In this blog, Clinical Therapist Mark Sobel, LCSW shares the causes and impacts of codependency and enmeshment in family relationships as well as how he works with parents to manage their own uncertainties while supporting their child’s healthy development.
Within the context of interpersonal relationships, enmeshment occurs when the boundaries between two or more people become diffuse or even non-existent. Often, those in an enmeshed relationship will feel each other’s feelings and ride the emotional rollercoaster of the other person. They become emotionally intertwined with no separation, which leaves little to no room for each person to develop a sense of autonomy or individual identity.
Codependency is a psychological concept that refers to a relationship in which each person involved is mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually reliant on the other.
Though they are two slightly different concepts, codependency and enmeshment go hand in hand. Enmeshment leads to codependency. When two people in a relationship are established in patterns of enmeshment with one another, they become emotionally codependent. The theme song for enmeshment and codependency is the same tune: “Since I feel what you feel, you are responsible for how I feel. I am only okay if you are okay.”
There is a fine line between healthy relational closeness and enmeshment/codependency. This is what makes it so difficult for people to identify when they are enmeshed with another in a codependent relationship.
Enmeshment occurs with the people we care about the most, and it is not without a deeply felt sense of connection, which we naturally want to protect and cultivate. However, with enmeshment and codependency, there is a lack of fundamental safety within the relationship. When one person’s sense of self and safety is totally dependent upon another person’s behaviors and emotional state, the foundation of the relationship becomes a house of cards.
Though codependency and enmeshment are often discussed within the context of a romantic relationship, they can be just as prevalent in relationships between family members and friends. A fundamental component of enmeshment between parents and their children is a lack of emotional boundaries. Emotional boundaries are different than rules and limits. For instance, a parent can hold clearly defined rules and expectations (curfew, responsibilities around the house, etc.) for their children, but hold unhealthy emotional boundaries (consistently going to their child for own emotional support, totally disregarding child’s privacy, etc.)
Signs of Enmeshed Relationships
For parents, there are signs and clues that indicate they are likely perpetuating an enmeshed relationship with their child. They include:
A pivotal—and exciting, liberating, fear-inducing, challenging, messy, uncomfortable—part of human development is individuation. Individuation is the process that a person goes through as they enter adolescence and subsequently adulthood, by which they explore and discover their own values, goals, and identity separate from that of their primary caregivers. This is almost never a linear process but rather a dynamic one of many joyful triumphs and painful failures. Through this process of healthy individuation, a person develops an internalized sense of self and resiliency. Essentially, they learn to know themselves so they can stand strong in their convictions and boundaries and believe in their ability to move through the world and engage in relationships as their own person.
When a child’s ability to individuate is impeded by enmeshment, unhealthy patterns are likely to manifest in future relationships with partners and friends, including:
It is worth repeating that enmeshment occurs with the people we care about most. It can be very confusing for parents to navigate and identify and originates from a variety of places.
If a parent isn’t getting their emotional needs met by their spouse or romantic partner, they might instead go to their child for this support.
Intergenerational trauma also plays a role, and a parent’s own upbringing and trauma history will influence their relational patterns.
Most often, parents inadvertently and unconsciously cultivate an enmeshed relationship with their child from a powerful desire to protect, which is rooted in tremendous love. This is especially true if there has been a significant trauma in the child’s life, such as an illness, accident, or abuse or substance use within the family system. When there is instability within the household or an unexpected threat to the child’s well-being early in life, it is often parental instinct to lean into controlling their child’s environment as much as they can, as a way to protect them from any potential harm.
I approach families navigating codependency and enmeshment from a place of compassion and curiosity. I fervently believe—and my experience of working with hundreds of parents enforces this—that all parents want their children to grow up to be strong, resilient, confident, happy adults. When a parent’s behaviors are interfering with the process of their child developing into this type of person, it is usually from a place of love and best intentions, driven by immense fear. Fear is an incredibly powerful catalyst of behaviors, and the urge to protect those we love the most can be a true force of nature.
While it might be a cliché that the first step to solving any problem is identifying and acknowledging the existence of the problem in the first place, recognizing enmeshed and codependent pattern in the parent-child relationship is indeed the first step. This is often a painful and uncomfortable process for parents to reconcile and move through. The fear and the urge to protect doesn’t just fade away, and the real discomfort parents feel when their child is uncomfortable is often still present.
The second step I take is guiding parents in developing their own skill set and ways to support themselves so they can learn to tolerate and manage their fear response so they can get off of their child’s proverbial emotional rollercoaster. It really is counterintuitive but so important. When a parent allows and even encourages their child’s healthy individuation, it can feel scary! The message it sends to the child, however, is crucial: “I want you to be okay because I love you, not because you need to be for me. I will be here to support you on your path, but it’s your path. You don’t need to be anything for me.”
Families so often come to Open Sky in a state of crisis. When circumstances at home are high risk, addressing something more complex and deep-rooted like relationship dynamics might feel like an impossible task. Open Sky provides a unique opportunity for students and families to break the patterns that were perpetuating an enmeshed relationship and begin intentionally practicing healthier patterns of communication and boundaries, all held within a highly supported and safe container.
For both students and families, community and shared experience makes them feel safe to finally confront unhealthy patterns and step into the process of trying something new. For students, they are presented with and guided through a myriad of opportunities every single day to practice healthy individuation and find their unique and authentic voice, all within the relationships of the team dynamic, supported by guides and their therapist.
For parents, they have the support of a robust Open Sky parent community, with guided experiences like Wellness Weekend and the Parent Pathway call, where they can learn new skills in a safe space of other parents who understand.
Students begin practicing healthy communication first with their peers and guides and are then supported as they implement these skills in letter writing with their parents. They are then able to take these skills and practice them on phone calls with their parents from the field, and then even more deeply on Family Quest, where the whole family can practice new patterns in person.
As a performer and self-proclaimed theater nerd, I often frame it to families like this: the letters are learning to play a new instrument, the phone call is your first rehearsal as a band, Family Quest is the first gig to see what it’s like to truly all play live, but the big show is actually life after Open Sky.
Be honest with yourself as you may uncover some hard truths. Then, be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you practice new patterns. It is hard work and requires humility and real courage.
At the risk of redundancy, I will say it again: you have to notice when you are on the rollercoaster in order to get off of it. Practice things that help you slow down enough to take notice of your own emotional response to your child’s emotional reactions and behaviors.
Do the work to be accountable to and take ownership of your own emotions. Be it making daily mindfulness practice a part of your life or seeking your own mental health support, this is so key. Taking true responsibility for one’s own emotions is not only empowering, it is also kryptonite to codependency. There is an important distinction between responsibility and blame to keep in mind here. When you can own your feelings, you model something incredibly important for your children: that while how we feel is not our fault, our feelings and how we respond to them are solely ours to hold and handle.