Learn what an enmeshed relationship is and how to have healthy boundaries in your family unit.
Jane is a quiet 10 year old girl who lives at home with her mother, her younger sister, and grandmother. When she was a baby, her father left and that is when her grandma moved in.
Her mother works long hours while her grandma helps out around the house.
On the outside, they seem like they are a typical, busy and close family with healthy relationships; however, there is more going on in their home.
Jane’s mother is a kind women who struggles with a mental illness (major depressive disorder) and a history of physical abuse. When she is home, her emotional state dwindles and relies on her 10 year old daughter for emotional support.
Related: Raise Kids who Come to You With Problems, not Hide From You
She gets frustrated and mad when her daughter goes outside to play with friends Also, she accuses Jane of not loving her if she leaves. Jane’s mother seems to fully relies on Jane for her own sense of self worth.
Her mother also puts her own needs and own interests before her daughters. Jane quit soccer because her mother feels lonely at night when Jane is gone.
The parent-child relationship between Jane and her mother is the example of an enmeshed family relationship.
Want to Raise Self-assured kids? Click here for tips on how to stop raising a people-pleaser.
Enmeshment in Families
Many parents share the same goal of raising strong families. And most parents strive to raise emotionally healthy adult children who have close relationships is.
However, there is a such thing as being ‘too close’. Some family ‘bonds’ develop to the point where emotional boundaries are washed away and the emotional needs of each member becomes entangled.
Related: 5 Ways to have a close-knit family
The psychological term ‘enmeshment’ describes a type of relationship where personal boundaries are unclear.
Specifically, an enmeshed family lacks healthy boundaries. Namely, when a parent’s own emotions and needs outweigh the child’s basic needs. Healthy boundaries include showing respect for each others feelings, being honest, and asking permission.
In most cases, this lack of boundaries is seen on an emotional level.
Jane’s mother is a good example of an enmeshed parent. When Jane’s mother is upset, she controlls the family dynamics. She even expects Jane to stay home and be upset with her (an example of codependent relationships).
This parenting style can lead to low self-esteem and other mental health issues as the child grows and develops.
Related: Mindfulness techniques that teach children how to live in the moment
Related: Benefits of Bare Minimum Parenting
6 Signs that Your Family has Unhealthy Boundaries
Families with healthy boundaries teach their children that they are responsible their own feelings. They encourage kids to pursue their dreams. They value and support each other’s differences.
On the other hand, enmeshed parents develop unhealthy relationship patterns.
These are 6 common patterns and signs of toxic parenting and enmeshment:
1) Parents have unrealistic expectations for children
The first sign of toxic family bonds is when parents have unreasonable standards for their kids.
In these situations, young children are responsible for their parent’s happiness.
In fact, often the parent’s self worth relies directly on the successes of the child. Another word for parents who reply on their children is parentification.
The dysfunctional relationship pattern is a common quality with enmeshed family members.
2) Parents expect children to be their best friend
Additionally, in these toxic situations family members overshare their emotional experience and often inappropriate feelings.
Parents force the child to feel that they must be their best friend. This creates unhealthy dependence and confused roles where the child feels they must support their parents.
Related: 8 Common behaviors of helicopter parents
3) Parents use criticism as a tool
Further, enmeshed parents turn to putting down a child. When they make a child feel week, they can easily control the situation.
Also, this eliminates the child’s expectation of unconditional love.
In other words, the child feels they must work extra hard for their parents approval.
4) There is a lack of privacy between the child and a parent
Additionally, enmeshed families discourage kids from having a life outside of the family. They are expected to put the needs of the family before anything else.
The children have a lack of independence from these intertwined lives.
5) The enmeshed child may receive special bribes from the parent
An enmeshed parent will go to any length to control the child.
Growing up, my friend had an enmeshed mother. In high school, her mother would bribe her by offering to buy her alcohol if avoided her friends and stayed in.
6) Aligning of beliefs
Lastly, there is an unspoken rule that the children will adhere to the same belief system as their parents.
Parents discourage children from thinking outside of the box or being open about their opinions.
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How to Put an End to Toxic Parenting
Commonly, this dysfunctional family atmosphere is carried over from a previous generation. It is common for these toxic patterns to erupt from physical abuse, addiction, and mental health issues (for other causes of enmeshment click here).
With some work, a family can abolish this behavior and prevent it from passing on to the next generation.
Foremost, family therapy is often the cornerstone to getting past enmeshment trauma or lifestyles.
A family therapist can help guide the family through defining clear personal boundaries.
Next, the family must develop normal family expectations. These include each person having their own personal space, ability to speak openly, and respect for each other.
The family can still remain close-knit while maintaining a good relational balance based in love and gratitude for one another.
Final Thoughts on Enmeshed Parenting
Family cohesion refers to the emotional bonding that family members have toward one another. A family can still be close and connected without being enmeshed.
Once you fix the problem (nonexistent boundaries), family relationships can start to heal and truly strong family bonds can develop.
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Thank You for This article. I was raised in a dysfunctional family and definitely experienced some severe enmeshment. I have feared creating the same patterns by default. I appreciate a resource that can help me become even more aware.
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