Family Enmeshment 


I keep going back and forth on whether or not I should return to school to do post graduate work in Marriage and Family Therapy.  It’s very tempting since I live so close to some world renowned universities.  It would only require an additional year of education, and I truly do love the work.  I struggle carrying heavy caseloads that require an emotional lack of presence to prevent burnout, though.  For now, my work is in raising my own beautiful children.

When I did attend graduate school (Master of Social Work), I took several MFT courses as electives, knowing this would be the logical next step in my career.  They were, by far, my favorite classes.

One family dynamic, and really an overarching relationship dynamic, that stuck with me is “enmeshment.”  In my work as a child therapist it was something that I saw repeatedly.  In my life as a stay at home mother, I continue to see it often, though my role now is only an observer.  Most play dates aren’t a good place to present therapeutic observations.  

The friend that I mentioned in my previous post, INFJ Door Slam, was an “enmeshed” adult and tried to continue this pattern in her relationships, me included.  I’m grateful that I can often stand still in a world that surrounds me with chaos.  My boundary setting happened often and clearly.

So what is “enmeshment?”  In a nutshell, it is where someone tries to blur what identifies their personal identity with another person to create a codependent relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. Acknowledging the interdependent nature of humans is crucial to personal happiness. One cannot be fully independent, nor can they be fully enmeshed and be healthy. Isn’t that everyone’s goal? We all strive for emotional and physical health on some level.

This is often seen in marriages, close friendships, and in the parent/child relationship.  In marriages, the individual insists themselves and their partner share all aspects of life forcing each to lose the core aspects of what makes them an individual. The same dynamic can also happen in any dyadic group of adults.  It creates a constant power struggle.

Since my background, though, exists primarily in children, this is where I focus my astute observations.  It often occurs with the most well meaning of parents, but they are projecting their own unmet childhood needs for healthy attachment onto their children.  Ideally, we observe our children, their needs, and act accordingly.  When we fail to parent from a place of concsiousness this line gets heavily blurred.

So in what ways do parents “enmesh” with their children?

1. Their children are not viewed as “independent souls” with their own strengths, weaknesses, and life goals.

These parents often “manage” their children.  They decide the child’s haircuts, clothing, extracurriculars, etc. often citing “parent knows best” when in reality the parent is treating the child how they wished to be treated as children.  They fail to see that their own child is, in all reality, a separate human being.

2. The child is the parent’s “special friend.”

I see this in adults who lack a close adult friend that they can confide in.  Usually their marriage is volatile or they are a single parent.  This parent burdens the child with their adult topics.  Children are in a cognitive world very different from that of adults.  They cannot grasp things in the way other adults do.

These children have two options.  They can internalize or externalize their exposure to a world they don’t understand.  This is seen in children who report frequent psychosomatic complaints: stomach aches, headaches, poor appetite, etc.  They are asking for relief from this role by becoming “physically ill.”  Those that externalize, change the topic of something they don’t understand into something they do: emotional rages, property destruction, general defiance, etc.

3. The parent expects perfection out of their child because they have the same expectation out of themselves.

This child is condemned for having strong emotions or poor performances.  There is no relief for this child.  Either they perform as expected or the consequences are dire.  This child lives in a constant state of fear.  Eventually it transforms into being internalized or externalized in the same way described above.

Usually parents who choose to enmesh with their children are repeating the roles they lived as children with their own parents.

How does one break free from this cycle?  They live in consciousness, awareness, and presence with their children.

Some great ways to do this is to create daily parenting affirmations, such as:

1. I parent my children with presence and awareness.

2. I love my children for who they are, not who I want them to be.

3. I understand what motivates my behavior as a parent.

I am presently an imperfect mother.  I imagine that once I reach true perfection, I will dissipate into particles and float away on the wind, start levitating in the air, or start radiating light.  I am anxiously awaiting that day.  Until then, I make grievous mistakes as a parent, learn, and grow. My prayer is that each of you continue on this path as well.

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