Parenting is a complicated job.
Decent, healthy parents try to create a loving environment, while at the same time supporting their kids in becoming what their talents and characteristics guide them to be. These kids can do very well, if they don’t screw things up themselves with drugs or have some innate insecurities or mental or emotional struggles that the best parenting in the world may not be able to prevent.
We parents may try, but our own insufficiencies are going to impact our kids. The parent who does the work for their kid, the parent who puts pressure on a child to intensely succeed, or the parent who is absent emotionally — all may not realize how their actions, or lack of action, can hurt their child. Our individual vulnerabilities become transparent in how we approach such a complicated task, as do our strengths.
It’s not always easy to tell how your own problems are affecting your kids. In one kind of family, it’s especially difficult.
It’s called an enmeshed family.
What does it mean to be enmeshed? It’s when the boundaries between the members of a family aren’t honored. There’s too much sharing, or too much neediness. Children get the message that it’s not okay to be themselves — they need to be exactly like the rest of the family. But it can appear from the outside that everybody is very happy.
What does it feel like on the inside?
It feels like control.
Let’s say you and your mom are enmeshed. As you age, you take on more and more of the role of confidante — of the one who can calm her, and make her happy. You serve an emotional purpose in her life. At least that’s what she tells you.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You know me better than anybody.”
“I can’t think about you leaving.”
These enmeshed relationships between parent and child, where the needs of the parent intrude upon the child growing up and away, aren’t in any way healthy. There’s not an appropriate boundary between parent and child. Whole families can be like this, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business, and feeling free to comment or have an opinion. All may be trying to fix what isn’t theirs to fix.
Here’s the scenario. A child is pulled in to serve the psychological needs of a parent — let’s say to help Mom stop crying, or to help Dad out of a bad mood, perhaps preventing a drinking spree. That child is told that they’re doing a great job — 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. Because their problems are adult problems, that can only be truly changed 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. She or he must become more of what that parent needs and wants.
It can be a lifelong job, and one that your parent will never allow you to quit.
I remember working with a woman, let’s call her Beth, who was in her mid-40’s, and miserable in her marriage due to severe emotional abuse. But she wouldn’t consider the option of divorce because of how her mother and father, who were very conservative religiously, would react.
“It would kill them. I can’t hurt them that much. They would never understand.”
I’m not describing a normal scene of asking a child to help you with the garden, or giving them chores around the house. In that case, you’re teaching a child about responsibility. That’s a good thing.
The kind of responsibility that enmeshed children absorb is much more complicated. They believe that their parent’s very well-being depends on them, and they can never emotionally leave. Nor can they ever express anger about how trapped they feel. They may look like adults on the outside, but inwardly, they doubt their own reasoning and capabilities, and still feel controlled by their parents.
Having a life all their own seems foreign.
“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.”
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.”
In the book, Dr. Love describes the cost of this dynamic to the child. “If the parent represses the girl’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.”
If you were (or are) one of these kids, if you resonate with the above description, many people may have told you how lucky you were — to have a parent that sang your praises and adored you so much.
Yet you weren’t given support to become your own person. You needed to be who they needed you to be.
It’s difficult to break this bond, because the “child” may likely feel extreme guilt – as if you’re being disloyal for not being there for your mother or father. The slightest bit of separation can be interpreted by the parent as abandonment.
Yet I’ve worked with both parents who needed too much, and their children who need to pull away. It can be accomplished. 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.
But you can finally claim your own life.
I see Beth from time to time, at a party or gathering, her husband nearby. She smiles at me, but never speaks. There’s sadness in her eyes.
I can only hope things are better.
You’ll rarely get permission to separate yourself from a parent who needs you too much. You have to give yourself that gift.
It’s okay to want your own life.
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