Enmeshed relationships, also referred to as unboundaried bonding, begin early in a child’s life. The parent can appear to be loving and provides their child with attention and love, but this love comes with many conditions (which would lead some to argue if this can be described as love). This behaviour may be unconscious on the parents part but this does not make it any less damaging for the child.
Children are born dependent on their parents, and having a bond with their caregiver is the difference between life and death, however for parents who have unresolved wounds, this feeling of being needed and depended on seems to add to their feelings of self worth. They know that their child cannot live without them and the child’s unconditional love can fill a void, but this feeling cannot last because a child naturally grows up and gains more independence. This is where problems and conflict can begin with a parent who is enmeshed with their child. It is also likely that the child would have been infantilised in the hope of preventing the child from fully maturing for as long as possible which will mean that they remain dependent; and normal tasks will seem daunting to them without a parent to show them the way, even though they are more than capable.
Children raised in enmeshed homes may:
- Have difficulty regulating their emotions, and have low emotional intelligence.
- Have a lower than usual tolerance to stress, especially for their age.
- May have difficulty in asserting themselves later in life.
Signs of enmeshment between parent and child are:
- Lack of appropriate privacy between parent and child.
- A parent confiding secrets in a child, especially about adult subjects.
- A parent telling one child that they are the favourite.
- One child receiving special privileges from a parent.
- A parent being overly involved in their child’s activities or achievements.
Enmeshment can occur for a variety of reason, I have listed some below:
- The parent believes that they have no one else to talk to and confide in.
- They are in an unhappy marriage and complain to the child about their partner, who may or may not be the child’s parent.
- They use the child as an emotional crutch.
- They were raised in an enmeshed relationship and have therefore carried this style of bonding forward as this is their blueprint for love.
- They were raised in a cold and rigid home that did not feel loving, so they overcompensated by going completely the other way.
- They overshare about financial strains and worries which can only stress a child and emphasise their helplessness.
Children raised in enmeshed homes are usually the last to see it because they have such a close relationship with the parent that they do not want to believe that it could be harming them. If you were raised in an enmeshed home, or if you think that you have an enmeshed relationship with your child(ren), the first step is awareness. As the great Maya Angelou said:
When you know better, you do better.
You do not need to feel guilty you just need to begin taking steps to heal and stop repeating the pattern. I do not believe that there is any such thing as loving a child too much, but unboundaried bonding is sometimes confused as love and the two are not the same. Children should be allowed to be children without being weighed down with adult concerns. As a parent it may feel as though you are being loving, but the children on the receiving end often feel like they have to take care of their parent, rather than being taken care of. They believe that their parents happiness is their responsibility and children do not have the emotional capacity to deal with needy parents.
The first step in healing is to identify why and how you are leaning on your child for emotional support? Are you repeating behaviours that you experienced in your childhood? You will then need to begin building a more supportive frame work around you. If you do not have friends that you confide in then you may want to join online communities where you can discuss with like minds, or if it is feasible for you, seek professional counselling or therapy. Alternatively you can write in a journal daily. Also you may need to identify if you have communication issues that need to be addressed in your relationship, especially if you find that you are speaking to your child about your partner rather than going directly to your partner.
Going forward you will need to make a conscious effort to ensure that you only discuss age appropriate subjects with your child and not go into depth with them over your personal issues.You will want to be honest with your child but it is always important to be mindful of their age. I would love to hear your thoughts if you grew up in an enmeshed home, or if you think that you may be an enmeshed parent.