Being a parent is a complicated job.
Healthy parenting includes doing your best to create a loving environment, supporting your kids so that their talents and interests thrive, and guiding them as they increasingly build their own life.
All parents are going to make mistakes that impact their children. It’s one of the terrifying realizations you make very early on. They’ll benefit from your strengths, but sadly it’s inevitable that your vulnerabilities will also affect them. While I was pregnant I knew that I knew I was being a “good enough” mom to my unborn son; I wasn’t eating much fast food (although I was amazed he didn’t come out looking like a chicken nugget) and I was getting plenty of rest. But things got a lot fuzzier when he was a babe in arms; there are lots of potential mistakes that can be made. This parenting gig is humbling.
Yet some problems are harder to see than others. What is one of them?
When you – as the parent – need too much from that child…when the two of you are enmeshed.
What is enmeshment?
In one kind of unhealthy parent-child dynamic, the problems may be harder to see. If you and your kids are “enmeshed,” the boundaries between you and your child don’t exist clearly, if at all. You’re all tangled up with one another in ways that aren’t healthy for either of you.
Perhaps you’re a mother that shares too much, or a dad that’s needy. So, your children get the message that it’s not okay to be independent and that they need to be your confidante or buddy. It might never occur to that child, even as an adult, not to include their parent in daily decisions. Multiple texts go on all day long. When a new boyfriend casually says, “Hey why don’t you come back from holiday break a day early so we can hang out?” there’s shock and perhaps ridicule. “I can’t go back early. I always spend this time with my mom.”
What’s tricky about this? It can appear that all is well, “Wow, you’re so close to your parents. You’re so lucky!” But internally, the parent expects or even demands loyalty and doesn’t celebrate their child’s independence, unless they’re able to live through that child’s achievement.. When the child reaches adulthood they can be stricken by guilt for simply wanting and needing their own life.
The book Educated by Dr. Tara Westover describes an extremely enmeshed family. Her parents didn’t believe in public schools, doctors, vaccines, or socializing with others. They kept their young children working on the farm, away from books or school. There was an intense disdain for curiosity about anything – other than was offered at home. The author challenged these rules, but not without paying a heavy price.
There can be less severe versions of this; if everyone in your family knows everyone else’s business and always feel free to comment or have an opinion, you’re likely to find enmeshment. If you and your children are still expected to spend holidays at your parents’ home, or your dad drops by with no warning and expects your attention, or you spend hours talking on the phone with your mom, feeling as if you need to fill her in so she’ll feel like a part of things …you might want to consider just how much your own independence has been supported.
What’s the danger of enmeshment?
Enmeshment can sound like a lot of things. Again, in a certain context, these statements aren’t manipulative. But when they’re repeated over and over, when the message is “don’t leave me, don’t abandon me,” the child or adult child can feel trapped over time.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.“
“You know me better than anybody.“
“I can’t think about you leaving.“
Usually early on, the child is pulled in to serve the psychological needs of a parent; perhaps it is to help Mom stop crying, or to lift Dad out of a bad mood, perhaps to prevent a drinking spree. That child is told that they’re doing a great job AND no one could do it better. “You make me so happy.”
“You’re saving me from myself.”
But guess what? Inevitably, the parent becomes unhappy again. Their problems are adult problems and can only be truly healed by their own actions. So the child, who now feels responsible for her parent, fails. She’s not special enough. He’s not smart enough to fix his father’s struggles. To fix that? They must try harder.
It can be a lifelong job.
Don’t get me wrong. Enmeshment is very different than asking a child to help you with the garden, or giving them chores around the house. Of course, good parenting is about having expectations. You’re teaching a child about responsibility. But those expectations aren’t the same as pulling a child into a role that isn’t one a child should play.
How Does Enmeshment Affect a Child?
Dr. Pat Love wrote a book about this phenomenon, called “The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When A Parent’s Love Rules Your Life.” She describes the cost to the child, “If the parent represses the girl’s (or boy’s) anger not just once but over and over again, a deeper injury occurs: the girl will eventually dismantle her anger response. Ultimately, it’s safer for her to cut off a part of her being than to battle the person on whom her life depends.”
It can feel like a job you can’t quit. So you swallow your anger.
And here’s another irony. If you’re one of these adult children, many people have probably told you how lucky you were to have a parent that sang your praises and adored you so much. It’s difficult to question this bond because you may feel extreme guilt, as if you’re being disloyal or not appreciating all that they have done for you. You fear that you can never emotionally leave nor can you express anger about how trapped you feel.
But you may also feel terrifically insecure. You may look like adults on the outside, but you may doubt your own reasoning and capabilities.
After all, aren’t you supposed to check in before making big decisions? The parent’s message is often, “You can’t really do life well without me.” Sometimes that message is unintended. Sometimes it’s more than intended… and manipulative.
“I never realized that I don’t make a decision without talking to my mom about it first.”
“I just assumed that I would help with my dad’s business. I never gave one thought to doing something on my own. So, what now?”
Breaking the patterns of enmeshment…
The good news is that this dynamic can be changed. I’ve worked with parents who’ve been able to see what they’ve unintentionally done, and decided to back off for everyone’s well-being. I’ve guided adult children who needed to pull away from the intensity of the relationship. The pattern can be changed, but it’s going to feel odd for a while. There will be space where there was no space before. It can feel a little lonely — perhaps, oddly enough, for both of you. If you’re the parent, finding other relationships that can support you is the first line of business – the goal being that you’re far less reliant on your child. If you’re the adult child, you may have become quite accustomed to the parent’s constant contact, and being without it can feel a little shaky. Your task is to build your own sense of identity, while learning to share in healthy supportive relationships.
As the parent you can can confront your own unhappiness, while giving the gift of freedom to your children. As the child, you can discover your own competence, and know that the love of your parent is there for support.
Due to the overwhelming popularity of this topic and post, I recorded a podcast episode about how to step away from enmeshment and you can listen here on The SelfWork Podcast.
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This was originally published on March 11, 2017 and was updated on March 9, 2019 and then again on September 26, 2019 and again on August 29, 2021.