Enmeshed family. Have you ever heard of this? Even if you don’t know the name, I’ll bet that like me, you have known an enmeshed family or two. You’ll recognize them because they are bonded by some obviously unhealthy attachments and emotions.
In an enmeshed family, personal boundaries are very loose, and sometimes non-existent. The enmeshments I’ve known are those in which the adult leans on the child for emotional support, usually hen a parent confides in and over-shares personal and adult information with their child. I’ve seen this most often about relationships, when a mother will make their child the repository of their own pain and bitterness after a separation. They’ll confide deeply personal and adult matters to their child in order to get comfort and support.
Or parents can try to live or re-live their own lives through their kids, pressuring them to play sports or do something else they never got to do. This is also enmeshment.
Parents who do this can’t see how it leads to a child feeling responsible for the parent–a burden no child should have to carry. They just can’t see it. That’s because they are so focused on their own pain, their own needs, their own comfort. It never occurs to them that they might be damaging their child.
Enmeshed families are also those in which there is pressure to keep a grown child close to home, instead of encouraging them to spread their wings and fly. Because after the word “fly” comes “away.” Which to an insecure parent is to be avoided at all costs, because they fear their own emotional support could disappear.
Of course, kids should not be expected to provide emotional support to parents. It’s supposed to work the other way around.
Kids in enmeshed families often grow up without learning how to set their own boundaries. They have trouble saying no–and achieving any sense of independence and autonomy. And one of the saddest outcomes is that the child feels responsible for the parent in an unhealthy role reversal.
When someone tells me their kid is their best friend, I am not charmed. I see warning flags. Because a child is not a best friend. Yes, I can hear the protests now. But a best friend is an entirely different thing than a child.
And yes, it is entirely possible to have a close parental relationship without compromising one another’s emotional health. But not “best friends.”
So many times I’ve wanted to speak up–but if a parent enmeshes their child in adult emotions and situations, they are rarely able to see it as wrong. And, since I don’t have kids, it’s easy for any parent to discount what I might say about parenting. So, I regret that I must stay silent.
If you think you might be in an enmeshed relationship with a parent, here’s what you can do:
Begin to set boundaries.
Start small. For example, if your mother expects you to call her every day, suggest a call every few days instead. Tell her that you have work or school to focus on and do not be accusatory. Just begin to claim your own time and space. Nicely.
Now, after I grew up and moved away, I did talk to my mother pretty much daily. But I had already claimed my independence. And I never thought of her as my best friend: she was my MOM. A different thing.
I’m a believe in getting professional help, even if it is short-term. Sometimes it’s the best way to learn how to disentangle yourself. You night not know that colleges and universities sometimes offer discounted sessions with their psych grad students.
Take alone time and time with other friends
If you’ve been consumed by family, practice taking time by yourself and also reach out to others who are not part of the family. This is all part of developing a more healthy life. A broader life. One that’s not dependent on an unhealthy connection.
Do something for others
Why not volunteer for a cause you are passionate about? Children, the environment, pets, health. The idea is to develop a life beyond your enmeshed family.
Got something you’d like to share about this subject? Comments below make me so happy! Yes, even if you disagree!