UNHEALTHY ENMESHMENT BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHIDREN
Enmeshment refers to unhealthy and overly dependent emotional connection between parents and their children where the emotional boundaries between parents and their child is blurry and poorly defined. Children who come from traumatic backgrounds can sometimes become enmeshed with one or both parents. This enmeshment between parents and children takes a toll on the child`s mental health in the long run and impacts their functioning in different areas.
In enmeshed families, boundaries between children and parents are not clear and children can at times take on the role of emotional caretaker or emotional confidant. These children become emotionally “fused” with their parents and their emotional states usually changes with the emotional states of their parents. In many cases, enmeshed children can even feel responsible for their parents’ struggles and feel a deep sense of shame for not being able to ease the emotional pain of their parent.
Enmeshment can look like becoming confidant to parents, taking parental role for siblings, not being able to make decisions and assuming roles well beyond one`s years. This causes the child`s sense of self to become intertwined with their parents and can hinder a child`s healthy individuation and growth. Unfortunately the enmeshment usually has a ripple effect and it impacts other areas of life including the ability to form healthy relationship as adults or asserting boundaries in different situations. The emotional dependency and blurred boundaries take a toll on a child`s mental health and often lead to anxiety, stress and depression.
WHAT DOES ENMESHMENT BETWEEN CHILDREN AND PARENTS LOOK LIKE?
- Lack of clear boundaries : The child has difficulty distinguishing or asserting his own thoughts and feelings from those of his parents.
- Unhealthy sense of responsibility: The child feels responsible for his parents` struggles and can feel guilt and shame for not being able to rescue his parents.
- Limited autonomy and individuality: The child may not be able to make decisions for himself and his decision making capabilities are compromised.
- Role reversal: The child takes on the role of an adult in the relationship and tries to soothe her parents, make decisions for them or give them advice.
- Feelings of suffocation, resentment and helplessness: The child can simultaneously feel responsible and resent his parents while also feeling helpless to make changes.
BREAKING THE PATTERN : HOW THERAPY CAN HELP WITH ENMESHMENT
Therapy can help with enmeshment through many different mechanisms. Here are a few ways in which I believe therapy can help with enmeshment:
REFLECTING, RECOGNIZING AND RE-EVALUATING:
Many individuals are involved in unhealthy patterns with their parents for years without recognizing it. For many clients, learning about enmeshment and reflecting on their relationship with their parents is a big step. Therapy is a safe space in which we can deeply reflect on our relationships and recognize our automatic responses and where they originate from. Therapy also helps us to discuss and process traumas that are at the root of our enmeshment. It is important to get curious about and understand how the enmeshment has developed and how it has been sustained for years.
TAKING OUR POWER BACK:
Therapy can also help us feel empowered to take ownership of our roles as adults in our relationship with our parents and acknowledged how we have been contributing to enmeshment patterns. Together with a therapist, clients can get in touch with their “adult self” and embody the belief that they can make new and different choices in their relationship.
Grieving our childhood and not having a healthy relationship with our parents is an important part of healing process. Therapy can help us to get in touch with the deep sense of loss, sadness and usually anger that we might experience as we look back on our childhood experiences and on the burden of enmeshment we have been carrying.
LEARNING TO SET BOUNDARIES:
Many clients who have been enmeshed need to learn about setting boundaries since lack of boundaries is usually the main component of their enmeshment. Therapy can help clients get in touch with their needs and boundaries and learn how to communicate those boundaries to their parents and others in their lives. Setting boundaries can be difficult in the beginning, yet it is ultimately rewarding and many clients report a sense of relief and “lightness” when they are finally able to set healthy boundaries.
HEALING EMOTIONAL WOUNDS:
Clients with enmeshment issues usually come from traumatic backgrounds and often they have not had the chance to acknowledge and heal from their past traumas. Therapy can help clients address their past traumas and heal the emotional wounds that might have contributed to their enmeshment.
Addressing challenging relationship dynamics, especially those rooted in enmeshment, is a journey that requires patience and self-awareness.