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.
For Further Reading:
Is Setting Boundaries Selfish?
The Most Important Boundary You Must Set
Why Boundaries with Your Mom Really Matter
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?
Got a question for Alison?
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Due to the number of questions received each week, not all messages can be answered.
My family had almost all the signs of enmeshment growing up. My mom wanted me (as the oldest) to care for her emotional needs. She felt threatened by outside relationships I built, especially if it was with another woman at church. She had some mental health issues that were not being cared for that caused her moods to be unpredictable and inconsistent. What would upset her one day wouldn’t bother her the next. We were not encouraged to try something she wouldn’t try. For example, she didn’t encourage me to do sports I loved since she felt insecure about her athletic ability. My dad was relatively passive in all of this. As I grew up and out of our home, I challenged her in most of the areas unknowingly which caused a lot of conflict. I used to take a lot of responsibility for that conflict, thinking I wasn’t being loving enough, that I wasn’t a good daughter. She made me feel guilty for not wanting to be close to her. I felt that something was wrong with me.
I am still learning and practicing setting healthy boundaries in order for us all to have a better relationship. Letting myself not feel burdened by what is not mine to carry (my mom’s emotion, desires, wounds) has been a process. I write this to encourage anyone reading this who’s on the journey to having healthier family relationships, you are not alone.
Quarantine has actually brought most of us back under the same roof for a season for various reasons. Though this was not my plan for this season, I know healthy boundaries only get better and more effective with practice. To those that are also practicing (or want to begin) healthy boundaries with family, it is not easy work. I believe it is the way to be more loving.
Alison Cook says
Thank you for this thoughtful insight, Ginny, and for taking the time to encourage others. The wisdom you have gained as you have worked through the enmeshment in your own family of origin shows. I pray you continue to find clarity, courage, and calm as you continue in the work of healthy boundaries.
Thank you for sharing! My God, it sounds like we have the same mom! It helps to see my pain in words and to know I’m not alone.
Ginny, how are you doing with this and how have you put these boundaries into practise? Thanks for giving hope x
Sandy Powers says
Wow! I had never heard of enmeshed families before – but this! So MUCH makes sense now!!! In my family, it was my dad! He was needy, depressive, and wasn’t happy that my mom (who was my security blanket) didn’t effectively meet all his insatiable needs for affirmation, affection, and constant availability. So rather than get help, he tried to get all those needs met by me and my younger sister, even sharing his complaints about my mom with us, saying he wished she was more like us. Lucky he was a Chaplain and Army officer so he had a strong sense of God or I think it could have been much worse. At some point, as a little girl, I began feeling painfully violated and grew to not want my dad to come anywhere near me. Then, I would hear him tell others (family members and strangers to me) how selfish and self-centered I was and how much I had changed into a cold, uncaring person. It made me feel horrible about myself, but still I refused to be violated anymore and kept as far away from him as I could. That probably somewhat saved me because my sister didn’t do that and she is the most mentally ill person I’ve personally known.
But the aftermath: I have spent my entire life with almost no self-worth, battling intense, demonic shame, and trying to please everyone, hoping desperately to feel comfortable in my own skin!
Of all the bazillion self-help books I’ve read, your “Soul Boundaries” book and podcasts have brought the most healing and deliverance! I really AM getting better, and it feels amazing! It may be a daily, lifelong struggle with those wounded parts, but I can do this!!! THANK YOU (again), Alison!!! This whole post has made me feel emotional, wanting to cry… but I think in a good way!
Alison Cook says
Sandy, I so appreciate your honesty. I am grateful that God saw fit to cross our paths on your own journey toward healing. We prayed over every inch of Boundaries for Your Soul – that it would find its way to the people God knew needed it most. I pray you’ll continue to find freedom and hope as you name what was harmful in your family and turn toward healing and reclaiming the health of your own beautiful, God-made soul.
Jodi Yu says
Thank you for this topic. You explained things I needed to know so clearly. I just set strict boundaries with my FOO. I am Trying to not repeat the unhealthy enmeshed patterns in my family. Your article gave me the insight and tools I needed. Thank you! Your wisdom will save my two girls from a lifetime of heartache! With a grateful heart , Jodi
Alison Cook says
Thanks, Jodi. I pray for you as you parent your 2 girls. I am so glad that you are saying “yes” to creating health for yourself and your family.
