In the 1970s, family therapist Salvador Minuchin developed a framework for categorizing family structure1. A family unit is comprise invisible subsets of different functions. These subsystems determine how family members interact with one another2.
For example, there is the spouse subsystem, the parental subsystem, and the sibling subsystem.
Subsystems are separated by boundaries which determine who participates and how. Such boundaries separate physical and emotional space between family members. Clear boundaries create functional family patterns, while enmeshment (diffuse boundaries) and disengagement (rigid boundaries), at opposite ends of the continuum, lead to dysfunctional patterns and family instability.
What is enmeshed family
Enmeshment refers to the lack of self-other differentiation. An enmeshed family, sometimes referred to as chaotic family, is characterized by a lack of a clear family boundary between the parent and the child3. The relational boundaries between them are fused and blurred. There is usually no tolerance for individuality or separateness in individual family members4. In extreme cases, this is akin to emotional incest. This family process is usually passed from previous generations to the next generation.
Cohesion and closeness in an enmeshed family
Enmeshment is not the same as cohesion.
Family cohesion refers to the degree of family closeness and caring among family members. A close-knit family has strong family bonds that include emotional closeness and support. Cohesive family is associated with higher life satisfaction and lower depressive symptoms.
On the other hand, enmeshed parenting style creates a dysfunctional relationship pattern that inhibits psychological differences in individual members. Despite the nonexistent boundaries, enmeshed families have low level of cohesion and only moderate levels of warmth in the familial relationship. The level of closeness is often constraining and hinders individual autonomy.
In addition, enmeshed parents show high levels of hostility and negative emotions. Enmeshed parents are intrusive and competitive5. Their psychological control over the child often leads to codependent relationships6.
Enmeshment in the family can also mean rigid boundaries to the outside world. Enmeshed children are constrained to sustain their needs and find gratification only within the family. When they deviate from the expectation, they develop strong feelings of guilt and a fear of abandonment.
Thus, the enmeshed family systems comprise both weakly defined boundaries in the entire families and a highly rigid boundary between families and the outside world.
Causes of enmeshment
Enmeshment often coexists with emotional distance between couples, intrusive over-involvement from the parents, and alienation from one parent.
Parents with long-standing or high-conflict marital discord can engage in enmeshed parenting. Usually, the child is forced to choose between two warring parents. One parent and child then became enmeshed in a coalition of over-involvement that excludes the other parent, who is less involved. Sometimes, it can even develop into parental alienation7. Emotionally pulling or coaxing children into family problems like this may amplify the impact on children’s sense of security8.
Enmeshment patterns are also found in families in which one parent uses harsh punishment or physical abuse on the child. The child tends to align with and form an enmesh relationship with the non-abusive parent9.
Signs of enmeshment in family
Enmeshed parents often appear as loving and exceptional parents, and the children often seem to do well.
Here are some signs and patterns of enmeshment in families10.
- “We” is often used to describe feelings, opinions, or experiences.
- Lack of psychological boundaries often manifests in lack of physical boundaries, e.g. the child sitting on the lap of and entwining with the preferred parent.
- The child has developmentally inappropriate difficulties separating from the parent and attending school.
- The child’s inability to establish peer relationships because of clinginess to the preferred parent.
- The child cannot function in an age-appropriate, independent manner, such as attending camp or having sleepovers with peers.
- The child is highly attuned to the enmeshed parent’s neediness and dependence.
- The child assumes responsibility for protecting the parent.
- Role reversal and unhealthy dynamics in which the child assumes a caretaking role for the parent.
Effects of enmeshed parenting on children
When boundaries are diffused excessively between parent and child, the child will have difficulty individuating appropriately. A child with an enmeshed parent often feels unable to separate from them and have lower self-esteem. They can be indecisive about their career path and reluctant to take healthy risks to reach their potential.
When enmeshment results from parental conflicts, children’s insecurity is prolonged. These children are at risk for maladjustment, including internalizing and externalizing mental health issues.
Children who are expected to take care of their parents may experience role confusion.
Psychosocial and developmental research has shown that family differentiation also influences many aspects of a child’s developing psychological self, including individuality, individuation, and identity11.
When there are no boundaries with family members, children cannot attain psychosocial maturity through individuation. Children from poorly differentiated families tend to have a weak sense of identity.
The threats to emotional identity are evident when these children face important life transactions, such as going to college.
Attending college is not just an educational transition. This transition usually involves considerable changes in the structure of daily life, relationships, and education. A young adult’s own identity is formed through these changes, which shape their mental health and well-being. The family dynamic can profoundly affect their ability to cope with this identity change and develop a strong sense of self.
Enmeshed children suffer from a lack of identity and are associated with more mental health symptom such as anxiety and depression. They tend to have more feelings of distress and powerlessness, and less life satisfaction in their adult lives.
How to heal from family enmeshment trauma
The lack of healthy relationships in childhood can have long-lasting impacts on adult children. To heal from the traumatic experience, adult children first need to learn to establish healthy boundaries while maintaining flexible boundaries at the same time.
Balanced levels of cohesion and flexibility can lead to healthy family relationships, while unbalanced levels may lead to maladaptive family functioning.
Getting professional advice is the best way to deal with enmeshment trauma. A family therapy, such as Family Systems Therapy, may help reduce the levels of family enmeshment and boundary issues in a dysfunctional family. Family counseling can assist the family in eliminating dysfunctional behavior and developing healthier relationships.
Individual therapy can provide you with emotional support and help you establish healthy personal boundaries. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, mental health providers can help you recognize the enmeshed family characteristics and break the abusive family cycle so this parenting style will not pass down to your own child. Learning sound relational patterns in a mental health care setting can lead to healthy, intimate relationships.
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