Recognizing Enmeshment in Alienated Family Systems

Black and white photo of adult with long hair putting arm around young teen with ponytail outside on benchEnmeshment, a family dynamic that can be described as blurred boundaries between members, can make it difficult or impossible for a child to develop an individual sense of self because they are overly concerned about others. Family therapist Salvadore Minuchin brought this concept to light in the 1970s, and the topic has become common in psychological discussion of late. But what exactly constitutes enmeshment? How does it develop? And how can it be addressed?

Recognizing Enmeshment

Typically the roots of enmeshment can be traced back to parents who over-identify with a child, a dynamic often passed down through generations. Within this dynamic, boundaries are blurred—and may even be viewed as undesirable—and the parent may regard the child as an extension of the parent, rather than their own person, and treat them accordingly.

As a result, children of enmeshed family systems often develop emotional ties that elicit confusion, and they may fail to develop autonomy. An underdeveloped sense of autonomy may make it difficult for the child to act on desires that differ from the parent’s or lead a child to feel guilty when attempting to act on their own feelings. The enmeshed parent may also take it personally when a child attempts to demonstrate autonomy or independence, which can have a harmful impact on the child and the family dynamic overall.

Enmeshment between a parent and child makes it difficult for the emotions of the child to be separated from the emotions of the parent. It can be said, then, that a child may take on emotional pain the parent carries from enmeshment in their own family of origin. This is not uncommon and is often done unconsciously—a child does not realize they are taking on the parent’s emotional pain or that it is not theirs to carry.

Another way of looking at it is to think in terms of “absorbing” the emotional pain of the parent. A parent who is projecting emotional pain is likely not consciously aware they are doing it but simply repeating the cycle that played out in their childhood.

Avoiding Enmeshment

To avoid becoming enmeshed with their children, parents must have their own sense of purpose in life, their own hobbies and passions separate from their children. A parent’s self-worth cannot rely a child’s behavior or accomplishments.

To avoid becoming enmeshed with their children, parents must have their own sense of purpose in life, their own hobbies and passions separate from their children. A parent’s self-worth cannot rely a child’s behavior or accomplishments. When one’s self-worth is defined by the actions or choices of one’s child, the pressure on the child to perform, to fulfill expectations, becomes heavy and burdensome. A parent’s self-worth is not the child’s responsibility, and children who take on this charge, consciously or unconsciously, often fail to develop self-esteem and/or a sense of personal identity.

Children generally rely on their parents for support. But before a child can expect to receive this support, they generally need to know the parent is emotionally strong and that the parent will support the child as they are, not only as who the parent wants them to be. When a child is secure in this knowledge, they will typically feel free to be themselves and to follow their own passions without feeling responsible for a parent’s emotional pain or disappointment.

In families affected by enmeshment, children may avoid seeking help when they experience difficulty or dilemma in life, fearing that the parent will impose their own agenda rather than offer guidance and support. When parents model good self-care habits, appropriate boundaries, and regulated emotions, on the other hand, children are more likely to desire to spend time with them, as opposed to when a child simply feels obligated to take care of their parent or manage their parent’s emotions. (Experiencing difficulty with dysregulated emotions? A therapist can help.)

Addressing Enmeshment

What can parents do to address enmeshment? Seek the help of a qualified family therapist or counselor if you recognize any of the following signs in your parent-child dynamic:

  • Your child is your sole purpose in life.
  • You take care of your children at the expense of taking care of yourself.
  • Your self-worth is defined by your child’s behavior, accomplishments, or lack of accomplishments.
  • Your child is the barometer for your happiness.
  • Boundaries between you and your child are blurred or frequently crossed. For example, you find it necessary to know everything about your child’s daily life, such as what they say or do when not in your company.

What can an older child or adult child do to remedy the impact of an enmeshed relationship with a parent?

  • Seek professional help from a family therapist who works from a family systems model, once the dynamic of enmeshment is recognized.
  • Practice taking responsibility only for individual feelings instead of taking responsibility for the feelings of others.
  • Further, practice taking responsibility for individual feelings instead of expecting others to do so.
  • Those who recognize the dynamic of enmeshment being repeated in their relationships can work with a therapist who uses a family systems model and take steps to address this pattern and break the cycle.

Children in enmeshed families may view the parent-child relationship as an obligation or burden and, when they reach adulthood, seek out relationships that perpetuate this dynamic. Parents who take responsibility for their own self-worth and emotional pain, however, are likely to have healthier relationships with their children, where the children make the choice to be involved in their parents’ lives and are able to establish their own healthy, independent relationships.

