Struggling with difficult family relationship dynamics? You could be part of an enmeshed family.

What is enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a psychological concept that describes relationships between two or more family members with unclear personal boundaries, often leading to deep emotional pain. Many people don’t realize that they are part of an enmeshed family because it is almost always unintentional. People do realize the deep emotional pain that exists within their family unit.

Difficult dynamics of enmeshment involves:

  • Lack of independence
  • Lack of individuality
  • Unhealthy family patterns
  • Control
  • Social problems
  • Dysfunctional relationship patterns
  • Blurred or nonexistent boundaries.

Enmeshed families experience one or more of the following signs:

  • An unhealthy emotional attachment to a loved one that seems out of your control
  • Shared emotions where you have difficulty distinguishing your feelings and emotions from those of your family members
  • The desire for support and validation
  • Lack of healthy family gatherings or events
  • Inability to have engaged relationships with others outside of the family
  • An unclear identity due to a high level of family cohesion
  • Lack of alone time and space from spending every available moment together
  • The expectation that they will be rescued from challenging or difficult emotions
  • Guilt, shame and anxiety when they meet their personal needs instead of providing emotional support to another family member
  • Intense fear of conflict or abandonment
  • Inability to set healthy boundaries
  • Inability to feel happy when another family member is feeling sad because of a need for control. Family members may attempt to dictate every aspect of each other’s lives including friendships and relationships to political and religious beliefs.
  • Inappropriate roles where a parent becomes a child’s best friend and the child becoming the parent’s primary/only source of emotional support. The child can also become the parent’s confidant and be expected to keep family secrets.
  • Favoritism vocally or in action through special privileges
  • Lack of boundaries regarding privacy between parent and child
  • Over involvement in the child’s relationships, activities, accomplishments and problems
  • The pressure for a child to remain in the same town as the parent or attend a nearby college. Parents make their adult children feel guilty for pursuing interests and activities outside of the family unit..

While it is very important to have healthy family relationships, strong, reasonable and respected boundaries are vital to healthy close bonds. If the boundaries become enmeshed, the relationship is no longer healthy.

Three strategies for overcoming enmeshment

Awareness is always the first step to overcoming difficult relationship dynamics in an enmeshed relationship. The strategies below should always begin with awareness. Each strategy below often involves setting and maintaining boundaries. The purpose of boundaries within an enmeshed family is to protect each family member both physically and emotionally, especially related to time, energy and resources. Boundaries are required to stop the toxic patterns of enmeshment.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

Strategy 1: Structural family therapy leads to overcoming enmeshment

One of the most common and helpful approaches to dealing with enmeshed families is structural family therapy. Growing up in an enmeshed family can make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships free from enmeshment. In structural family therapy, the therapist will meet with various family members to talk through family systems. This information helps the therapist understand how the family addresses interpersonal conflict and solutions. Based on the answers, the therapist offers advice and a plan of action to undo any enmeshment. The plan of action focuses on setting, maintaining and respecting specific boundaries of each family member.

Unhealthy patterns tend to be passed down through multiple generations when enmeshed relationships exist. With the help of a family therapist, people in enmeshed relationships as a child can avoid unhealthy relationship patterns as an adult. Without the help of a family therapist, children who grew up in enmeshed families usually carry the same patterns into their own families. Individual counseling can also help a person who was raised by an enmeshed parent. 

Family therapy can also help when enmeshment occurs due to a parent’s reaction to a child’s illness or trauma. Parents often feel an intense desire to keep their child safe from further harm, creating enmeshed relationships that cause a lifetime of confusion and conflict.

Working to overcome enmeshment is a process that takes time, so it is important to be gentle with yourself as you explore who you are and who you want to be outside of an enmeshed family. The therapist will work to help you understand that there are other truths that exist outside of the ones you were raised in and understand to be “normal.” You will work to understand that the relationships within an enmeshed family were not healthy.

Strategy 2: Distance leads to overcoming enmeshment

Once you realize that you are part of an enmeshed family, it is easy to be discouraged because dysfunction has become your “normal.” Although it takes work to overcome enmeshment, take heart that it is possible. It is possible to gain autonomy, break unhealthy patterns, and learn to set healthy boundaries. Emotional support is available and it is possible to find a good balance within the family unit that involves trust and personal boundaries. 

Families often do not believe that problems exist, which requires distancing yourself from family in a healthy way. Family members may see your attempt to break unhealthy patterns as betrayal. Attempting to heal within that environment can keep you from overcoming enmeshment. Distance from your family unit is often necessary. 

As a child of an enmeshed parent attempting to heal, it can be hard to spend time with your parents as an adult due to the potential of toxic patterns returning. It is vital to have support in place to talk with after interacting with an enmeshed parent. Part of healing is deciding how often you interact with family. Setting this healthy boundary is a practice in applying the skill that has not been used before. In time, healthy boundaries will help you feel free.

Strategy 3: A Skyterra Embrace stay leads to overcoming enmeshment

For a young adult who suffers from enmeshment trauma, adult relationships are instantly complicated. Since the parents of the young adult did not teach them personal autonomy and established boundaries as a child, adult relationships suffer greatly. Young adults who wish to heal from enmeshment trauma have difficulty doing so because the issues are within the family unit as a whole, not the individual young adult. 

At Skyterra Embrace, we see the effects of enmeshment including:

  • Personality disorders and other mental health issues
  • Self-esteem problems due to a lack of self-identity
  • Inability to be independent or show individuality due to lack of self-identity
  • Boundary issues as healthy boundaries were not taught during childhood
  • Unstable relationships due to family instability
  • Eating disorders caused by a parent’s need for control
  • Substance use disorders and self-harm from attempting to relieve emotional pain
  • Physical health problems including headaches, fatigue, sleep issues and chronic pain.

The Skyterra Embrace program helps young adult women ages 18 to 29 understand all areas of wellness. Students who have struggled with the effects of enmeshment find help and solutions at Embrace. We want young women to embrace adulthood with a healthy mind, body and spirit. The Embrace program offers a wide array of yoga, fitness, recreation and education classes to bolster the health and wellness journey of our students.

The professionals at Skyterra Embrace have more than 30 years of therapeutic program experience, specializing in the transition to adulthood. Before a student attends Embrace, our experts meet with students to determine their personal goals and needs, then create a personalized schedule just for them. The Embrace program teaches students how to plan for and live out the vision for their future, creating a smooth transition from Skyterra to everyday life. No matter where students are on their journey, they are well supported and never judged.

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Greg (MSW, LCSW, LCAS) is the Executive Director of Skyterra Embrace. Through his work with people living with trauma, attachment, substance abuse and addiction, and other mental health difficulties, Greg enjoys creating opportunities to encourage growth and development. For more information on Embrace, click here.