Parenting a Prodigal: Nine Signs You Are an Enabler

Parenting a Prodigal: Nine Signs You Are an Enabler

I am a recovering enabler. Enablers, as you may or may not know, are people who make something possible. In my case, I made my child’s bad behavior possible.

Briefly put, I made many mistakes in parenting, even though I knew better. The result? A parent’s worst nightmare—a kid in prison.

During Lent one year, weary from the burden I carried, I decided to give up my enabling behavior. I took every one of those forty days to dig into my mistakes, take responsibility, and let go of the guilt. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and my Prodigal. If you are filling a painful role as Parent to a Prodigal, I can help you avoid the mistakes I made.

Don’t substitute my advice for one-on-one help from a mental health professional or a church counselor. I’m just a default mom giving you a wake-up call.

Enabling–It’s Actually a Real Thing

Lots of people, usually those who have no idea what they’re talking about, will throw around words like “co-dependent” and “enabler”. I’ve checked my sources and compiled a legit list of the real signs of enabling behavior–and what happens when you refuse to recognize it in yourself. By the way, enabling has two evil henchmen–Guilt and Denial. I know because all three of them, Enabling, Guilt, and Denial, lived at my house for many, many years. None of them are polite houseguests

Here are nine signs of enabling:

  1. No logical consequences. In other words, you bail out, pay damages, or get between your child and the teacher, counselor, cop, or angry neighbor. You’ll do anything to shield him/her from the logical consequences of his/her own behavior. When my Prodigal wrecked someone else’s car, I paid for the damages–$6,000. I told myself it was to avoid a lawsuit. When my Prodigal went to jail, I bailed him out. Right. His behavior, my consequences.
  2. Covering up or minimizing the behavior, or hiding it from others. You know what this looks like. Your Prodigal is never the “instigator”. S/he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Minimizing is also a popular method of enabling. As in, “S/he didn’t actually steal that candy bar. S/he just forgot to pay for it. Here’s the money.”
  3. Acting from Fear: Your enabling can also be motivated by fear. You may be afraid of confrontation or afraid of “losing” your child. Sometimes, you’re afraid that if your Prodigal suffers, it will be your fault (and that would make you feel guilty).
  4. Putting the Prodigal’s needs above your own. Did you put off paying the electricity bill so you could buy your Prodigal a new pair of Nikes? Did you upgrade your wi-fi or cell phone data plan so your Prodigal could play games faster? Seriously, are you losing time, money, or self-respect in the mistaken interest of pleasing your Prodigal Child? Some parents have actually taken second jobs due to their Prodigal’s drain on finances.
  5. Blaming others or blaming circumstances. “That other guy started the fight.” “S/he has ADD.” “S/he was bullied in second grade.” In my case, I blamed my son’s traumatic history before I adopted him. That absolved both of us from responsibility. I saw him as a victim and myself as his rescuer, and I was doing the best I could.
  6. Making excuses for your inaction. “I can’t just put my child out on the street.” “S/he’s really been acting much better…this week.” “It’s really not that bad.” It really is that bad. Ask your friends, your Prodigal’s siblings, or your outspoken sister-in-law. They will give you a clear picture.
  7. Feeding the behavior. Cigarette money or drug money? If you give your Prodigal money, it will be used to support an addiction: smoking, drugs (including weed), alcohol, even gaming or gambling. Also, lock up your valuables and take your guns to someone else’s house. I’m not kidding. Giving your Prodigal money is giving him/her the means to feed the addiction. Long story short, your money is helping your Prodigal harm him/herself.
  8. Trying to control or fix your Prodigal – even by “taking care” of him/her. This includes physically cleaning up after your Prodigal, as well as getting him/her a job, or giving him/her rides to sketchy places. By hovering and nagging, you’re showing your child that s/he really can’t cope with life. Taking care of your Prodigal will not fix him or her. That’s God’s job.
  9. No follow-through. How many times have you made an ultimatum or given a threat and then found yourself unwilling to carry it out? Whether it’s taking the cell phone or throwing their clothes out on the front lawn, if you say it–be prepared to do it.

The journey I made to figuring all this out was incredibly painful. I strongly urge you to look–really examine–the ways you may be enabling your Prodigal’s bad behavior under the guise of nurturing. PLEASE see a counselor, meet with your pastor, talk this over with a trusted friend. Learn how to remove yourself from the mix of influences that are doing more harm than good.

Finally and most importantly, put your faith in God. The Rev. Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth Bell Graham, once said, “Mothers must take care of the possible and trust God for the impossible. We are to love and affirm, encourage, teach, listen and care for the physical needs of the family. We cannot convict of sin, create hunger or thirst after God, or convert. Those are miracles and miracles are not in our department.”

Grace is real–


How to Keep Your Child Out of Jail

How to Keep Your Child Out of Jail

A brief disclaimer: The use of the pronoun “he” is not intended to offend anyone. I’m just old-school. Future blogs will use non-gender and female pronouns.

