If you and your loved ones are in family therapy or thinking about starting family therapy, a word you may hear during one or more of your sessions is ‘enmeshment.’ This term is often misused and misunderstood, and it can apply to two people, not just a family. 

What is Enmeshment?

The term ‘enmeshment’ describes a relationship between two people where personal boundaries are unclear or are able to be penetrated. In most cases, this is something that occurs on an emotional level, where two people may “feel” each other’s emotions, or if one person escalates emotionally and the other person does the same.

For example, if a teenage girl gets depressed or anxious, her mother may also become anxious and depressed. If they are enmeshed, the mother won’t be able to emotionally separate her experience from that of her daughter. 

Enmeshment between a child and parent more often than not will result in over-involvement in each other’s lives. It then becomes difficult for the child to become developmentally independent and take responsibility for their own choices.

What Can Cause Two People to Become Enmeshed? 

Enmeshment can happen for a variety of reasons. It could be a family event or series of events in the same family causes a parent to become very protective of their child. This could be an illness, trauma, or problems in elementary school. 

The parent would step in to intervene, and while at the time the intervention may be proper, sometimes a parent gets stuck using the same approach in other situations. When this happens, the parent could become too involved in the day-to-day interactions involving their children.

What Are the Signs of Enmeshment?

In families that are enmeshed, the children could be brought up to believe they will exceed their parents’ wishes and develop the same ideals and belief system. Many children become their parents’ only source of emotional support or become someone through whom the parent lives out the dreams they never attained.

In most cases, enmeshment that happens between a child and parent could include signs such as:

  1. There may be a lack of privacy between the child and a parent.
  2. The child may be “best friends” with the parent.
  3. The parent may tell the enmeshed child secrets they tell no one else.
  4. The parent may tell the enmeshed child that they are their favorite.
  5. The enmeshed child may receive special privileges from the parent.
  6. The parent may be overly involved in the child’s activities.

If a child is affected by enmeshment, they may feel like they have to take care of the parent, and not the other way around. People from families that are enmeshed often feel guilty if they spend time away from the family. They could be pressured into remaining close to home and engage in normal family activities, rather than pursuing their own interests.

Is Enmeshment Really a Bad Thing?

There’s nothing wrong with two people being extremely close. In fact, that’s what most people strive for with another human being, as long as there is appropriate independence within the relationship.

However, in enmeshment, there’s a problem when the people involved begin to lose their own personal emotional identity. These types of people may lack a level of autonomy that is essential for a person to grow both emotionally and in the relationship.

If the enmeshment is in a parent-child relationship, a dynamic occurs in which teenagers who must develop their own autonomy become developmentally stalled. When this happens, the child is either too scared to venture into increased autonomy and become dependent on their parents, or they start to react to the enmeshment and run too far in the opposite direction, which may cause them to make bad choices in order to become independent.

How Do You Know If You Are in an Enmeshed Relationship?

Many times, people in an enmeshed relationship are the last to recognize it. However, if you remain aware, there are some signs you can look for. They include:

  1. You and the other person don’t have personal emotional time or space.
  2. You may feel like you want someone to rescue you from your own emotions.
  3. You have trouble telling the difference between your emotions and the other person’s emotions. 
  4. You feel like you need to rescue someone from their own emotions.

How Do I Know If I’m an Enmeshed Parent?

If you are an enmeshed parent, you may be causing problems in your child’s development of their own ethics, values, and personality. There are certain signs you can look for to determine if you may be an enmeshed parent. They include:

  • Your child’s bad or good behavior, and their unsuccessful or successful achievements in life, define your own self-worth.
  • You find yourself being invasive and having an overwhelming need to know everything your child does and thinks.
  • Your children are your only purpose in your life and become the center of your life.
  • Your sadness or happiness relies solely on your children.
  • You neglect yourself and only focus on taking care of your children.

What Does Enmeshment Parenting Mean to My Children?

Being a parent who is enmeshed means that it’s possible your children will grow up learning certain things from your focus and behavior that you never wanted them to learn. This includes:

  • Your child could feel empty and lost inside because they never learned how to take responsibility for how they were feeling.
  • Your child could grow up to feel responsible for everyone else’s feelings and ignore their own. They may believe it would be selfish to take care of themselves, and could disconnect from themselves or become compliant.
  • Your child may have problems in their relationships as adults, both personal and at work. They could become a taker, a caretaker, withdrawn, resistant, or angry.
  • Your child could use you as a role model, which would make others responsible for their feelings rather than taking responsibility for their own feelings.
  • Your child may start to believe that they are being controlled by you and invaded, which could cause them to act out in anger. As adults, they could have difficulty taking responsibility for their own choices and actions.

By being an enmeshed parent, you are putting too much pressure on your children to act right, perform right, and look right so you feel you’re okay. Instead, you need to stop defining your own self-worth through your child – an act that makes your child feel trapped into being what you want them to be instead of letting them be themselves.

What Are the Unspoken Rules in an Enmeshed Family?

If your family is enmeshed, there is often a set of unspoken or spoken rules that will dictate a family member’s behaviors, sometimes into adulthood. These rules are:

  1. Don’t talk to people outside the family about what goes on in our house.
  2. What you as parents think/believe/feel about your children is what’s right; it doesn’t matter that you are 50 years old and have been on your own.
  3. You can be a little different from the rest of your family, but there’s a line you can’t cross in the family and be accepted. 
  4. The price you pay for being different is that you will be cut off from the rest of the family.
  5. As adults, you will still have to conform to the rules of the family instead of being able to make up your own mind about how you live your life.

What Can an Enmeshed Parent Do?

You need to be a positive role model for your child by taking care of yourself and defining your own self-worth, taking responsibility for your own feelings. Your child needs to see you be productive in society, whether you work, volunteer, or engage in creative hobbies. Your child needs to feel free to be their own person and follow their own life path without suffering the knowledge that they will disappoint or hurt you.

You will have a better relationship with your children if you make yourself happy and define your own self-worth. You do not want your children to feel responsible or obligated to you. You want them to want to spend time with you. 

In conclusion, if any of this seems familiar to you, it’s possible that your family is enmeshed in some way. Most enmeshed families have extremely strict systems that they become locked into over a period of time. 

Change is possible, but it won’t be easy. The roles and patterns of an enmeshed family can be difficult to break. If you as a family understand that the enmeshment situation is not healthy and wish to change, it’s recommended that you seek out a quality family therapist to assist you. 

In healthy families, all family members are encouraged and supported in making their own choices for their own well-being, even if some family members don’t agree with those choices.