Parenting vs. Enabling for Children with ADD and ADHD

Image courtesy of digitalart/

Image courtesy of digitalart/

One of the most difficult things for parents of children with ADD and ADHD is drawing a line between what is helping and enabling a child. With all of the challenges presented to our children in this day and age, we are almost forced into helping our children through many different challenges. Recently, I had a good example of what is not helpful for a child.

At times I will reflect on things that happen at my work. It is not because I like to gossip, but it provides a good roadmap. Recently, I started working with a local family. The child of these parents was recently diagnosed with ADHD and was given a 504 plan by the school. As I regularly tell clients, 504 plans are supposed to provide accommodations and not excuses. Let’s just say that this family abused this notion to the umpteenth degree.

After talking with the child’s teachers, I came to realize that the parents enabled their child beyond anything I’ve ever seen. They would make excuses for missing work, blame the teachers for not giving enough help, abuse the 504 plan and just make everyone’s lives miserable as a result of enabling this child. It even trickled into my work because the child missed an appointment, and after the mom told me the child forgot about the appointment, one of this child’s teachers sent me an email asking about the session. When I said the child forgot, the teacher responded that even though the teacher asked the child to stay after school, the child said that he/she couldn’t because of our appointment. When I told this to the mom, instead of addressing the behavior said that I had the gender of the original teacher incorrect (which I did, but it wasn’t the issue). It was after this exchange that I decided it was time for the client to move on.  I am not suggesting that I shy away from difficult cases, but this was going down an uncomfortable path. My clients have to be a part of the process, and when he or she isn’t willing to do so, there’s nothing I can do to make that happen. The parents enabling this child’s absence is a huge red flag.

So why do I tell this story? Am I venting? No, I’ve been doing this long enough now that I am not surprised by anything. The reason is because I want other parents to recognize that even though you may think you’re helping a child, in reality, by not holding a child accountable or failing to place expectations on that child you’re doing a huge disservice. The more excuses you make for a child, the more the child is going to expect to be bailed out. In my work, it is the clients that have been enabled that are usually the most difficult to help. The best lessons come from touching the hot stove.

For more helpful tips an suggestions, please check out my ADHD Guru podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn Radio. You can also find me on Twitter (@adhdguru) and Instagram (@adhdguru). Feel free to email me at [email protected] or call 877.398.ADHD (2343) with any additional questions.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Jonathan- I like this piece a lot. Like you, I have a clinical practice in which I work with many families dealing with ADHD. Fortunately for them, the world is gradually coming to an increased level of awareness about this disorder and its symptoms. The fact that their behaviors are not automatically viewed through a lens that sees them as being willful or lazy has obviously been immensely helpful. However, what’s lost on a lot of people is the idea that behavior can reflect issues of both neurology and character. It’s not always the case of one or the other. Thanks for the post.

    Bruce Sabian, M.A., LMHC

    • Bruce,

      Thank you for your comments. I really appreciate it. Very good points. ADD/ADHD manifests itself differently in individuals. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but one needs to recognize the symptoms and how these impact the individual’s life. But to regularly enable and not allow the individual to take ownership is a huge concern. There’s a fine line between helping and enabling.

  • matthew moskowitz
    May 15, 2013 12:24 pm

    jonathan, just found your website. wow!!! how insightful. just ended a 2 year relationship with a beautiful woman but who has add (self admitted). we were both divorced both have our own children. i would walk around all the time saying to myself. i just dont understand how the person i love can be so inconsiderate!!! all the time… it got to the point where i had nothing left to give. this woman became so unattractive due to her personality. it was utterly selfish of her to do some of the things she would do and beyond frustrating she couldnt see that if i acted the way she did it would be a huge issue with her but totally ok for her to act this way. she would tell me she loved me but never an action would follow. life existed on her terms. her son (7 has it as well) also believe there are more issues with him too. he flaps his hands and makes weird animal sound and pants when he is excited. its sad but i feel such freedom now. every little thing was such a larger than life issue. she would exclude me and my kids to her sons birthday party (all similar ages and they got along great) because it should be just school friends. i would never never think along those lines. never would she offer a favor either. i sat and went out of the way all the time. i love helping people! i read a lot on your site and understand the inflexable nature but at the same time it is no not nice never to extend yourself when a little thing i need would be an infringement. couldnt be in 2 places at once for my kids needs asked her to watch one ofg mykids on a sunday and she was home but was doing chore and said i was dumping the child. i would go out of my way all the time to help her out with child care for hers……. she has no idea how it came across….. but anyway its over….. it may not been her fault… it may have been chemical idk but it is a sad how one does doest give….

    • Thanks for the kind words. I never like ADD to be an excuse. While I don’t think you were doing that, I do think there’s a line between helping and enabling. Your ex-girlfriend wasn’t a good person. She was narcissistic and selfish from your description. She also can’t diagnose herself with ADD. No one can. So to me, she was looking for convenient excuses.

      Until she gets some real answers, she’ll continue to have this issues. I feel bad for her son, but you’re in a better place. If you do talk to her and he to maintain any sort of relationship, I’d advise you to suggest she have herself evaluated for ADD. It is a place to start.


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