individuals involved know the whole story.

The details of this case are less important to me than the fact that this is a family that needs help.

It struck me when two of the guests said that when the parent who is close with the child is an enabler, it’s hard to change the pattern.

So what’s an “enabler”? This is a person in the troubled person’s life who contributes to that person’s bad behavior, alcoholism or drug addiction. It could be a family member or close friend who means well but winds up causing more problems by rescuing, lying for, making excuses for the troubled person. These people mean well, they want to help but wind up causing additional problems.

There are two interesting websites about this topic:

I don’t know the Lohan family but I’ve heard similar stories from people who’ve talked with me about their kids and the family dynamics.

Do you/did you have enabling or codependent behavior in your family and what will you/did you do about it?

6 Responses to “What’s “enabling” and why is it harmful?”

  1. Stacey Green said

    Enabling usually provides an experience for the affected person to be ineffective. Allowing or encouraging someone to go down a “new” path can be harmful if they are not ready for the “path”. It is great when continous learning is fresh and exciting yet protected from harm in some way.

  2. Marcia said

    Thanks for writing, Stacey. I think enabling is a tough pattern to change. You have to really recognize what you’re doing and why it isn’t helping at all. You’re right that the other person has to be ready for his or her new path.


  3. Hi Marcia!

    One of the issues with an enabling parent is also what behaviors the other parent is choosing to demonstrate. Is the other parent getting help in a 12-step group like Al-Anon, or is the other parent simply doing the opposite of the enabling parent?

    In Lindsay Lohan’s case, while her mother is clearly the enabler, the father is doing just the opposite: he has posted her private messages to him online (she is sobbing in them), he relentlessly talks to tabloids about how she needs help and, just yesterday, told Us Magazine that now that Lindsay is at Betty Ford, she won’t be able to recover:

    The enabler is only part of the dysfunction equation. It’s important to look at the whole family so that choices can be made to support and strengthen all the parts. An addict can’t heal in a partially well family.

    Thanks for all you do!

  4. Marcia said

    Thanks for wrting, Margit. For those who have not read my book, Margit contributed her experiences, thoughts and tips for parents. Margit Crane, M. A., M. S., M. Ed., is an expert on teens, ‘tweens and their parents. Margit’s website is

    I value your insights and of course you’re right! The father’s actions are over the top and it’s unclear to me if he is motivated by desperation and worry for his daughter or if part of this is loving the limelight.

    If I were in his shoes, I’d be talking with anyone who would listen because his daughter desperately needs help. She could have killed herself and others while driving and certainly has the potential to overdose.

    I hope this family pulls itself together. In the end, it’ll be determined by how much Lindsay really wants to change her life. Remember how much Robert Downey Jr. went through? Change is possible and I hope it happens in this case, too.

    • Hey Marcia, thanks for the shout-out! Just wanted to let you know that I’ve got a new website: and I’m working with a lot of families with kids with ADD/ADHD in addition to the coaching I do with tweens, teens, and their parents!

      I do remember how much RD Jr went through. What I remember most is that his family pulled away and wouldn’t help him anymore. He had to do it on his own. He had to want it.

      Thanks again for all you do!

  5. […] Addiction is complex and difficult, and I know from meeting recovering addicts that treatment is not easy and it truly is “one day at a time.” It’s helpful for family members to seek their own treatment, to understand how they are only in charge of their own feelings and reactions. You can’t change another person, and enabling another isn’t helpful to anyone. (Please see my post on enabling.) […]

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