Childhood emotional trauma differs based on the severity, whether neglect or overprotection. With negligence, a caregiver fails to acknowledge the child’s emotional needs. This can mean not giving the child enough attention, love, and discipline.
With overprotection, a caregiver tries to fill in the child’s emotional needs. Overprotection often happens when the mother and father cannot support or connect with the child. The parent then overprotects the child out of fear that something terrible will happen if they don’t.
When you think of emotional trauma, neglect comes to mind. But the opposite can also cause trauma. This is what we call ‘enmeshment trauma.’ This article can help you break the enmeshment cycle by encouraging you and your loved ones to be more independent, set better boundaries, and change unhealthy communication patterns.
It will show you how to preserve closeness while respecting your own needs, allowing you to stay connected while avoiding feelings of guilt and resentment. A healthier relationship will continue once these negative feelings have been exchanged for happiness, forgiveness, understanding, and love.
What Is Enmeshment Trauma?
As the name suggests, enmeshment is a psychological condition where boundaries are blurred or absent. It can be defined as excessive emotional dependence on another person. When two people are entangled, they are so fused that they cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. They often have no idea who they are, what they want or their opinions.
One child might become an enmeshed parent who fuses with their children within a family. This can set the stage for a cycle of enmeshment in which children become enmeshed parents themselves, perpetuating a pattern of unhealthy family relationships.
The main sign of enmeshment trauma is fusion with the perpetrator — emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Because of this fusion, survivors feel they cannot leave the perpetrator’s sphere of influence even if there is a physical distance between them. It feels almost as if being far away from the perpetrator is physically unbearable because part of them always remains with the perpetrator.
When a parent asks for too much emotional support from their child, it can lead to enmeshment trauma. For example, a parent may call their child out of the blue, asking them to listen to their life problems. The child is put into a position in which they might feel responsible for the parent’s issues and think they have no choice but to listen, regardless of what else they might be doing. As the growing teen absorbs his “parent’s” feelings, he has no time or energy to focus on his growth and development.
Characteristics of Enmeshed Families
The following dynamics characterize enmeshed families:
- Chronic emotional over-involvement with one another
- A lack of personal boundaries when it comes to physical and emotional space
- An inability to tolerate conflict or differing opinions within the family system
- Defined roles for each member of the family that become rigid over time
- There is a lack of a unique identity for each family member; everyone tends to look alike, think alike, talk alike, etc.,
What Are the Signs of Enmeshment Trauma?
Enmeshment is a dynamic in the family system or any close relationship with little or no psychological boundaries between individuals. In extreme cases, this can be considered pathological and abusive. It can happen in parent/child, romantic, and platonic (friendship) relationships. It is different from healthy interdependence because enmeshment involves losing sight of your needs, wants, and feelings and instead identifying with the other person.
Here’s an example: A child begins to pick up on his parent’s moods and thoughts and starts to act out what he perceives. The parent may then interpret the child’s actions as his own, reacting accordingly to the child’s behavior rather than his response to a situation. This creates a cycle of miscommunication and confusion for the child who is still learning to define himself independently from his parents.
The enmeshed parent may also be very intrusive in his children’s lives and try to control them and other family members (i.e., no one can make plans without consulting him). He may also be unable to tolerate being alone, claiming he always needs his spouse or children with him. An enmeshed father might even be jealous when his wife spends time away from him.
Because the trauma is rooted in the absence of healthy boundaries, it can be challenging to recognize as a problem. It often feels natural to those who suffer from it, significantly if they were raised this way and have never been exposed to healthier forms of relating. Below are some signs to help you identify it:
- Lack of boundaries between parent and child
- The inability to separate from one another
- The inability to recognize emotional or physical boundaries
- Trouble focusing on schoolwork, friendships, or other activities outside of the family unit
- An extreme fear of abandonment
- Failure to make decisions on your own or without direction from others
- Difficulty with independence or setting healthy boundaries
- Relying on others for validation about own thoughts, feelings, and decisions
- Feeling responsible for their behavior and feelings
- Tendency to share everything (including details about sex, finances, etc.)
What Are the Causes of Enmeshment Trauma?
The causes of enmeshment trauma can be hard to pin down. Some people think it is caused by social or cultural problems, while others may believe it is genetic or biological. The most common cause is a child’s experience with a parent. It can also be caused by relationships with other family members, caregivers, friends, and peers.
A child who has been abused or neglected by their parents is at risk of developing the symptoms of enmeshment trauma. These children often feel unloved, unwanted, and worthless. They are more likely to develop low self-esteem and poor self-image as adults. Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, and anger issues.
