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Parenting: Attachment vs enmeshment

The other side of the coin.

There is a popular expression about the parent- child relationship: “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Is this true? And if it is true, is it a good thing? In other words, does it reflect a positive relationship?

One of the criteria of good leadership is being a good listener.

Our previous two columns focused on parental responsibility and the importance of good communication and proactive parenting – what we call healthy parental attachment. This column explores the other side of the coin; namely, what happens when parents are overly involved in their children’s lives?

What are the implications for parents who exert too much control over their kids because they are over-identified with them and do not have discreet boundaries? One of our greatest challenges as parents is to know what not to do for our children – when we should back off.

It is our nature as parents to want to jump in and catch our kids when they fall. But one of the wisest things we can do for our kids is to let them jump off the virtual balcony of the first floor and allow them to feel the pain of hitting the ground. If we are always there to catch them, they become a little bolder each time, and climb higher. By the time they reach the eighth floor, no net that we can provide will be strong enough to catch them.

The term “enmeshment” has been widely used in family therapy literature since the 1970s. Salvador Minuchin introduced this concept to refer to families in which personal boundaries were so undifferentiated that a child could ultimately suffer to an extreme. Minuchin was the oldest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, raised in a small Jewish community in rural Argentina.

For a time, he also worked in Israel, where he established residential communities for mentally disturbed children.

He spent most of his career in the United States, where he still resides.

While his original training was psychoanalytic in nature, he, like others of his generation, became increasingly interested in the family as a social system.

He founded the discipline of Structural Family Therapy, which emphasizes the importance of working with the entire family when treating a problematic child.

Enmeshment, then, refers to families that exhibit signs of smothering, over-sharing and caring that reach beyond normal concern. Actually, it refers to any relationship in which personal boundaries are violated, unclear or dysfunctional. It can apply to couples, siblings, co-workers or friends. In enmeshed relationships there is a lack of clarity about where one person begins and the other ends.

While enmeshment can sometimes look like intimacy or love due to the intensity of the attachment, it is actually the opposite. It is a form of engulfment and control which is disrespectful to others. Enmeshment between parent and child has the capacity to be as abusive as neglect. It diminishes the child’s sense of self and can annihilate their autonomy.

An enmeshed parent can be defined by the following criteria:

•  The parent is too identified with a child’s successes or failures. We are all familiar with the case of the soccer mom or dad who is overly invested in a child’s sports wins, or parents who force their children into artistic activities against their wishes. When a parent’s sense of self-worth is dependent on the performance of a child, we can know that something is terribly wrong. The same applies when children feel that their self-worth is wholly dependent upon their parents’ approval. In this case, children are raised to be “human doings” as opposed to human beings.

•  Parents put all of their energy into their child at the expense of looking after themselves. This principle is aptly illustrated in emergency airline regulations, which require you to put on your own oxygen mask before preparing your child. It is crucial for parents to have interests and a social life outside of the family unit. If they don’t, they are more likely to be overprotective, suffocating and intrusive. They will also be poor role models.

•  One of the most difficult features of healthy parenting is cultivating the ability to separate from your child’s pain. As early childhood experiences reveal, when a toddler falls and hurts himself, it is never helpful for a parent to get hysterical. Similarly, overreacting to troubling emotional issues in later years can be counterproductive and intensify the child’s lack of confidence.

So here’s the rub: We want to be empathetic and show concern, but we do not want to react to our child’s pain as though it’s the end of the world. When we overprotect our kids by taking too much responsibility for their dayto- day lives, whether it be how they dress or their choice of friends, we are interfering with their sense of agency.

This gives them the message that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. The healthy alternative is to be responsible to them, but not for them; meaning we should encourage discussion about options and provide them with tools of discernment that will enable them to make healthy choices. Then comes the hard part: sit back and let go.

The term codependency is sometimes used interchangeably with enmeshment. But strictly speaking, this term comes from addiction research and usually refers to someone who assists others in pursuing unhealthy behaviors, especially ones involving alcohol or drugs.Enabling is the term used to describe the specific process of supporting negative behaviors either actively or passively. In reality, we can also enable in a positive way by empowering our kids and helping to facilitate positive behaviors, but in recent years this term tends to be use with its negative conotation.

Another challenging area for many parents is their desire for approval and acceptance by their children. Vying to be our kid’s friend shows an inappropriate understanding of respect and equality. The reality is that our kids have plenty of friends, but only one or two parents.

They don’t need more friends; they need guidance from an adult. If it doesn’t come from us, they will look for it elsewhere.

Parents who look for validation in their relationship with their kids and are too insecure to make demands are simply not doing their job. Of course it is a scary thing to lose our kids’ approval, but we must always keep in mind the following cliché: “Sometimes you have to love your kid enough to let him hate you.” It is the risk we take to keep our kids safe.

Lastly, enmeshed parents are frequently and inappropriately intrusive. This can occur on a physical as well as a psychological level. Not respecting the need for body modesty or entering a teen’s room without knocking is disrespectful. It gives kids the message that they do not exist as a separate physical entity.

There are a number of excellent videos on YouTube on the work of Salvador Minuchin. A wonderful essay about him and his work is available online at Psychotherapy Networker, called Maestro in Consulting Room. This is also a great link for wonderful information: Why Stage Parents Push Their Kids.


Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.