I am in so much pain due to an enmeshed relationship with my mother. She is sick now and I know it’s too late to heal. I am her caretaker. I failed myself. Should have separated but always felt I wasn’t allowed, was being a bad person. I would advise anyone with these issues to work as hard as possible to get out before it’s too late.
Alison Cook says
Hi Crystal, I am so sorry that you are going through this. I hear you. I do believe it is never too late to grow and take steps toward healing. There are many wonderful counselors who can walk with you through this pain and reclaim your sense of self. For a list and tips on how to find one, please check the Resources page on my website.
I feel for you, Sister. I grew up in one of those enmeshed families. Everything that Allison describes about enmeshed families was there in my upbringing. I got stuck in your same situation–mine lasted 10 very long years until my mother died. I got myself trapped into being her caretaker by being guilted into it. Yet she said over and over again that she was actually rescuing me by putting a roof over my head –my husband and I could no longer afford where we were living when my dad died, so we moved in with her. She was not only just widowed, she could hardly walk and needed surgery, so we decided to move in to “help” until she recovered. Then we would find a new place. At least that was the plan. But she never even tried to get better, and it was clear she could no longer live by herself, so we stayed. It has been 2 1/2 years since her death and I am still struggling to heal from the ordeal–all the fighting and recriminations about stuff from 50 years before. I warn everyone I meet who feels they need to take care of an aging parent–I practically beg them–don’t do it! Thanks for the blog post, Allison, it’s been very helpful in the understanding and processing of my life long emotional pain.
My ex boyfriend has a very unhealthy relationship with his mother & brother but doesn’t see it and won’t. His father left when the kids where young and he feels he needs to take of them. He’s 45 and his mother has always lived with him. That should tell you a lot right there. This past Friday we had gotten into a huge argument in which he hung up on me and refused to answer any calls, txts or voice to txts in which he knew i was very upset. About an 3 hours later I had gotten in a car accident and went to the hospital. I had called him with no answer. A friend of mine had txt a few people to let them know. He responded 2 hours later “please tell her I hope she feels better, I was unable to pick up the phone my brother had had surgery that day. ” Without all the details, of course his family needs him but he’s very enmeshed with them. He’ll actually sleep on the bedroom floor next to his mother if she asks. I think he was wrong not to check his phone in 5 hours bc the examples I gave are how he is with them. His brother was OK and had his girlfriend there and with COVID-19 In not sure how many people they let in. He had once said “I’ll never love you more than my brother I’ve known him longer” one of the many reasons we never made it. I guess my question is he always comes up with excuses but he says he has always had to take care if his brother and there’s no one else. Is this just another example of enmeshment or something else. Thank you for your time. I hope you and your family are safe and healthy.
Alison Cook says
Enmeshment can be very challenging to disentangle, especially when it involves a trauma bond (a bond that occurs between family members as a result of a shared trauma.) If you are someone on the outside of such a bond, it can feel terribly lonely, especially if the other person lacks self-awareness about the enmeshment. I pray for you in your process of healing.
Im pretty sure I understand where your coming from I actually think my boyfriend is enmeshed with his mother because she is divorced and he’s very very close to his mom in a weird way. I came across emotional incest a year ago and everything I looked up pointed back to my boyfriend but I never really saw it when his niece was born for the last year my boyfriend has been pushing me to the side for his mom and niece she’s now 3 years old but our relationship has changed now we barely have time to be alone or barely have date nights because his mom expects him to take care of a child that isn’t his we’ve had issues in the past where his mom has ruined our dates and sometimes my boyfriend wants to cancel just to help his mom and its a repeating pattern. he always takes his moms side and she treats my boyfriend like that’s her husband basically Im just a third wheel in my own relationship. if anything happens to his mom its forget me and mom comes first every time.
