Family enmeshment: What it is and how to heal
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 09/29/2023
What is family enmeshment?
Family enmeshment is when family members become overly involved in each other’s lives and have a hard time setting boundaries. It’s often driven by a desire to maintain close relationships, but it can have negative consequences.
Imagine that you and your family members are each represented by a strand of yarn. In an enmeshed family, all the strands are tangled up together. Because everyone’s lives are so intertwined, individual needs and identities can get lost.
Closeness vs. enmeshment
The difference between an enmeshed family and a close-knit family lies in how they handle boundaries and individuality.
When families are close, members have strong bonds and care for each other, but they also respect each other’s personal space and independence. They encourage each other to grow as individuals and make their own choices without feeling pressured or guilty.
When families are enmeshed, the boundaries between family members become blurry. They may be so involved in each other’s lives that it’s hard for individuals to make their own decisions and separate out their own thoughts and feelings. They may feel obligated to do things to please their family, even if it’s not what they truly want.
Are enmeshed family members codependent?
Enmeshment and codependency are related, and both can happen in families as well as other kinds of relationships, but they’re not exactly the same.
Enmeshment happens when two or more people are so deeply involved in each other’s lives, relationships, and decision-making that their autonomy and mental health are compromised. In a codependent relationship (such as a romantic couple, friends, or a parent and child), one member relies too much on the other for emotional support, validation, or a sense of identity.
Members of an enmeshed family may show signs of codependency, but that doesn’t mean they’re always codependent. The degree can vary among family members, and people may display different levels of codependency in different relationships.
Enmeshment in different cultures
Familial values, norms, and dynamics can vary widely, both within and between cultures. In cultures or communities that emphasize autonomy and independence, boundaries between family members are often expected to be more defined. But in other cultures, enmeshment may be a more common and valued means of maintaining strong family bonds.
Cultural factors can affect not just a family’s dynamics, but children’s experiences with those dynamics. In communities that place a strong emphasis on intergenerational responsibility, children may be expected to prioritize the needs and wishes of their parents and extended family, and this doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact.
One study of South Korean immigrant families in the United States, for example, found that enmeshment benefited children’s emotional well-being, especially when the families were less adapted to American culture.1 In another study of European American and African American families, African American children who took on adult responsibilities by providing emotional and practical support—called “parentification”—didn’t experience negative outcomes in terms of their psychological well-being, while European American children did.2
Signs of an enmeshed family system
In an enmeshed family, love and support can come with high levels of intrusiveness.3 Signs of enmeshment vary depending on the people involved, and not all families with enmeshment exhibit the same behaviors. That said, there are some common signs.
Signs in adults
When parents, caregivers, and other adult members of enmeshed families (including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on) have difficulty setting boundaries with their own children or other children they’re related to, they may:
- Be overly protective and shield children from challenges
- Micromanage children’s lives and make their decisions for them
- Guilt-trip children to get them to do what the adult wants
- Invade children’s privacy by going through their belongings and/or monitoring their activities
- Rely heavily on children for emotional support and validation
- Want to be their child’s “best friend”
- Refuse to accept that children are growing up and becoming independent
- Enforce family unity over individual pursuits or outside relationships
- Avoid family conflicts to keep the peace or out of fear of negative consequences
Signs in children
Children in enmeshed families may become extra sensitive to their parents’ or other family members’ emotions and needs.4 They may also:
- Have trouble making decisions
- Struggle to become independent as adults
- Not develop their own interests and values separate from their family’s preferences
- Feel like it’s their job to keep their family happy
- Have difficulty making or keeping friends because their emotional needs are mainly met within the family
- Avoid stating their own needs to avoid upsetting family members
- Express strong emotions, especially during family conflicts or crises
- Reverse roles and end up taking care of their parents emotionally or financially
If some of these signs feel familiar, and you’d like support in understanding or processing your own experience of family enmeshment, visit our directory to find a therapist near you.
Why do families become enmeshed?
Enmeshment in adults can stem from their own history of being raised in an enmeshed family. People with an anxious attachment style are more likely to be part of an enmeshed family and contribute to the enmeshment dynamic.5 They may have grown up with inconsistent or unpredictable caregiving, which led them to seek out excessive closeness and validation from their family members.
One study suggests that mothers who struggle with their sense of self, lack healthy adult companionship, experience emotional instability, and show symptoms of mood disorders (such as depression) are more likely to be enmeshed with their children.6
Other contributors to enmeshment include external factors, such as traumatic events and cultural expectations. During times of crisis, family members are more likely to turn to each other for emotional support and security, which is often healthy—but in some cases can lead to blurred boundaries and codependency. Cultural expectations may also weigh on family members, who might feel obligated to prioritize household harmony over personal growth.
The impact of enmeshment
Enmeshment can have some positive effects. Children raised in enmeshed families may feel a strong sense of loyalty, belonging, and emotional support. They may also develop a strong interpersonal connection with their parents and extended family members.
However, the negative effects of enmeshment can be serious. Children from enmeshed families in some cultures may have difficulty making their own decisions, asserting their own needs and desires, and forming healthy relationships outside their family.
For parents, constantly striving to maintain control and closeness with their children may lead to high levels of stress and burnout. They may struggle to maintain their own identities separate from being a caregiver, a best friend to their child, or an emotional support system. This can put a strain on their relationships with extended family, friends, and romantic partners in the long run.
Since there’s such a strong focus on maintaining harmony and closeness in enmeshed families, both children and parents may have a tough time dealing with conflicts, which can lead to unresolved issues that simmer beneath the surface. Not having the chance to develop healthy conflict resolution skills can hinder personal growth and prevent open communication. Overall, higher levels of enmeshment have been associated with greater family stress and dissatisfaction.7
Enmeshment trauma can happen when a child is so involved in a parent’s emotional life and relationships that it harms the child’s well-being and affects their ability to set boundaries in adulthood.
Adults who’ve experienced enmeshment trauma may struggle with depression, anxiety, and patterns of unhealthy or emotionally unrewarding relationships.8 This type of trauma can leave people feeling unable to separate their own emotions and needs from those of others.
Healing from the negative effects of family enmeshment
Breaking free from enmeshment can be difficult because people generally don’t realize that the closeness they have with one or multiple family members is causing problems in their adult lives. They may understand that something feels off, but it often takes help from a therapist or counselor to detect that their issues are tied to unhealthy family dynamics.9
Once a person becomes aware of enmeshment and the impact it has on their life, healing can begin. This requires challenging long-held and deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves and the relationships they have within their family.
Types of therapy that can be helpful for healing from enmeshment include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people identify and change negative and behaviors associated with enmeshment
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which helps people regulate their emotions and develop skills to improve their relationships
- Family therapy, which helps family members improve communication, set boundaries, and address dysfunctional patterns
- Attachment-based therapy, which helps people develop healthier attachment styles and learn to establish secure and appropriate boundaries
- Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), which draws from attachment theory and family systems therapy to help people restructure their emotional responses and strengthen their relationships
- Group therapy, which provides a supportive environment for people to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences
In addition to therapy, there are practices you can try on your own to build a sense of individual identity as you process your experience of enmeshment. This may involve:
- Taking time to reflect on your values and beliefs
- Exploring personal interests, hobbies, and passions
- Being open to trying new things
- Connecting with others who share similar interests
- Reflecting on your thoughts and emotions
- Practicing self-compassion
You don’t have to power through healing by yourself—help is available. Browse our directory to connect with a therapist who can support you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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