What is Enmeshment and How To Know if You Need Help

Author: Dr. Ken Huey, Ph.D.


Definition of EnmeshmentLittle girl definition enmeshment

An enmeshed relationship is one where individual boundaries are unclear and permeable. These porous boundaries manifest in one person’s over-concern for an individual, which becomes stifling to the relationship. Seen with a parent and child, the parent is over-protective and over-emotional and the child’s development as an individual is stunted as a result. An enmeshed parent will often see him/herself as the protector of the best interests of the child, even when the child might not feel a need for protection. There is a hovering quality to the relationship with the parent feeling the pains of the child as if those pains are actually the parent’s pains. Before the child even sees a need, or at the slightest sign of distress, the parent will attempt to rescue the child. Frequently the rescuing will appear overbearing and outsized compared to the issue at hand. The emotional response relative to the stimuli is not balanced.

One way to understand what enmeshment means is to understand disengagement, which is when a parent and child are completely disconnected from one another. A disengaged relationship is one where the individuals in the relationship have little knowledge of the doings and feelings of one another. They have overly firm boundaries where little to no communication is happening. In a disengaged parent-child relationship the child is likely to feel unloved, not cared about, and unimportant. In an enmeshed relationship, the child will likely feel highly stressed, anxious, and afraid. Neither of these situations are ideal. Disengagement produces dysfunction of a similar magnitude that enmeshment does.

Causes of Enmeshment

Enmeshment can happen for a variety of reasons in a parent-child relationship, but it usually stems from a time in the family’s history where the parent needed to step in to protect the child. The protective response was a correct one but the protective response outlasts its need and the parent finds him/herself continuing to protect a child who needs space more than protection. Perhaps the child experienced bullying in school so mom correctly approached school personnel and made sure it never happened again. What might happen is mom will then stay stuck in this hero position and become over-involved in the child’s life. This type of enmeshment can also be a learned behavior passed down generationally. If you have a parent who struggled with this, you likely will struggle with it with your own child.

Adoption is also positively correlated with enmeshment. Adoptive parents are often likely to have expended a great deal of energy and resource, often beyond what biological parents have experienced, to adopt their children. Most all parents are invested in being parents, but the adoption process can create some feelings of panic and over-involvement that lends itself to enmeshment. At Havenwood Academy, the vast majority of our teen girls are adopted. We understand adoption and enmeshment.

One last causative factor in enmeshment is trauma. Our adopted Havenwood girls have also suffered significant trauma. Like adoption, trauma engenders a feeling in adoptive parents that the parent needs to watch out for and protect the child. Without clear boundaries and sometimes therapeutic guidance, these protective feelings can be beginnings of enmeshed behavior.

Enmeshment and the Collusion Cycle

The Collusion Diagram and Enmeshment

At Havenwood Academy, core to our beliefs are the concepts in The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute. This book makes reference to the Collusion Cycle. The Collusion Cycle, pictured right, is a way in which we find ourselves inviting the actions and behavior in our relationships that we are trying to avoid. When our children do something we don’t approve of we often see our children as defiant and rebellious. In turn, we hand out consequences or become more strict with them. When we do, our children see us as unfair parents who don’t understand. In turn, they rebel and are even more defiant. This cycle is the Collusion Cycle. In many ways it is the definition of enmeshment. Those in the Collusion Cycle are unaware of where their boundaries begin and end. While the enmeshment we have described above is frequently a rescuing behavior, the Collusion Cycle highlights enmeshment that has anger and frustration directed at the child with whom the parent is enmeshed.

Sometimes it is hard to even recognize the Collusion Cycle when it is playing out. Let’s consider and example that might resonate with some parents. Let’s say you catch your daughter smoking pot. You see a teen who is defiant and taking unnecessary risks so you become overbearing and try to control your child’s access to friends or situations where pot might be present. What your daughter will see is a parent who is out of touch and instead of being honest about where they are, will begin lying instead. You become more over protective and she more rebellious. Remember that in enmeshment and the Collusion Cycle individual actions and emotions are matched by the others. When you become angry and upset over your daughter’s actions, she will become just as angry and upset with you.

How Can I Recognize Enmeshment When I am in the Middle?

Sometimes our protective instincts are so heightened that it’s very hard to recognize where protection ends and enmeshment begins. Perhaps you have had feedback that you are being a little too intense about your child. Perhaps you’ve even been told that you are being overprotective. Feedback like this is a very good indication that you’re enmeshed with your child. If that type of conversation has happened even a few times, take a hard look at yourself in relation to the ideas in this blog post. Consider the possibility that you are enmeshed with and need to create some distance with your daughter.

Another way to spot enmeshment is to consider a pursue/withdraw pattern in your relationship with your child. Almost all relationships have some element of one individual being a little more invested than the other. That invested person checks in more frequently and asks questions about feelings more frequently. That is a pursuing role. The other partner in this dyad may have a tendency to pull back. What is instructive is when you can see that the balance is missing in these pursue and withdraw roles. When enmeshment is at the heart of a relationship there is unbalanced and significant pursuing and withdrawing going on. The parent is constantly asking questions of the child and those who interact with the child. The pursuer wants to know every detail about what’s going on with the child. The child stonewalls and rarely speaks about feelings and events in their life unless forced. The child is trying very hard to disconnect from the parent. If you see an unbalanced pursue and withdraw relationship you are almost certainly looking at enmeshment on the part of the parent.

Do I Need Help?

This is the proverbial million dollar question. If you see yourself in an enmeshed relationship and constantly falling deeper and deeper into the Collusion Cycle, it may be time to seek additional guidance. Havenwood Academy is a residential treatment center for teenage girls. Our teens work through trauma and attachment related issues in a safe, therapeutic space where every element is designed for their healing. Sometimes a parent is inadvertently part of the trauma being inflicted on a child through their own enmeshment. Find out if Havenwood is a place for you by filling out our short Online Assessment. Our admissions team can quickly address your unique situation and let you know how Havenwood can help. If we don’t believe our program is meant for your family, we’ll help guide you to what’s next.


Think Havenwood Might Be For You?

We encourage any visitors considering placing their daughter in treatment to fill out our online assessment as soon as possible. This two minute form will give our admissions team all the information needed to determine if your daughter is a good fit for our program.