What is enmeshment and warning signs

Mental disorder - Psychosis

What happens when a parent-child relationship is marred by dysfunctional boundaries?

Enmeshment trauma is one of the most misunderstood forms of emotional abuse, which is why so many people suffer from it without realizing the impact it has on their romantic relationships.

What is Emotional Incest or Enmeshment?

Emotional incest, covert incest and enmeshment are terms that describe what happens when a child is “parentified” to take care of the emotional needs the parent or caregiver.

According to clinical psychologist and intimacy expert Dr.Ken Adams, “Enmeshment is a term used in family therapy to describe an extreme degree of closeness within the family. In fact, there is so much closeness and dependency on enmeshed families that the family members have the need to be exclusively loyal to each other so much that any outsider -including romantic partners- feel like a threat to the system”.

This essentially means that the parent/caregiver starts relying on their child for the emotional support that they should typically receive from another adult (such as a spouse, therapist, adult friend, etc).

It does not involve any kind of sexual abuse, but certainly violates the privacy, autonomy, and emotional well-being of the child suffering from enmeshment.

What are the signs of enmeshment?

Enmeshment can be confusing and there are no easy answers, as both parents and children can feel victimized by these dynamics. 

The parent is so involved in their child’s life that the child feels trapped, and unable to develop independently.

Signs of enmeshment:

  • The parent starts treating the child as a therapist or a best friend by discussing their problems and intimate details of their life that are not suitable for children
  • The parent vilifies the other parent and trieds to get the child to take their side
  • The parent is dependent on their child for companionship that is typically expected from a spouse 
  • There are little or no boundries of privacy between the parent and child 

Here are a few phrases used by a parent to guilt the child into staying put in the enmeshed relationship:

“ Don’t ever leave me”

“ I only live for you”

“ You’re all I have”

“ My only purpose in life is you”

Enmeshment and avoidant attachment style

Early childhood enmeshment can impact someone’s attachment style. Enmeshed children can develop an avoidant attachment style in their adult relationships. The child grows up and in adult relationships, is subconsciously afraid that when someone gets too close, it will result in a loss of independence and autonomy. The avoidantly attached fear being smothered, controlled or depended as they associate intimacy with pain.

In my next article, I’ll share some strategies on how to heal from enmeshment.

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