The family is our first point of contact with the world. In it, we have our earliest bonding experiences. We learn the difference between self and others and how to relate to other people. It teaches us about community and co-existence, and when the dynamic is healthy, it promotes a positive and happy life and trusting authentic relationships.
Perfect family dynamics are few and far between. Most if not all of us have some difficult or stressful memories tied to our family of origin, even if the family is at peace now. As teenagers, many of us believe that our family is unlike any other, too ‘weird’ or strange or unhealthy, only to find out when we share with our friends that they feel the same about their family.
Somewhat off-balance family dynamics are entirely normal and are not usually a cause for concern. Still, they can create some attachment and relational difficulties when we have relationships of our own later.
Still, even if growing up with your background was stressful, confusing, or just hard to get through, it’s possible to be healthy and happy, relatively unscathed by your childhood experiences, and have mutually beneficial and healthy relationships with your family members.
However, some family dynamics are more harmful than others. In some families, members get incredibly involved in each other’s lives. Parents hover over their children, roles get reversed, and boundaries seem like an alien concept.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the enmeshed family. If, on reading this article, you realize that you’ve been living in an enmeshed family dynamic, don’t fret. Growing up under the weight of enmeshment can have some harmful and distressing consequences for each family member, but they don’t have to define you. You can take steps to reverse the damage caused by enmeshment and help yourself live a healthier and happier life.
Below, we’ll explore the nature of enmeshment and take a look at why it happens. Later. We’ll offer some evidence-based advice for what to do if the content of this article relates to your experience.
What is an enmeshed family system?
Enmeshed families are those in which members don’t respect each other’s boundaries, and family relationships are highly dysfunctional. Parents make best friends out of their reluctant children or try to control their behavior so much that the child loses their sense of autonomy and independence. It is a toxic, traumatic family dynamic that can lead to various physical, mental, and emotional health issues if left unresolved.
The concept of enmeshment was popularized by contemporary Argentinian psychotherapist Salvador Minuchin, founder of Structural Family Therapy (SFT) and author of Families and Family Therapy. Throughout his career, Minuchin worked closely with dysfunctional families and identified subsets within them, which helped disrupt the cycle of dysfunction and improve the health and harmony of the family system.
Boundaries are blurred in an enmeshed family, and one develops an unhealthy attachment or bond to other family members. Unlike healthy families, enmeshed families don’t encourage other family members, especially children, to develop their own interests and prioritize their own needs. Instead, children’s emotional and physical boundaries are disregarded, and the children may struggle to establish a clear, strong sense of identity and personal autonomy.
Common signs of enmeshment among family members include:
- Parents rely on their children for psychological and emotional support.
- One family member is forced to take responsibility for the rest.
- Children are discouraged from expressing their own emotions and are instead encouraged to acquiesce to their parent’s wishes.
- Parents guilt trip children for not obeying their wishes.
- Children don’t know how to express or meet their emotional needs.
Examples of family enmeshment
For example, a mother might become enmeshed with her son. She might feel alone or need care and attention and seek those things from her child. She’ll treat him like a friend or partner, even if he is uncomfortable in this dynamic. She might overshare about problems in her life and expect him to listen to her, offer emotional support and validate her.
Ultimately, she oversteps a healthy boundary and may leave a lasting negative impact on her son’s emotional health and overall worldview. If he is young, the son might learn that his role is to take care of his mother – a common but destructive role reversal.
As he grows older, he might struggle to get his needs met in his relationships. He might hesitate to ask for help and support because he’s used to offering rather than receiving those things. He might even feel responsible for helping others feel better when they feel down and tie his own sense of well-being and happiness to that of other people.
Let’s look at another example. A parent wants to know everything about their teen’s life. They obsess over who they’re hanging out with, where they go, who they’re texting, and even what they’re doing around the house.
The parent might even go so far as to stalk the child on social media or snoop around their belongings. In some cases, the parent’s behavior becomes so tiring that to resist becomes a great effort, and the child consents to the parent’s need for constant knowing.
Over time, the child is likely to feel a lack of independence and autonomy. They may come to believe that they’re not entitled to private life. It may even be the case that the parent tries to control the child, telling them what to do all the time, what to wear, how to feel and behave. The child is then at risk of losing all sense of agency and may become overly reliant on the parent for their sense of identity.
A girl moves to another city for university. She’s excited to move and start a new chapter of her life. Her father, who was always overly interested in her life and often crossed personal boundaries, calls her every day when she moves, sometimes even twice a day.
The girl, tired of talking to her father and becoming a little embarrassed when her friends see him call so often, asks him to stop calling so often. She suggests that they talk once a week, but more than that is too much for her. He continues to call every day and texts incessantly when she doesn’t answer. He might try to make her feel guilty for not responding because he’s paying for most of her tuition and gave her a roof over her head for so many years.
The father here is far too dependent on the daughter and puts her mental and emotional health at risk by guilt-tripping her into speaking all the time, even though she doesn’t want to. She may start to believe that her boundaries are not worth respecting and that people will cross them no matter what. The pressure to remain physically close to her family prevents her from pursuing her own interests.
The dangers of enmeshment
Children who suffer(ed) through enmeshment due to their parent’s disregard for healthy parent/child boundaries are at risk of a range of mental and emotional health issues and personality problems, including depression, anxiety, and repressed anger.
Some children develop what psychologists call an ‘atlas personality’ – ‘Atlas’ referring to a giant in Greek mythology who carried the entire world on his shoulders. Some children take on too much responsibility for their age when parents overshare and seek emotional affection and validation from a child.
The child learns to prioritize other’s emotional well-being above their own and may feel compelled to play the role of caregiver in all of their adult relationships. These children may grow up to enter a series of codependent relationships that can take an even further toll on their mental and emotional health.
Similarly, some children suffer from parentification – the process where the parent/child role is reversed, and the child is forced to act as a parent for their actual parent or siblings. Often, parentification stems from a parent’s emotional distress or instability. They rely on their child to offer psychological support or assign most household tasks to the child, such as maintaining the home, paying bills, or mediating conflicts between family members.
Members of enmeshed families often lack adequate self-esteem and confidence. When children experience an enmeshed relationship with a parent, they tend to feel lost and confused.
When they grow up and eventually leave the family home, they may discover that how they were raised and the family system in which they grew up was unhealthy, and has led to current feelings of depression, anxiety, distress, and difficulty forming trusting and vulnerable relationships.
Growing up in an enmeshed family is hard for someone to form healthy relationships. As such, they come to resent their parents. In ‘Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents’, psychologist Lindsay C. Gibbons explains:
“Hate is a normal and involuntary reaction when somebody tries to control you for no good reason. It signals that the person is extinguishing your emotional life force by getting his or her needs met at your expense.”
In her book, Gibbons also expresses the mental health risk children face when they find themselves trapped in family relationships with a parent.
“Children stay in alignment with their true self if the important adults in their lives support doing so. However, when they’re criticized or shamed, they learn to feel embarrassed by their true desires, explains Gibbons. “By pretending to be what their parents want, children think they’ve found the way to win their parents’ love. They silence their true selves and instead follow the guidance of their role-selves and fantasies. In the process, they lose touch with both their inner and outer reality.”
How to heal from enmeshment
When patterns of enmeshment and dysfunction go on for a long time, such patterns become the norm. As such, they can be hard to recognize, let alone heal from. Therefore, the first step to healing from an enmeshed family dynamic is to recognize enmeshment in the first place.
Read over the signs and examples of enmeshment outlined above and consider if any apply to your personal experience in your family relationships. Once you recognize it, you can begin the rest of the healing process. It may take some time, especially if you’re an adult child of enmeshment, but healing is entirely possible.
Learn how to set boundaries
A tell-tale sign that you grew up in an enmeshed family dynamic is difficulty in setting healthy boundaries in your relationships – familial, friendly, or romantic. As such, learning how to set boundaries helps you counter the damaging effects of enmeshment and will prevent you from continuing the cycle in future relationships.
Develop a strong sense of self
Enmeshed family members can cause other family members to lose or abandon their sense of personal identity. The enmeshed family member’s behavior and authoritative position in the family hierarchy can overwhelm others, especially children.
Resisting the enmeshed person’s behavior and demands soon becomes exhausting. To keep one’s mental well-being in check, one might completely surrender, leaving their identity and sense of autonomy behind.
As such, if you grew up in an enmeshed family, then it’s essential to focus your attention on your identity – separate from the family unit. You might get fully reacquainted with yourself overnight – it takes time and consistent effort – but with that patience and consistency, you can eventually reap the rewards of this crucial inner work.
A therapist, counselor, or life coach can help you regain your identity and autonomy by talking you through your values, goals, dreams, and ideals. They’ll help you prioritize your wants and needs and keep you focused on the task – re-establishing yourself as a unique individual, separate from the family.
Enmeshment in the family can have a damaging impact on a person’s psyche. The adult child of an enmeshed parent may never have gotten the chance to develop their independence and autonomy, and therefore struggle with trust and vulnerability in their adult relationships.
For example, a man might feel deep discomfort when he finds himself alone instead of in his partner’s company. He might also falsely perceive his partner’s independence and autonomy as a sign of impending rejection or abandonment.
To make matters more distressing and confusing, too much closeness may trigger the memory of being emotionally smothered by a parent, which will cause him to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. The man finds himself between a rock and a hard place and may suffer from an overload of stress as a result of these enmeshed relationships.
To begin the healing process, it’s crucial to learn how to self-soothe. As babies and toddlers, our caregivers help us soothe our nervous system during times of distress by rocking us back and forth, hugging us, or singing to us. As we get older, we don’t receive the same support and must learn to soothe ourselves—still, the mechanics of self-soothing work under the same principle.
Physical movement and breath control (or release of tension in the breath) help us to calm our nervous system in times of stress and can help a person suffering the long-term after-effects of enmeshment not get lost in their confusing and upsetting feelings.
Speak to a therapist
If you feel like your mental and emotional health is deteriorating, it’s important to speak to a mental health professional. It’s also helpful to develop self-care techniques to keep your mental health in check, but sometimes we need to call on outside support. An affordable option isOnline-therapy who have counselors that can work on your schedule and because it’s online, it’s all from the comfort of your own home.
Understand there need not be any shame whatsoever around seeking help. Unfortunately, many people who could benefit significantly from therapy never get the chance to improve their lives because they become victims of the stigma surrounding mental health issues and don’t speak to a therapist.
Regarding enmeshment, there are two options you can follow to begin the healing process. It’s wise to try both. The first is individual psychotherapy. Also known as one-to-one therapy, this type of treatment involves a licensed mental health professional and you. You discuss your issues, concerns, and experiences with the therapist, who will offer a compassionate and professional ear to express yourself freely.
A good therapist will create a safe environment for you to explore your issues safely and will help you identify the impact of enmeshment in the family on your current health and well-being. They can also help you hone important life-affirming and health-positive skills such as emotional resilience, healthy coping, and boundary setting.
The other option is to attend a family therapist with enmeshed family members. A licensed therapist may offer family systems therapy – an evidence-based modality in which family members learn to set and accept healthy boundaries and express how they feel in healthy, adaptive ways.
Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy (SFT) invites all relevant family members into sessions. It examines the relationship dynamics within the family to replace maladaptive and toxic relationships patterns with healthier, growth-oriented ways of relating to one another.
Though it’s possible to do the conscious inner work it takes to heal on your own, it’s wise to combine your healing efforts with the support of a mental health professional who can safely guide you and advise you on the process.