Your message is very timely to my circumstances. I have been divorced for 4 years due to him having an affair with his coworker and walking away completely from religion and a 20 year marriage. I have 3 grown children but everyone of us are struggling with many issues. My parents lived 3 houses down from us for 20 years and was basically my daycare when my children were young which was a good thing and a bad thing at times. I have had to set some serious boundaries with my children, due to lifestyle changes that haven’t been so good on their part. The oldest is struggling to find herself and has lived with me a couple of times but this last time I literally moved her stuff to the driveway to remove her from using and abusing my home. My second son has been involved with drugs since the 9th grade and has been in and out of jail and the prison system due to his choices. And my youngest son is struggling with anxiety and depression, he is in college but struggles with even having a normal conversation with me. My mother texted me the last time I kicked my daughter out of my house and basically has completely disowned me. I am not invited down to her home and whatever she has said to my 5 other siblings, none of them are talking to me at all as well. This has been going on for a year now and she so much as sold her house and my youngest sister and her family bought a house together and moved to another town and it hurt me deeply. But in reading your article it all is starting to make sense and it is made me aware that I had those same tendencies because of the influence of my mom. I had gone to a seminar last year and had learned some things about co-dependency and saw similarities in my family with that as well. I started pulling away then from my mom and siblings because I knew I had to in order to figure out myself and my own needs. None of them understand why and it is very painful and a very lonely road but one that I know that I have to endure but my knowledge of God and his goodness and mercy are what keep me focused right now. Thank you for posting these very important topics. I have tried counseling 2 times and had very bad experiences with both of them and I am hesitant to try again but your emails have been so important and so helpful to me right now.
Alison Cook says
Hi Stephanie. I’m so sorry for all you have been through and yet so grateful that you are beginning to identify some of the toxic patterns in your own family of origin and say yes to healing yourself. I pray that you will find wise people to come alongside you to provide support as you continue to heal the wounds. You are so worth it. Much love and light to you.
Thank you for helping to educate us. I believe this type of family system is more common than we realize. I’m struggling with trying to liberate myself from a dysfunctional enmeshed and codependent system. As I began to educate myself about this topic of codependency and enmeshment I started to connect the dots and slowly began to realize that my massive insecurities, low self esteem, unworthiness and people pleasing was all because of the family dynamics in which I grew up in. My issue is that I’ll keep my distance for a while and then test the waters by sending my mom (who is the dictator/controller in the family) a text to share something or humor her to see if I still belong to the family and am loved by her. The problem is, it doesn’t take long before she texts something to make me feel guilty about by new found independence. I’m left feeling deflated all over again and doubting myself and wondering if I’m making the right choices. My partner asks me why I keep sticking my hand in the fire to get burned. The truth is, I love my mom and I know she had a dysfunctional childhood herself and she’s done the best she could. I don’t know how to keep her in my life without choosing myself or learning how to not take her distorted truth seriously. Does it have to be all or nothing? She won’t be here forever (I’m 43 and she’s 73). How do I live my life and keep her and my passive dad a part of it? Thank you so much for your response and gift of teaching.
Alison Cook says
I appreciate the tremendous self-awareness you have about your situation. It is common to feel this way – stuck between feeling like you have to choose yourself or someone you love who has harmed you. Setting healthy boundaries does not have to be all-or-nothing. It’s a skill you can learn. I’m working on some materials on how to set healthy boundaries with a challenging mom. You might also check the Resources page of my website for books, articles, and ideas on how to increase your support system.
I’m in exactly the same place as you. I am constantly on a guilt-trip over my mother as I’ve been made to feel responsible for her emotions my whole life. Guilty for living my own life and having my own interests and desires. It’s as though she expects me to give her emotionally what her mother never could. It’s exhausting, but I’ve had to back away as much as I can. It can be difficult when there are siblings involved, or a sister or brother-in-law is regularly waved in your face as someone who is pleasing her more than you are. As I said, exhausting.
I need to read your book. At 52, after a lifetime of painful relationships with my birth family, I am still trying to grow, heal and to separate. My mum and I haven’t spoken for 3 years now after her latest abandonment of our relationship because I dared to get frustrated with her. It always makes me feel a little like discarded rubbish. My brother remains enmeshed and still feels responsible for her. She robbed us of our childhoods. I’m just scared she’ll want to contact me again (it invariably happens) and I’ll feel obligated to respond. How do I have a relationship with someone only interested in themself? I work hard to forgive her but I will never trust her or sadly, love her in the way she demands and expects. My faith sustains me but also leaves me feeling guilty somehow. It’s a long, hard journey and I keep learning.
