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What is Enmeshment?

Why enmeshment occurs, how it impacts children, and ways co-parents can combat it.

How does enmeshment work?

Parents are naturally involved in teaching their children about healthy relationships, boundaries, and independence. While parents want to provide enough care and help children develop their sense of self-sufficiency, they can occasionally tip the balance toward overbearing care. If a parent becomes too involved and controlling, they may create an unhealthy attachment where they and their child depend on each other to distinguish their cohesive emotions and thoughts.

Enmeshment occurs when two people lack emotional independence or separation. While it can occur between romantic partners or friends, enmeshed relationships commonly develop between family members due to generational experiences of enmeshment. A divorce, separation, or high-conflict co-parenting situation can also cause an enmeshed dynamic. If a co-parent cannot connect with their child's other parent, they may feel more inclined to depend on their child.

A parent often causes the situation by being too involved or controlling every aspect of their child's life. A parent can further contribute to enmeshment by forcing their child to depend on them excessively. Because of the overly close nature of an enmeshed relationship, children cannot separate their thoughts and emotions from their parents' opinions and feelings. Besides making their children depend on them, parents may cross another line and engage in parentification by relying on them for emotional support.

Some examples of enmeshed behaviors may include:

  • A child who prioritizes their parent's needs over their own
  • A parent who calls their teen's ex to ask why they broke up
  • A child who consults their parents to make simple decisions
  • A parent who leans on their child for support during a divorce
  • A child who has virtually no physical or emotional privacy
  • A parent who imposes their dreams and goals on their child

Because of the close nature of an enmeshed parent-child relationship, both people may perceive any physical or emotional separation as conflict. When spending time apart, both individuals will likely struggle with stress, separation anxiety, or other negative emotions. If the behaviors or feelings of one person are questioned, the other person in the relationship may become distressed and perceive the criticism as a personal attack.

Upset teenager

How does enmeshment affect children?

If a child is involved in a long-term enmeshed connection, they will likely experience significant emotional trauma that has a lasting impact. While some symptoms may show right away in early childhood, others may not begin to impact a child until they become an adult.

People who experienced enmeshment as children may:

  • Lack a sense of self-identity
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Form co-dependent relationships
  • Be fearful of conflict
  • Suffer from anxiety disorders
  • Seek approval and self-worth from others

If children experience enmeshment with a parent, they may be more likely to develop similar attachments with their children once they become parents. Enmeshment is often a generational issue as children form their perceptions of a typical family dynamic through their atypical relationships. Once enmeshed children become parents, they may fulfill their emotional needs by repeating the cycle and raising their children as they were raised.

How can I avoid enmeshment with my child?

While there are many methods for treating enmeshment trauma in adults, it's entirely possible to protect your child from the negative impacts before they take effect. Here are 3 ways to help foster a healthy relationship with your child that avoids enmeshment.

1. Establish healthy boundaries

Enmeshment flourishes in relationships that lack boundaries, so healthy boundaries are a crucial defense. While you may naturally wish to protect your child from discomfort, children need room to experience growing pains and learn how to manage stress without constant parental involvement. Instead of intervening to make their life easier in the moment, create boundaries that help you listen to your child, give them the space they need, and boost their confidence.

Children's boundaries change and expand as they become young adults, and responding to change by being overly controlling may do more harm than good. Your goal should be to communicate and interact appropriately, creating a relationship where your child can communicate effectively and freely with you. By setting and following healthy boundaries for you and your child, you both can focus on your independent identities, appreciate your shared connections, and avoid depending on each other excessively.

Boy riding his bike while father cheers in background

2. Encourage their independence

Enmeshment involves a parent and child wholly depending on each other, so teaching your child to be independent is an effective way to prevent your relationship with your child from becoming enmeshed. If you are too involved with your child, they may learn to depend on your permission and supervision to make decisions. Giving your child a certain degree of autonomy and encouraging independence as they grow can help them become a more responsible adult who can form healthy relationships.

You can teach your child to be independent by:

  • Establishing routines
  • Assigning household chores
  • Praising accomplishments
  • Allowing them to make a schedule
  • Helping them prioritize

3. Seek professional support

You need to take care of yourself before you can provide sufficient care for your child, and protecting your mental health is an essential part of self-care. If you and your child have an enmeshed relationship, the last thing you should do is vent your feelings to your child. Instead of relying on harmful coping mechanisms, work with a therapist or counselor who can help you identify unhealthy habits that contribute to enmeshment and offer ways for you to correct your parent-child dynamic.

While getting help for yourself to address the root of the problem is essential, it's just as important to ensure your child has access to professional support as well. Child therapy or counseling can help your child process their stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms. If you want a more involved way to help, you can choose family therapy so a professional can work with you and your child together. Depending on what's discovered during child therapy, your child's counselor can identify opportunities for you to support your child's mental health.

How TalkingParents can help

Going through a contentious divorce or being in a high-conflict co-parenting situation can make you feel like you need to rely on your child for support. A co-parenting service like TalkingParents can help you and your co-parent prevent potentially enmeshing behaviors and coordinate with each other instead of your child. If you and your co-parent tend to lean on your children because you’re hesitant to converse with each other, Secure Messaging and Accountable Calling can help facilitate communication in an organized and documented manner. The Info Library can help you stay consistent between homes by allowing you to note chore schedules, responsibilities, and more. If you're concerned about your co-parent engaging in enmeshment, you can access your Records of conversations to use as potential evidence with a family law attorney and in court.

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