Enmeshed Parenting: Yes, Being Too Involved Is A Thing
A 30-year-old client of mine was utterly conflicted about the prospect of marriage. She had refused two potential partners’ marriage proposals. When we explored this further, it became clear it wasn’t her fear of commitment. Instead, it was her mother’s extreme dependence; the widowed mother had communicated her fears about loneliness, and my client believed her marriage would make her mother’s fears a reality. This guilt kept her from committing, even though she did plan to marry eventually — a classic example of enmeshed parenting.
What is an enmeshed relationship?
At its most basic, enmeshment is about an unhealthy level of codependence that denies another person independence. While enmeshment can be a problem for couples or siblings as well, here I explain what it looks like in a parent child relationship. Our tradition of joint family living can make Indian families particularly vulnerable to enmeshed parenting, as the arrangement can enable too-close involvement and control over children’s lives long into adulthood.
What is enmeshed parenting?
Enmeshed parenting is different from involved parenting. Involved parenting is healthy for a child and helps to develop confidence, competence, autonomy and self-identity. But healthy relationships are also characterized by respect for the individual’s independent life choices, along with a belief in his or her abilities.
Enmeshment takes all of this away. It’s too involved parenting that comes with an extraordinarily high degree of control and protectiveness and allows little opportunity for the child to make his own decisions. Salvador Minuchin introduced the term enmeshed parenting for the first time to describe families characterized by a pattern of overinvolvement in each other’s lives, which manifests in the form of poor boundary making in the parent and child relationship.
With children, enmeshed parenting can sometimes manifest as ‘spousification’ or ‘parentification,’ where the parents may depend on the child for their emotional needs so much that the child assumes the role of counselor, or turns down opportunities to be away from the parent.
The danger of this is twofold: First, that parents start defining their self-worth based on how much the child behaves according to their wishes. And second, that the child in turn learns to define his or her own self-worth by being compliant with a parent’s needs; this eventually leads to poor confidence and decision-making skills, and a high dependency on parental approval.
Indian families, particularly joint families, come with many rich benefits, including close bonds and high involvement in family members’ lives. When these relationships are balanced by recognition and respect for individual agency, they can be very fulfilling. But the risk of enmeshment is high in a culture that tends to value the sanctity of family over individual happiness.
Enmeshed parent and child relationships can become intrusive and stifling in adulthood, impacting the adult child’s career and relationship with a partner. Some adult children may not invest in friendships, as the burden of parents’ unrealistic expectations constantly weighs them down. And the degree of control enmeshed parents often exert can make outsiders hesitant about building stronger ties. All of this leads to more isolation and dependence.
An enmeshed parent child relationship creates feelings of frustration, helplessness and guilt in children as children struggle to accept their own deepest desires and feelings – which may be in conflict with their parents’. A client of mine spent nearly 20 years with his family’s business, according to his parents’ wishes, hoping that following their vision would make him happy. Enmeshment normally starts from the best of intentions – his parents likely thought his work in their business was in everyone’s best interest. But instead, my client became more resentful and angry, until he quit, at age 40, to pursue his passion for teaching. The family felt deeply betrayed and let down, and my client struggled with guilt.
When children are in pain, all parents feel the need to reach out, empathize and listen. However, in an enmeshed parent child relationship, the parent almost feels the same intensity of emotion. Take the example of an adult woman who describes to her mother her anxiety and sadness about her marriage. With involved parenting, the parent would listen, respond with love, and trust the adult child to manage her problem. With enmeshed parenting, the mother might feel anxious, depressed and feel an immediate need to rescue her daughter, preventing her daughter from handling her life with autonomy.
When teenage children struggle with peer groups, involved parents may offer assurance, love and support for their child. In an enmeshed parent child relationship, the parent may feel deeply depressed and, instead of letting the teenage child solve the problem, he or she jumps in first to resolve it. Enmeshed parenting robs the child of a chance at developing his own inner voice, confidence, and decision-making abilities.
In involved relationships, parents believe in their children’s ability to find their own answers and in giving them the space to organically work through their emotions. It’s difficult, but possible, and it’s also best for everyone. As Lydia H. Hall says, “Healthy boundaries are not walls. They are the gates and fences that allow you to enjoy the beauty of your garden.”