It’s 3 am and you’re awake and worried. Your child crossed a line today, you didn’t handle it well, and now you are convinced he’s headed for career-criminal status. You picture yourself talking to him through a shatterproof glass window. Orange jumpsuits. Handcuffs. Mug shots.

I know the feeling. I know because, well, my child DID go to prison–at the age of 17. The sleepless nights we spent after the fact were all about coming to terms with how this happened, although we should have seen it coming before we did.

I’ve written this blog to give you a quick distillation of the best practical advice I’ve learned from my experience, from “experts”, and from actual prisoners. Print this guide, laminate it, tattoo it on your arm, carve it in stone or write it in chalk on one of those cute slates from Michael’s. Trust me. You’ll need it.

One last message before the list. This advice comes with no guarantee. Anyone’s child can take a sudden left turn into trouble, despite our best efforts. This list is only meant to show you how to minimize your risks. No matter the age, from 18 months to 18 years, these rules can–and should–be applied.

Default Mom’s Rules for Parents

  • Stick to your guns. Your child relies on the boundaries you set, even if he pushes against them. The same behavior should always get the same response.
  • Speaking of guns, keep them locked up. Don’t think your child doesn’t know where they are.
  • Say “no”–and MEAN IT!!
  • Remain calm when your child acts up. If you have a “what if” plan in advance, it will keep you from temporary insanity.
  • Most lessons in life are caught, not taught. Let your child learn ethical behavior from your example: make no excuses, own up to your responsibilities, and don’t shift blame to others.
  • As Dr. Phil says, “Never reward bad behavior.” Sorry, bribing is only a temporary fix. If you get your knickers in a twist over a small misbehavior, that is also, in effect, rewarding bad behavior.
  • If you smoke or vape, quit. See the “caught, not taught” example above.
  • If you’re not sober enough to drive a car, you’re not sober enough to take care of your child.
  • Be consistent. Both parents (even if they don’t live in the same house) should always present a united front to their children. The same response should come from both of you. Argue about it later–not in front of your child.
  • Teaching your child appropriate behavior requires patience. Accidents and carelessness are very different from deliberate destruction. Respond appropriately. In other words, don’t yell over spilled milk, especially if you haven’t taught them how to carry a glass.
  • Find a church, mosque, temple or synagogue where your family feels comfortable and go there regularly. Let your children see how you live out your faith, and how it applies to everyday life.
  • If you are a single parent: NO overnight “dates” when children are present. Also, don’t ask your significant other to babysit your underage children alone.
  • Command (don’t DEMAND) respect, and be worthy of it. Show respect for authority, including law enforcement, teachers, the elderly, those who serve you (waiters, retail clerks, etc.), and above all, your spouse and children. Teach your children to treat others with dignity and respect.
  • Know where your child is at all times, and don’t be afraid to verify what he tells you.
  • Teachers don’t give out bad grades to be vindictive. They don’t have time to single out your child in that way, and they would welcome your partnership in helping your child succeed.
  • Defensiveness gets in your way. One the most difficult tasks any teacher or caregiver has is to report misbehavior to a child’s parents. Stay calm and ask questions to get all the facts.
  • No one over 4 should be having a temper tantrum. Period. That includes YOU. Giving in to tantrums or responding to them with anger will only reinforce the behavior. As annoying as a tantrum is in a two-year-old, it is just plain ugly in a teenager.
  • Asking your child why he has misbehaved is unhelpful. Your child has no idea why he does what he does. Work on solutions instead.
  • Allow your child to “face the music” when he’s done something irresponsible. Give him the courage to admit mistakes.
  • NEVER do your child’s homework for him, but ALWAYS be available to help when he’s doing it. The only way your child’s teacher can assess a student’s progress is to see his work–not yours.
  • Include your child in household chores, for which he should not expect payment. Start young. Click on this link for a printable list of age-appropriate chores:
  • If your child wants to earn extra money, have a list of “extra” chores he can do to earn money. A word to the wise: Don’t pay in advance, or by the hour!
  • If your child forgets his homework/lunch/sports uniform, bring it to him the first time with a warning. After that, he will need to take responsibility for his own belongings. If this is a chronic issue, work with him to figure out a strategy for organization. You are teaching him how to be an adult.
  • The first fifteen minutes you spend with your child when he gets home from anywhere should be a time for re-connecting. Like all of us, your child needs some de-compression time at the end of his day.
  • When your child is hurting or struggling with something, help him help himself. As parents, we instinctively want to rush in and “make it all better.” Instead, gently help him try to figure out solutions to his problems. Give him the tools to cope with the ups and downs of life.
  • When your child breaks a major rule, don’t blow up at him the moment you see him. Let him “stew in his own juice” for awhile, and give yourself time to calm down and consider his consequences. Tell him you will discuss them with him when YOU are calm and ready.
  • Always be ready to drive carpool to school, to practice, to youth group. This is your opportunity to be a passive observer of your child’s social interactions, and to see him in relation to his peers.

The Bottom Line

Our children are bombarded with conflicting influences the moment they look at a screen or step out the front door. You can only control so much of that influence, so make the most of every interaction. Most of all, be sure your children know they are loved.

God bless!