Frankly Speaking


Every month I'll post a column to give you some idea about my approach and style. [Each one was previously published in the "Valley Breeze" newspapers in northern R.I.]

"Help, Enable, or Empower?"


To save money for grad school, our daughter’s been living at home and commuting to college. She’s carrying a full course load, earning terrific grades, and she’s made the dean’s list several times. If she’s not at the library studying or at her waitress job, then she’s with her friends. We’re proud of her and willing to do anything to help.

But I’m wondering if things have gotten a little out of hand. She’s hardly ever home. When she is, we’re always turning off lights behind her, cleaning up her dishes, or doing her laundry. She gets indignant if we complain; and tells us to stop treating her like a child.

To change her attitude, you must first change your own behavior.

Until now, you and your wife have been enabling, not helping, and in doing so, you’ve contributed to your adult daughter’s dependency on you rather than her independence from you. Stop picking up after her. Stop making excuses for her. Stop tolerating her disrespect of you and your home. Otherwise she’ll never
grow up.

We help when we assist others in doing what they can’t do or don’t know how
to do.

We enable when we actually do what they could or should be doing for themselves. As a result, they continue their unacceptable behaviors because they’re not forced to face any consequences.

For years, clinicians associated enabling behavior with the loved ones of alcoholics, drug addicts, and gamblers who “helped” by calling in sick for them, paying their bills, and generally covering for their shortcomings.

Now we know that enabling can occur in any setting. Consider your own household – certainly, you should help your daughter. But if you find yourself doing so in the same way repeatedly, then you’re enabling.

Think about how and why you and your wife jump in so quickly. Were your own parents controlling, and is that why you’re being so lenient? How many ‘last chance’ ultimatums have you given her, only to change your mind later? Does her dependence on you make you feel special or indispensable? Are you so impatient to get tasks done that you quickly take over?

As parents, it’s your responsibility to empower her, to teach her how to fend
for herself.

Begin with a frank discussion about acceptable behavior. Don’t nag or scold; just state your expectations. Stick to the facts. Reiterate that family members cooperate; they all assume a share of household duties. Don’t get caught up in a discussion or argument that goes around in circles. Instead, simply spell out the consequences. If she doesn’t behave as a family member, then you’ll treat her
as a tenant and charge for room, board, and your services. Hand her an
itemized bill.

Remind her that respect, kindness, and caretaking aren’t entitlements – like those terrific grades, they must be earned.


While trailing after me in our barn recently, my granddaughter offered to help empty our horses’ water buckets. Even half-filled, they weigh about 16 pounds – formidable lifting for a six-year-old despite her willingness to give me a hand.

Straining at one of the handles, she said, “I can’t do it.”

As I reached down to do it for her, I caught myself and stopped.

“Let me help you,” I said, and together we carried the buckets one by one out of the barn, setting them on the snow. Then I showed her how to tip them until the water slowly poured out. She beamed with pride that she didn’t get splashed.

Certainly this chore took longer than usual that day; but in the process, a veteran clinician was reminded that life is full of heavy lifting, and we do best for those
we love when we teach them that within themselves is strength to bear the weight.

Share by: