Toxic family relationships, enmeshment and what to do about it.

Woman looking worried about family relationships

Toxic family relationships often bring people to seek counselling. It’s something of a cliché amongst therapists that the people we see in our counselling rooms are there because of the people we’re not seeing – who really should be in therapy.

But it’s true!

The violent grandfather who you were terrified of all through your childhood. That parent who never showed warmth or affection or always seems to be able to ignite feelings of guilt in you (no matter what you do).

These are the people and toxic family relationships that are very much “in” the room with us as you try to work out how to live your life and cope with the impact of their behaviours. This article will focus on the latter of those; enmeshment with a parent.

What is enmeshment?

From an outside perspective, enmeshment can look like a very close family.

Lots of time spent with one another, the parent that regularly says their child is their best friend, only making decisions after consulting with one another.

All of these things, of course, can exist within normal and healthy family relationships with secure attachments. What distinguishes enmeshment from this is the absence of freedom and choice, the lack of boundaries that allow each person to be independent of one another and the addition of guilt. Bucketloads of guilt.

In healthy parent/child relationships the child moves from dependence to independence. Parents go through a process of ‘letting go’ and accepting their child is becoming an autonomous adult, capable of making their own choices and decisions.

Enmeshment in childhood looks like:

  • Being heavily involved in all the child’s activities, taking credit for their achievements.
  • Treating the child as a confidante when they’ve had their own difficulties
  • Expecting emotional support from their child
  • Treating and publicly naming the child as their ‘best friend’
  • Wanting to socialise with the child and their friends into young adulthood

If these experiences resonate with you then in adulthood you may:

  • struggle with feelings of guilt when you don’t regularly speak to or spend time with your parent.
  • feel that it’s down to you to ‘make things ok’ for your parent
  • find that you make decisions in your life based on what you know would please them
  • have a parent who gets upset or hurt when you express autonomy or ask for privacy and find yourself trying to ‘make things ok again’ afterwards
  • not recognise or meet your own needs (or those of other important people in your life)
  • feel overwhelmed and exhausted

Enmeshment in family relationships is not easy to change. It takes everyone involved in it to realise that it’s a pattern that isn’t healthy and to then work on it together. Family therapy is a really good way to address this but it may not be the case that each person is willing to do this.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

As with any difficult relationship, when another person is not willing or able to change then it’s crucial that you work on protecting yourself and minimising the impact that they can have on you. A key boundary that you can set for yourself is on how much of your time and energy you are going to spend on this person. Consider the impact of the amount of contact you have with them, and adjust to what feels manageable.

It’s also helpful simply to notice feelings of responsibility towards that parent when they occur and gently remind yourself that you are not responsible for their wellbeing. Patterns are set over a long period of time and it’s not easy to change them; you may well find that you feel uncomfortable as you try to build healthier ways of being.

Read more about enmeshment and boundaries here

Fernbank Counselling:

Toxic family relationships, enmeshment and what to do about it.

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