The effects of trauma tend to last into adulthood. If you were abused as a child, you might have trouble trusting others or forming close relationships with people outside your family. You may feel like no one else loves you or cares about your needs because they don’t seem important enough to anyone else either! This can lead to feelings of isolation from society, making it difficult for someone experiencing these emotions to integrate socially into everyday life outside their home environment (i.e., at work/school).
It is generally caused by dysfunction and abuse within the family system. This can include:
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Irresponsible family members
- An overly controlling parent
- An emotionally unavailable parent
- One or both parents who cannot express affection to their children
When it comes to a child and parent relationship, the following are some common known causes:
- Parental alcoholism or addiction
The child is placed in the role of “parent” to hide the adult’s drug or alcohol problem from family and friends.
- Parental illness
If a parent is chronically ill, the child may feel they have to take on caretaker responsibilities beyond their age and development level.
- Abandonment by a parent
A lack of engagement by one or both parents can cause a child to become overly attached to another caregiver.
- Parental mental illness
Mental illness can cause unpredictable mood swings in a parent, making a child feel like they must take on extreme caregiving responsibilities. If the parent experienced a traumatic event in the past, it could also cause enmeshment trauma for their child. For example, the parent may have been abused as a child and is now struggling to set healthy boundaries with their children.
- Disengaged parenting style
If one or both parents are absent due to work demands, addiction, affairs, etc., a child may become entangled with another caregiver who becomes their primary attachment figure.
- Poor communication skills
A parent who was never taught how to communicate effectively may struggle to express themselves clearly and respectfully to their children.
- Overly rigid family roles
For example, in some families, parents may regard their children as the parents’ only friends and impose strict rules on them to prevent them from having their own social lives.
How Does Enmeshment Trauma Impact?
Usually, enmeshment trauma occurs between a parent and a child, but it can also occur between spouses or other family members. It is psychologically damaging to both parties. The adult cannot live up to their child’s expectations and may have difficulty seeing themselves separate from their child. They may struggle with abandonment issues and become depressed if their child moves away, gets married, or otherwise leaves the nest and begins living independently.
The child in question may have difficulty forming healthy relationships later in life because they have not learned how to set boundaries in relationships. They may also struggle with seeing themselves as separate from their parent, leading to identity issues.
The impact is similar to that of any other complex trauma. It can include:
- Chaotic or dysfunctional relationships as an adult
- Difficulty recognizing personal boundaries
- Trouble setting healthy personal boundaries with others
- Anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles
- Compulsive or addictive behaviors
- Poor anger management skills
- Dissociation or depersonalization
- Feelings of numbness
The effects of enmeshment trauma can vary depending on the severity and duration of the experience. It’s crucial for children who experience the trauma to seek help for their experiences as early as possible so that it doesn’t impact them throughout adulthood.
How to Heal From Enmeshment Trauma?
Healing from enmeshment requires understanding the trauma and learning to be with yourself. It can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Some of the most important steps include:
- Practice self-care.
Self-care means having boundaries about what you’re willing to do for other people and what you’re not ready to do for them. It means protecting yourself from emotional vampires and other toxic people. But it also means being kinder to yourself, which many people who grew up in an enmeshed family struggle with.
- Spend time in nature.
Nature has been proven to help people with trauma, including enmeshment. You can walk outside, go camping, or do anything else that gets you out of your house and into the natural world.
- Learn how to protect yourself from emotional vampires.
Enmeshed relationships are based on giving too much and taking too little. Emotional vampires take more than they give, so learning to protect yourself from them is essential to recovery.
- Set healthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries allow you to distinguish between your thoughts/feelings and those of others. When you have healthy boundaries, you can comfortably separate yourself from others without feeling guilty or afraid. You will be clear about your feelings and needs instead of keeping harmony at all costs. You will feel much safer around people because you know where you begin and end versus where others begin and end.
The frightening notion of enmeshment is that we are so connected to one another that it hinders our identities as individuals and destroys our boundaries. Anyone who felt the lack of a true family bond growing up might suffer from this, making them unable to build a good sense of self.
Worse, they may become codependent or toxic as adults if they can’t separate themselves or find someone to nurture them healthily. Therapy must address their childhood wounds and develop solid boundaries for these individuals.
Creating boundaries is another way to lessen the negative feelings accompanying enmeshment trauma. Listen to your needs, do not spend every minute of every day together, and maintain a healthy interpersonal distance.
- Kivisto, K. L., Welsh, D. P., Darling, N., & Culpepper, C. L. (2015). Family enmeshment, adolescent emotional dysregulation, and the moderating role of gender. Journal of Family Psychology, 29(4), 604–613. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000118.