Were you raised in an enmeshed family? Here are some telltale signs. For example, were you taught that it was your job to keep mom or dad happy? Did you feel guilty if you weren’t constantly tuned to a parent’s needs? To this day, do you still feel pressure to do what other family members want?
Fortunately, you can break the cycle and prevent creating an enmeshed family with your own kids. First, let’s understand how the problem occurs.
What is an Enmeshed Family?
Enmeshed families don’t have healthy boundaries. Instead, the boundary lines between your parents’ needs and your needs become blurred together. Your mom or dad’s emotions and needs became the priority, leaving you little space to understand your own emotions and needs. That’s a boundary issue.
In contrast, families with healthy boundaries create space for your needs and the needs of other family members. Each person is taught that they are responsible for his or her own emotions.
It’s a parent’s job to model healthy boundaries. In many ways, parents hold a mirror up to their children to help them see themselves as God does. For example, you help your children develop good boundaries when you:
- Teach them how to care for their body
- Help them identify what they are feeling or thinking about something
- Teach them how to identify and ask for what they need
- Help them learn how to say “Yes” and “No” to others in healthy ways
- Help them respect a healthy “No” they might receive from another person
A key job of being a parent is to help your children understand who they are.
However, an enmeshed family does the opposite. To help explain, here are six signs of an enmeshed family and the personal boundaries that are typically violated.
6 Signs of an Enmeshed Family
If your parents did not have a healthy understanding of their own boundaries, they likely violated yours. For instance, you may have received these types of damaging messages as a kid:
- You exist to meet my needs.
- You can’t do it without me.
- Don’t be like those other people—do it the way I do it.
- It’s selfish to have your own dreams apart from our family.
- Don’t trust yourself.
- You need me to rescue you.
These toxic messages can be extremely hard to shake. If you don’t address them, you might find yourself struggling with feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or an extreme need to people-please. All of this chaos makes it extremely difficult to establish healthy boundaries in your adult relationships or with your own children.
Here are six signs of an enmeshed family and the boundaries that they violate:
Parentification violates your basic need to receive care. It’s a role reversal where the parent gets the child to take care of the parent. Instead of caring for you, your parent raises you to care for her physical and emotional needs.
Children are characterized by freedom, innocence, and play, which are important resources we need as adults to help us stay creative and hopeful.
When children are asked to become adults before they are ready, they are robbed of those resources at a very young age. They grow up not understanding how to receive care from others. So, they tend to feel responsible for everyone around them.
Criticism violates a sense of worth. It’s a way of demeaning a child instead of lifting her up. Instead of helping you see both your tremendous potential and your growth areas, a critical parent can cut you down by constantly pointing out your weaknesses and flaws.
Children need to learn that they are precious and have intrinsic value. When you are exposed to constant criticism—whether it’s a thousand subtle comments or the screaming vitriol of verbal abuse—you don’t develop a core sense of fundamental worth. Instead, you second-guess yourself and constantly seek the approval of others.
Possessiveness violates a sense of autonomy. It is a form of envy that can occur between a parent and child. The parent wants his child to heal his fragile ego. Instead of raising you to forge healthy relationships with others and pursue your interests and talents, a possessive parent undermines your natural desire to explore who you are apart from him or her.
Children cling to their parents early on, but slowly learn to separate and become their own individuals. When this process of separation is thwarted by a needy parent, you don’t develop a healthy sense of your individuality. You may see yourself only as an extension of your parents and struggle to forge an identity of your own.
Helplessness violates a sense of advocacy. When a parent refuses to take responsibility for herself, she teaches a child to do the same, resulting in a victim mentality. A child needs to learn that they have a sense of agency, a capacity to effect change in their lives, no matter the struggle. Instead of raising you to use your voice and stand up for yourself, a helpless parent creates a sense of helplessness in you.
God created us to take responsibility for our own lives. He gave us talents and unique gifts that he longs for us to develop (Matthew 25:14-30). He hates it when systems, whether families or society, oppress vulnerable people and keep them from living out the potential they’ve been given.
Unpredictability violates a sense of security. A parent who struggles with mental illness, addiction, or irrational emotions creates an environment of unpredictability. A young child doesn’t know how to make sense of a parent who acts happy one day, but can’t get out of bed the next morning. Sure, it’s okay and normal for any parent to face struggles. But, the issue is that a parent must help a child feel secure, even when they face their own challenges.
When you can’t trust your primary caregiver, it teaches you that you cannot trust anyone else, which makes the world seem dangerous. You build your self-esteem around stabilizing your parent, instead of learning to develop healthy confidence in yourself.
Rescuing violates a sense of healthy collaboration. This last category is when a parent does not set any boundaries at all. In order to “win” the child’s love, the parent indulges and “rescues” a child from any form of pain. The problem is that this is more about the parent’s needs and insecurities than it is about what is healthy for YOU. Instead of teaching a child how to process the reality of limits, the parent encourages their son or daughter to see themselves as their ultimate source of rescue.
When you don’t learn that you are both precious and one part of a larger web, it is difficult to forge healthy give-and-take relationships. You tend toward entitlement, extreme expectations, or a lack of gratitude. It is hard for you to see others as separate from yourself.
In the chart below, a parent within an enmeshed family in Column 1 has not healed their own childhood wounds. They are trying to meet their needs through their children:
If you live in this type of situation, your parent may have provided you with food, shelter, clothing, and educational opportunities. But, they have harmed your fundamental need to develop as a whole person with a strong sense of selfhood.
The good news is that you can heal from an enmeshed family. You can uncover the beautiful God-bearing YOU that was lost, reclaim it, and learn to live out of it each day.
Recovery starts by saying “yes” to healthy boundaries in your life and “no” to emotional chaos from your family. As you heal your own sense of self, you will be better equipped to separate as an individual and create healthy relationships within and outside of your family.
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Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
What was your family dynamic growing up as a child? When you hear the concept of “enmeshed family,” do any of the six signs reflect your upbringing?
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