Have you ever heard of the term “helicopter parenting?” It’s a common phrase that refers to parents who are constantly standing over or keeping an eye on their kids. They try to coach from the sidelines at soccer games, hover over every school assignment, and are present for every social function.
Being enmeshed with your child is like this type of parenting on the outside, but it goes even deeper than just being too involved. It means that it’s difficult to disentangle yourself from them emotionally and mentally.
If you think you might be too enmeshed with your child, keep reading for the signs that it’s becoming a problem.
Having a strong sense of self is an important milestone in a person’s life. It’s important to come to this self-realization before adding other people into your life. In so doing, it can be easy to lose yourself in the other person. For example, marrying very young often prevents people from having that time to themselves to discover their own personal identity. Instead, it gets wrapped up in the new person, which can stifle their natural tendencies and personality traits.
This can also happen if a person has children before they gain an understanding of their own identity. In cases like this, the parent may start to over-identify with their child and feel as if their child’s success or failures are their own. Of course, it’s natural to want your child to succeed and it’s also natural to feel pride when they do. However, enmeshed parents take control of their child’s life in a way that is like they are living vicariously through them. They cast expectations and impossible standards onto the children as a way of self-validation.
Parent Becomes the Child
In some of the most desperate cases of parent-child enmeshing, parents can inappropriately rely on their own children for emotional stability. This type of parent most likely has never understood how to be emotionally self-sufficient or how to deal with unpleasant feelings. Instead, they rely on their children to take care of them emotionally. Emotional outbursts such as crying, shouting, and blaming the child for circumstances out of their control are ways that these enmeshed parents drag their children into their own emotional turmoil.
This type of unfair behavior has serious lasting consequences for the children. They themselves can become emotionally stunted or experience emotional burnout in their teen years. The burden of making sure mom or dad is ok is simply too much for a child to bear and should not be made their responsibility.
Many parents who are uncontrollably enmeshed with their child will often use guilt as a way to keep both parties intertwined with each other. A parent might tell their child that their actions will cause some unbearable consequence for the parent. It might be a phrase like “You’re going to give me a heart attack!” or some other pseudo-threat.
By guilting their own children, parents are sending the statement that they relinquish any responsibility for their own actions and whatever happens is the fault of the child alone. The child must then carry that responsibility with them as they strive to figure out how to not let their parent experience whatever awful consequence was promised.
The Need to Be Right
Because enmeshing means that a parent’s life is entangled with that of their child, the parent often loses sight of the fact that their child is an entirely separate individual with thoughts and feelings of their own. Instead, enmeshed parents believe that their child has to follow their life’s path regardless of the child’s own decisions. These parents often think that their own identity comes from being what they see as correct. Therefore, in order for their child to truly love them and acknowledge them as human beings, they must follow that path. The path could be a certain religion, a college, a sports team or political party, even a hobby.
If a child doesn’t wish to follow that particular path or element of life, the parent may see it as rebellion, which in their eyes is a personal attack against them and they may struggle with questioning their own choices. After all, if a child who they created refuses to do what they put so much of their life into, doesn’t that make them wrong? In their eyes, it does.
Parents with the means to support their children financially, but who are also enmeshed with their children, will often use money as an act of control. As the child learns to rely on the financial assistance, they may not learn how to become financially independent. Thus, the parent keeps control over them well into adulthood. Not teaching the child how to work, save, and budget properly ensures that the child will remain under the parent’s control, allowing the cycle of enmeshing to continue. The parent may threaten to withdraw assistance if the child chooses to go to a different college, choose a different major, or even associate with certain friends. This locks children into a pattern of being forced to make certain life decisions, nearly ensuring that they will also lack a good sense of identity and perhaps follow in their enmeshed parent’s footsteps.
Earlier we saw how enmeshed parents relinquish responsibility for their own emotions and put that burden on their family. However, the opposite can also be an indication of inappropriate enmeshing. Often, a parent will take it on themselves to be completely accountable for their child’s feelings. They may over-involve themselves in their child’s personal lives as a way to keep tabs and control their emotions and experiences. They want what every parent wants – for their child to be happy – but they do so at the detriment of their child’s emotional growth by attempting to remove every negative emotion their child might be feeling. This prevents the child from learning how to navigate their own emotional ocean and can hinder their success as an adult.
Being a parent is tough but enmeshing oneself with one’s children is not the answer. Doing so can create lots of problems later on for the children, such as codependency, emotional distancing, or even problems with drugs and alcohol. For parents, it is best to realize that you are a separate person from your children, and you are on your own path, just like they are. Instead of forcing each other onto the same journey, it might be better to observe from your own road and offer help if needed.