Alison Cook says
I’m so sorry, Sue. This is so painful. I pray for Christ’s mighty healing presence to continue to work within you and to bring safe people to help you continue to heal.
So grateful for articles like these that outline healthy and unhealthy relationship boundaries! Your writing is so concise and effective, thank you. It’s amazing to grow up and realize that you don’t have to accept this kind of treatment anymore.
I’m working on establishing these boundaries with my mom but she completely walked away. We have no relationship. Luckily, the distance from her has been restorative. Now I’m trying to help my sibling (who she used as a pawn against me) heal, too. It’s strangely cathartic to slowly introduce her to the concept of healthy relationships. Everyday I try to build myself up a little bit more and break the chain; I’m hoping that with time I can help my sister do that same.
Onward and upward!
Alison Cook says
I love that you are working on this a little bit every day. That is the best way to build a strong foundation. Prayers for you and your sister.
Its a shame that I can relate to this post so well.
In short, I’m an adult now. I am still working on accepting and overcoming the childhood traumas I had from my parents. And I can foresee myself to be working through it for the longest time, probably with my whole life to make peace with myself, with my past.
I just hope parents realised how much of an impact they can have on their child.
Also, thank you for this article. It clarified a lot of things for me.
While this describes a LOT of my childhood, I see a huge picture of where I am with my dad right now. My mother is in a nursing home after multiple strokes and has dementia. He is living in an apartment in the same city as her (by his own choice), and he leans on me SO MUCH to take care of everything for him. Over the past year especially, I have come to recognize how unhealthy our relationship is. Where does all this fit in with an elderly adult parent who turns into a child, depending on his child to parent him? I want to do this in a healthy manner – helping AND setting boundaries. My dad is 79 years old and has his own level of dementia. I am his and my mom’s POA, so there is a LOT of responsibility on me.
I feel for you, Sister. Caring for my mother turned into 10 years of hell for me til she died. The only thing I can suggest you do is convince your dad to move into the same home to be with your mom. And do not to feel guilty. You did all you can do and the ultimate boundary is to save yourself by extracting yourself from a very unhealthy situation. If financing is a problem, there are people who can help you navigate this. Please consider therapy for yourself as well. I am praying for you.
Kari R says
We have suggested that he move in with her; however, he absolutely refuses. He would lose his independence, and he made life hell for the nursing home the first two years she was there. I think he’s afraid of how he will be treated because of his prior behavior.
As far as financing, we went through the Medicaid process with my mom, got her name off of all of their assets so that she qualified for Medicaid. He worked hard for retirement, so now he has too many assets to qualify himself. He’s a proud man, and we have found it more peaceful to let him live his life. I have set boundaries as far as how often I talk with him and what we talk about. At this point, he is able to see mom 5 days a week for 3 hours a day. He seems content with that.
I am in therapy myself, thankfully. Thank you for your kind words and prayers.
What do I do to help my husband? His family is deeply enmeshed and he is the only sibling with boundaries. They are cold to him and his mom runs the show by making noises (half the time there are no tears) everything we do something she doesn’t like and exaggerates or outright lies about reality. I don’t care that I don’t fit it, but it hurts my husband deeply. They are emotionally immature and talking hasn’t helped. The ringleader denies, justifies or outright lies about what she did wrong.
Is there any hope his siblings will come around and see what’s going on? His mom spreads resentment throughout the family gossiping about us. That’s not normal. She needs friends or to
talk to her husband instead of her kids.
Izzy Asturias says
I’m not super sure if this is for sure an example of this but I’ve just been looking online seeking anything about my situation. My father and I have been very close since i was a child and he seemed to always be involved with every part of my life . As I got older I wanted my own life and own friends, but he was still trying to be in my life all the time. Even at one point becoming very close with my best friend at 15 years old. He stopped going out with people his own age insisting to be with me and I guess this always gave me some sort of guilt. I felt as though my father had no one besides me so that it was my responsibility to be there so he wasn’t alone. He would also do everything for me and gave me little to no consequences turning me spoiled. I’ve just been realizing lately and now I’m not really sure how to start getting better.