Enmeshment describes a blurring of roles within family relationships. Families should have clear roles such as caregiver, dependent, or the oldest/youngest child. Enmeshment trauma abuse occurs when these roles become blurred.
Examples include children assuming a parental role, or parents acting as their child’s friend. The problem with unclear parental boundaries and roles is that it can affect the child’s development and identity.
In this article, I’ll examine enmeshment in families, why enmeshment causes trauma, signs you have endured it, and how to heal.
What Is Enmeshment?
“Enmeshment is a term used by structural family therapists to describe families with extremely diffuse boundaries where autonomy is compromised.” Lee M, Williams et al
If I were to ask you to define a family, I’m betting you have a distinct structure in mind. The hierarchy starts with the primary caregivers and ends with the dependents. We have our own place within this hierarchy. Parents are authority figures. They should guide children into becoming mature and autonomous adults.
However, not every family has such delineated relationships. Sometimes the lines are blurred, or even reversed.
Types of enmeshment in families
- Helicopter parent: Parents are overly involved in their child’s life. Children have no privacy or say in their life.
- Romanticized parent: Parent treats child as they would a spouse or partner, confiding in them or over-sharing intimate details.
- Neglectful parent: Parents use their children for support when they are incapacitated, addicted, or mentally ill.
- Favoritism or scapegoating: Parent has a favorite child whose needs take precedence, or one child is a scapegoat.
Examples of enmeshment in families
- Parents are immature and reckless, forcing children to take on a more responsible role.
- The child looks after the parent because of illness, addiction or mental problems.
- The parents rely on their child for emotional support.
- Parents are over-involved in their child’s development.
- The child has no privacy because the parents demand to know everything they’re doing.
- Parents treat their children as confidants or friends.
- Parents depend on their children for companionship, instead of their partner.
- The parents keep their children in a state of dependency, so they remain tied to them.
- The child cannot voice different opinions to the parents.
Our relationships develop within the hierarchy and confines of this structure. They inform our choices as adults. These past relationships define the type of person we become when we’re older. They influence how we interact and process emotions.
Why does enmeshment cause trauma?
Children need boundaries growing up. Boundaries assign certain roles within the family. We know what to expect, who is responsible for what. They protect us and allow healthy development and growth. These boundaries are even more important when we’re young. But they should not stay static.
As we gain more confidence and experience the boundaries should move, allowing greater freedom. We form our own identities, our morals and beliefs. Gradually, as we become more autonomous and independent, the boundaries enacted by our parents should fade.
We leave the parental home to find employment, form relationships, live our lives. We’re fully independent. That’s not to say we have no further contact once we’ve left home. Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect, privacy, and acknowledgment of that person’s identity.
Children are much like fledglings in a nest. The parent birds keep them safe and feed them until they are fledged. We wouldn’t expect a baby bird to go out and find worms for their parents. Nor would we expect the parents to fly off and live with their offspring.
6 Signs of Enmeshment Trauma Abuse
1. Parents do not put your needs first
My mother pulled me out of school at 16-years to work in a factory so I could contribute to household bills. However, my brother went to university because he was the golden child. There’s an unwritten rule in enmeshed families that the family comes before everything, and your needs are second.
2. You feel guilty if you prioritize your needs
Family members may need more attention at certain times, like a newborn who requires constant care or a teenager who needs help to study for exams. This is natural as the balance shifts. But if they make you feel guilty when your needs are a priority, it could be a sign of enmeshment abuse.
3. You have no privacy within the family
Healthy relationships involve emotional and physical boundaries between parents and children. Parents that are overly invested in their children can be invasive and disregard these boundaries. So-called helicopter parents watch and manage every detail of their child’s lives.
4. Parents expect you to share every aspect of your life
As well as having no privacy, they also make you disclose personal details about your life to your family. Or perhaps you have an overwhelming urge to disclose personal experiences and emotions. After all, that’s what everyone else does in the family.
5. Other family members calculate your self-worth
Do you feel it is a duty to do well at school or work to boost the family’s reputation? Have you been told you’ve ‘Let the family down’ because you didn’t follow a particular career path? Is your success measured by your parents or other siblings?
5. The family discourages conflict and disagreements
You don’t go against the family. You are just a part of a much larger and more important entity. There is no emphasis on individual needs. You don’t have a voice.
Effects of Enmeshment Trauma Abuse
You are a people pleaser
Not being able to say no is a sign of enmeshment trauma abuse. You are used to putting your needs last. You also don’t like conflict, so you’ll do anything to keep the peace.
You over-share intimate details of your life
Having no privacy growing up lends itself to over-sharing when you’re older. You don’t understand that you should keep some things quiet until you establish trust. If your parents used you as a confidant, over-sharing is normal. You might also find it difficult to keep secrets or confidences.
You are a control freak
Parents that use their children as support can end up as control freaks when they’re older. Too much responsibility as a child results in a need to be in control of everything. You feel responsible and so you do everything yourself.
Relationships are problematic
Growing up without a clearly defined role affects your adult relationships. You might find it more difficult to form healthy relationships because you’re not sure where you fit into the equation. You could take on a parenting role or become dependent and stay in abusive relationships.
You feel responsible for your parents/other family members
We may take on a more responsible role towards our parents as they age and their health deteriorates. However, we are not responsible for our parent’s happiness when we’re younger. Nor must we sacrifice our own hopes and dreams for the good of the family.
If your family guilt-trip you, it could be a sign of enmeshment trauma abuse.
Your family is your identity
Your personality is indistinguishable from your family. Living within an enmeshed family can feel as if it’s your family against the world. The family is everything. Nothing comes before or is more important than the family.
It’s like the film The Godfather. You all have a duty to act a certain way, accept certain rules of behavior and keep outsiders out. If you want to pursue something outside these norms, the family discourages or ostracizes you. You have no sense of identity.
You don’t know how to express your emotions
Discouraging healthy discourse and debate effectively puts a lid on your feelings. As you get older, you may find it hard to express yourself. Maybe you put up with abusive behavior or you come on too strong.
How to Heal from Enmeshment Trauma Abuse?
Therapy is the best way to deal with enmeshment trauma issues. However, there are things you can do yourself to heal.
1. Concentrate on building your identity
What are your beliefs, morals, likes and dislikes away from your family? Think about your identity and start creating your authentic self. It sometimes helps to think about what role you should have played within the family structure.
Perhaps you were the oldest and your parents relied on you too much for support. Recognizing what your authentic place is within the family can help explain you understand why you act a certain way as an adult.
2. Create boundaries
When you have boundaries in place, it shows others what behavior you are prepared to accept. When we say no, we signal that behavior is unacceptable. You are important in your own right.
It’s time to recognize that you are a separate identity from your family. You have a right to your opinions and beliefs and the right to voice them, whether they differ from your family.
3. Listen to others
Feedback from others helps you adapt and adopt healthy behaviors. It’s hard if you’ve been used to controlling the situation to let go. Living within an enmeshed family can produce entrenched beliefs and biases.
Use active listening skills before you jump to old family conclusions. Try not to be judgmental or brush off someone’s opinions because they don’t fit with yours.
If you recognize some of the above signs, you could suffer from enmeshment trauma abuse. The next step is to understand that this doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life. With help, you can heal and move forward.
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