Reference: 

  1. Heru, A. M. (2015). Families in psychiatry: Unpacking enmeshment issues. Clinical Psychiatry News, 43(5). Retrieved from https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-417736319/families-in-psychiatry-unpacking-enmeshment-issues
  2. Lewis, C. (2013, July 8). The enmeshed family: What it is and how to “unmesh.” Retrieved from http://www.mariadroste.org/2013/07/the-enmeshed-family-what-it-is-and-how-to-unmesh

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  • Glenda

    Glenda

    January 30th, 2017 at 8:49 AM

    My mom is an alcoholic and has always been for as long as I remember. I get sort of sucked into being the family caregiver and always have, therefore I don’t think that I have ever really had much of a life of my own. I know that at a certain point I am an adult and I need to step up and cut some ties but after all this time I don’t know who I would be really if this wasn’t my role.

  • Paolo

    Paolo

    January 30th, 2017 at 10:13 AM

    It might sound strange to some of you but in the community where I grew up it would actually look to be selfish of me to not continue to be a big part of my parents lives.
    We are taught that family is everything and I think that we are even actively discouraged from finding a sense of independence.
    To the older people we have to stay closer, this is what we are supposed to do.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    July 17th, 2017 at 4:05 PM

    Although many cultures are family oriented and discourage individuality I think there is a continuum and if taken too far it’s unhealthy. Like if you don’t know what you are feeling without looking to someone else then that is unhealthy.

  • sonny

    sonny

    January 30th, 2017 at 2:33 PM

    Most of the time I don’t think that there is a problem with recognizing it.
    I think that most people who are caught up in a situation like this know exactly what is going on.
    the problem becomes when they then try to disentangle themselves and find that that can be something that is much easier said than done.

  • Glynnis

    Glynnis

    January 31st, 2017 at 8:13 AM

    Why don’t more adults recognize that their pain is theirs and that it is much too heavy a burden for the child to have to carry? Sadly I think that there are probably a lot of home situations where the child is forced to be a caregiver for an adult who has failed to learn how to take care of themselves.

  • Simon

    Simon

    January 31st, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    I wonder if those who find themselves facing this reality would be better served by pursuing some sort of family therapy.
    It is one thing to change who you are but I would guess that there will be tons more to do when it comes to family dynamics in a situation where this is an issue.

  • Alyssum

    Alyssum

    February 4th, 2017 at 10:52 PM

    Thank you for this article! It makes me think of my own family.

  • charlotte

    charlotte

    February 5th, 2017 at 2:20 AM

    No parent is perfect and almost everyone has suffered in some way – children pick up on it no matter what. If I catch myself projecting something onto my child I try to explain the differences between our circumstances. My mother was always overwhelmed and I was expected to grow up fast and help out. But I didn’t figure out until later how much shaming she did in order to get me to fill that role – later on I noticed that my spouse was doing what I found unbearable as a child: being critical and judgmental. I started to react to his criticism the same way I did as a child and wanted to leave. But my child would have thought that was leaving her, so I have to cope until I can figure out a way to manage. I go to a therapist and try to manage my emotions but if I’m feeling down sometimes I just tell my family I need time and space for myself. Then they have to do for themselves but at least I’m not shaming anyone. I try to work on myself and realize that I can’t change everything right now.

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT

    Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT

    February 10th, 2017 at 7:56 PM

    Thank you for the comments everyone! Just to clarify, the idea is not to disconnect emotionally from family members……it is to differentiate. That means having an individual sense of self and accepting each others differences. Yes, it is much easier said than done! Enmeshment often leads to co-dependency in and outside of the family system, which makes it difficult to disentangle without feeling guilty or as though we are betraying our family. A family systems therapist can be very helpful in facilitating the process of disentanglement.

  • Zil

    Zil

    April 17th, 2017 at 2:27 PM

    I married an enmeshed man. I did not know he was enmeshed until after we married. He did not know he was enmeshed. He could not say no to his mother. I could. She was enraged that I could say No to her and maintain my boundary. She tried hard to get him to divorce me because i would not cancel a committment in favour of her (another) family dinner. I asked him to read ‘in sheeps clothing’ and he started to see what was happening. The ‘disappointments’ the ‘if you cared about your family’ etc. He was a serious mental mess. He attempted suicide. He was 41. I got lucky in so much as he was seeing a councillor for anxiety when it happened and she was able to support my view that his mother was a covert narcissist. She had us followed. He had to go no contact. Its been 5 years no contact. We are still struggling with the mental strain but we are getting there. Now I hear she is meddling into his brothers marriage and trying to remain Queen Bee. If you met her you would think she was ‘lovely’. She is a wolf in sheeps clothing

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