Strong family bonds are a sign of a well-functioning family, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. It’s all about boundaries.
In an enmeshed family, there are no boundaries between the family members. Instead of the strong bonds that signal a well-functioning family unit, family members are fused together by unhealthy emotions.
Usually, enmeshment is rooted in trauma or illness. Perhaps a parent has an addiction or mental illness, or perhaps a child is chronically ill and needs to be protected. Since we tend to follow familiar behavioral patterns, it’s easy to unconsciously pass down the unhealthy dynamics of enmeshment to the next generation.
Boundaries are important because they create space for family members to become independent. Without boundaries, roles and expectations are mixed up in two ways:
- Parents become overreliant on their children.
- Children are not allowed to individuate, or to separate from their parents and form their own identity.
Here are some signs to look out for if you think that you’re part of an enmeshed family.
Behavior of a parent in an enmeshed family
- You expect your child to follow the beliefs and values that you model.
- You discourage your child from following their dreams.
- Your self-worth depends on your child’s achievements.
- Your life centers around the life of your child.
- You believe that you can give your child all the support they need and that they shouldn’t reach out to those outside the family.
- You need to know everything about your child’s life.
- Your child is your friend and you expect them to support you emotionally.
- You share personal information that should remain private.
- You reward your child when they behave in ways that strengthen the enmeshment.
Behavior of a child in an enmeshed family
- You don’t have a strong sense of who you are.
- You don’t think about your needs, but instead focus on what others need.
- You make sure that your goals are in line with what your parents want for you without considering what you need.
- You feel guilty about your need for space.
- You avoid conflict and don’t know how to say “no.”
- You feel you must solve the challenges your family members face.
We’re all on our own journey through life. It sometimes happens that parents don’t have the resources to raise their children in a healthy way. Here are some of the possible outcomes:
Parentification is when parents rely on their children to give to them. (Family therapy founder Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy coined this term.) There are two types of parentification:
- Instrumental parentification. For example, the child takes care of siblings, runs the home, and is responsible for paying the bills.
- Emotional parentification. For example, the child supports the parent emotionally, mediates between family members, and is the main source of advice.
Lack of individualization
As a result of parentification, the child never has the chance to individualize.
An adolescent’s sense of identity is built through the choices and commitments that they make. Without the chance to explore and then commit to the chosen beliefs and values, an adolescent remains with a diffused identity and never forms their own identity.
Without a true sense of their self, a child will be confused about their role. They won’t know what they want to do or be, and their self-esteem will be low. With low self-esteem, the child won’t be able to take healthy risks that could help them realize their potential. Frustrated to the extreme, these kids may either lash out or withdraw into themselves.
A person with a strong sense of identity will have developed the trait of fidelity. Nope, fidelity isn’t only about marriage. It means being able to commit to others and accept them even when there are differences.
A child from an enmeshed family is also more likely to have a fear of abandonment, which will affect their future relationships. They may be unwilling to trust others and slip into codependent relationships simply because this is the pattern they’re used to.
Inability to resolve conflict
A child who focuses solely on what others need, does gymnastics to avoid conflict, and would rather run an Arctic marathon than say “no,” won’t develop the tools to resolve conflict in a positive way.
Instead of being assertive, the child may take inappropriate responsibility for others and their challenges. Self-soothing becomes impossible and the child may seek solace in the wrong places.
Most parents are willing to spend an extraordinary amount of money, time, and emotional energy to foster feelings of belonging and togetherness. There is nothing wrong with that and it can help build a healthy, tight-knit family.
But how do you make sure that the closeness you’re aiming for doesn’t signal enmeshment? Here are three signs of a close — not enmeshed — family:
- The emotional bonds provide the security that allows the children to venture out into the world and become themselves.
- The family members don’t use each other to meet their emotional needs, but instead give each other the space to be.
- Children are encouraged to contribute to the successful running of the house not only because this is one way to show respect to parents, but also because their participation builds their self-esteem and gives them a sense of satisfaction. (Hey, it’s your turn to take out the garbage.) However, their contribution doesn’t affect their emotional or physical health. It doesn’t unfairly cut into study time or hanging out with peers.
It happens. One day you wake up and see that there’s something wrong with what’s happening around you. You may feel frustrated, but this is actually a good realization. Some people don’t have this realization in time to fix their most precious relationships. So what’s the next step?
If you’re experiencing enmeshment and are seeking help, you’ll probably focus on:
- learning to set boundaries
- knowing that it’s OK to take care of your own needs and emotions
- building independence and improving self-esteem
- breaking unhealthy habits
If you feel that your parenting style is unhealthy and are seeking help, you’ll probably focus on:
- starting to develop your own identity
- encouraging your child, especially as they get older, to become independent
- showing your child that it’s wonderful to have relationships outside of the family and that it’s OK to have a mentor who can advise them
- getting involved in hobbies and interests outside of your family circle — and perhaps volunteering
Whether you’re a parent or a child from an enmeshed family, you may need some help learning to implement the above steps. A therapist can help you to do this.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn how to replace dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts with healthy ones. Dialectical behavioral therapy can help you to identify self-destructive behavior, build your self-esteem, and teach you to use your strengths.
We’re all works in progress. Sometimes, it may seem that the effort required to get a finished product is never-ending, but help is available. If you’re worried that your family is showing signs of enmeshment, talk to your healthcare provider. They can point you in the right direction and help you find a therapist.