What Is the Difference Between Supporting and Enabling?


As a parent, you always want to support your child. But what constitutes support, and when does it become enabling? You want to have boundaries for your teen, but what is appropriate discipline and what is too harsh? Sometimes, these lines can be imperceptible, particularly if you are emotionally invested. Your child’s behaviors and reactions can also cause you to supersede good judgment and perhaps react yourself when it comes to parenting. How can you know the difference between supporting and enabling?

How Can You Offer Support to Your Teen?

Adolescents still require housing, food, clothing, and a form of transportation, as well as other physical or financial support. Many teens require help with schoolwork, need someone to show up for extracurricular activities, and especially need someone with a listening ear. Your wisdom and guidance are also important but should decrease as their independence increases. They need rules and boundaries, but they also need the freedom to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.

Everyone needs to feel loved; it is a part of the human experience that is shared with every individual on the planet. Teens especially need to know that you love them but may feel more comfortable if you show that love in less demonstrative ways. The love and support that you give them become increasingly more about respect and agency than hugs and kisses.

When Does Support Become Enabling?

Being supportive does not mean giving teens everything they ask for or letting them do anything they want. Too often, parents who want to be their child’s friend, or give them the material possessions and opportunities they did not have themselves, are more interested in having their teen’s approval than allowing them to learn and have character-building experiences.

Most children, whether consciously or not, will attempt to manipulate parents at some point in their lifetime. Adolescents are increasingly likely to do whatever it takes to get what they want, even if it means playing one parent when the other has said no. Negative behaviors are another way teens attempt to get attention, privileges, or material items. When parents give in to their demands, fail to follow through with consequences, or ignore poor behavior, support becomes enabling.

Why Are Structure and Consistency Important?

Offering your teen structure and consistency can help to prevent enabling and also let them know that you love them. Providing a set schedule or requiring them to show up for family dinner or other activities can prevent them from making poor choices with free time.

Despite the fact that many teens will reject or rebel against structure and consistency, being consistent and enforcing the rules and boundaries you set provides them with expectations and is another way of demonstrating love and support. Letting them know that if they do something, this will be the consequence and then following through every time teaches them accountability and increases their capacity to make good decisions.

When parents fail to be consistent, a teen is likely to view discipline as unfair. If they do the same thing multiple times, but the consequences are different, they will struggle to learn from their mistakes. Creating consequences that are appropriate to the behavior rather than using reactionary discipline will demonstrate consistency.

What Kinds of Boundaries Should You Set for Your Teen?

Some of the boundaries you might need to set as a parent include:

  • Communication regarding plans and scheduling
  • Having reasonable curfews and bedtimes
  • Chores and other responsibilities
  • Reasonable expectations regarding school attendance and performance
  • Acceptable behaviors, particularly in regards to anger or violence
  • Moral or ethical expectations, including not using substances or dating guidelines
  • Amount of screen time if it interferes with school, family, or behaviors

Some of the opportunities for increased decision making and agency for your teen might include:

  • Which classes, extracurricular activities, hobbies, or work they would like
  • Allowing them to choose clothing and hairstyles that match reasonable moral expectations but without judging their taste or choices
  • Allowing them to create their own schedule of their free time
  • Letting them be involved in family decision making
  • Allowing them to make their own future plans regarding education or vocation

How Do You Keep Boundaries When It Hurts?

Love hurts. Being a parent is sometimes painful. Watching your child suffer is not something a parent should enjoy. However, maintaining appropriate boundaries and consequences demonstrates love and support and prevents enabling behaviors that will cause them more suffering down the road. Remember that while it may be difficult to enforce reasonable discipline, your actions will help them to learn accountability. Offering structure and consistency may be difficult but doing so is one of the best ways to demonstrate to your teen that you love them.

What is the difference between supporting and enabling teens? Support maintains their agency while enabling prevents accountability. Allowing your teen increased decision-making while still offering structure and consistency will help them to feel your love. The extended residential programs at Sustain Recovery focus on creating structure and consistency to teach accountability. Our clients learn the consequences of their actions, whether positive or negative. We treat adolescents with substance abuse and co-occurring disorders; instead of focusing on behavioral problems teens may have, we look at what is causing their behaviors and how they can make new choices regarding their behaviors. Would your child benefit from a program like ours? Contact us at (949) 407-9052 to learn more about how we can help your child, even if other programs have not worked before. Supporting them in healing so they can choose recovery over substance abuse is another way that you can show your teen you love them.