Enmeshment Trauma

Estimated reading time: 32 minute(s)

Enmeshment trauma is a type of emotional trauma that happens during childhood and involves a complete disregard for personal boundaries in addition to a loss of autonomy between individuals. [1] The aim of enmeshment is to build emotional control and power within a household. Children in such families feel like their needs were never met and often lack individuality and proper roles. In the long run, these overly intimate family dynamics can become traumatic for children, leading to enmeshment trauma. Learning what enmeshment is, its signs and its effects is imperative to break the cycle of abuse.

Enmeshment Trauma Symptoms

While enmeshment trauma may look different for different families, certain common signs and symptoms may exist in a trend that is easier to catch. Make a note of the behaviors mentioned below and see if they exist in your family dynamics to catch the underlying enmeshment trauma: [2]

Feeling Responsible For a Parent’s Feelings

Children from an enmeshed family dynamic can think they have more ability and influence to make things work for their family than they should. For instance, a child may become habitual in comforting a parent, providing for them by cooking or cleaning, or being available for them at all times. Parents of such children also start relying on their kids to make themselves feel valuable or worthy. Such children also feel scared to upset their parents and feel like they are always responsible for their wellbeing.

Lack of Privacy

Families with enmeshment trauma may go overboard to monitor their children and end up invading their privacy. This invasion of privacy gives parents greater control but may be unhealthy and traumatic for a child. Even if they give a reason to justify this lack of privacy, the behavior only signifies a lack of respect and privacy. Consequently, such a child may grow up believing that it is normal to invade other people’s privacy and experience anxiety when they do not have good control over others.

Pressure to Live Up to Parents’ Ideas for Personal Future

It is common for parents to have an idea and expect their children to follow when they grow up. For instance, they may wish their adult child to act, behave, and think in a way that represents them. This concept may be coming from a place where parents desire some type of validation or recognition. If they are not happy with their adult children’s choices, their discomfort comes from self-judgment and their internal discomfort.

Lack of Identity Outside Family

Sometimes, people may fear the world outside of their enmeshed family. They feel scared to form new relationships, mainly because of the manipulation they experienced during childhood and the guilt that keeps them connected to the unhealthy family dynamic. For them, the concept that “family is everything: is taken too far and is often used to convince them not to go out on their own to develop self-identity.

Complicated Interpersonal Relationships

Someone who still carries trauma from childhood enmeshment usually has no room for anyone else in life. They find it difficult to trust others and continue to get their needs fulfilled by their family members. If left untreated, these behaviors continue to get passed down, generation after generation, and the cycle continues.

Types of Family Enmeshment Trauma

Enmeshment trauma can be of different forms, such as the following:

Helicopter Parent

It is natural for parents to attempt to protect their children from any emotional or physical harm. However, experts also recommend healthy child-rearing as it teaches children to work through difficulties on their own. Helicopter parenting negates this concept and includes a very high level of control. Helicopter parents may try to justify their behaviors by mentioning that they are only concerned about their child’s safety, while in reality, it is all about control and power. Such parents often appear worried and anxious, and their behavior helps them feel more in control at the expense of their child. Such behaviors promote stunted growth, dependency, and poor coping skills in children.

Romanticized Parent

Covert incest or emotional incest is a type of parent abuse that happens when a parent approaches a child to get emotional intimacy that their adult relationship lacks. A parent may start treating their child as a best friend or a romantic partner, and while there is no sexual component in this relationship, improper exposure to sex might be there. For instance, a parent may start sharing about their personal sex life with their child or become jealous of the child’s romantic relationship. As a response, such children may start over-idealizing their relationship with a parent to protect themselves from issues in their relationships emotionally.

Favoritism & Scapegoating

Favoritism and scapegoating in a family describe differential treatment of children. A scapegoat child is blamed for all family issues, whereas the favorite child is free to go about without any responsibilities. In other words, parents may use one child to vent their frustrations and use the other one to make up for bad parenting. This leads to the creation of issues for both children, such as unrealistic self-expectations and a lack of self-esteem.

Incapacitated Parent

Providing care for the incapacitated can be emotionally and physically exhausting, especially when a family lacks alternative options for caregiving. For children growing up with a parent requires constant caregiving, and their personal needs often go unacknowledged or unnurtured. Such children continue to struggle to find their identities and set boundaries.

Family Enmeshment Trauma: What are the Consequences?

Enmeshment trauma can lead to various consequences that follow a victim into adult life. Some of these negative impacts include the following:

Afraid of Conflict

Many people with a history of enmeshment trauma are afraid of conflicts, and their common response is to avoid it or give in. They prefer suppressing their needs and pleasing others to maintain inner peace.

Difficult Relationships

Children who grow up in enmeshed families have issues forming and maintaining issues outside of their family. Friends and romantic partners of such people commonly think that their relationship with their family members is too close or intrusive. Other complications may also occur, such as a partner going out of a relationship to seek unhealthy advice from a family member more frequently. This family member may not always have the best interest in mind and may continue to have control over the advice-seeker, which may prove detrimental for the latter’s relationship.

Poor Self-Esteem

People with a history of enmeshment trauma have poor self-esteem and do not have much to offer. Moreover, they also struggle to accept any compliments and praise due to the emotional trauma they experienced during childhood. This childhood trauma makes them believe negative things about themselves and increases their emotional reliance on their enmeshed family members. Consequently, their confidence and autonomy take a hit.

Lack of Self-identity

An adult who grew up as part of an enmeshed family may struggle to separate themselves from their family members emotionally and physically. For instance, they may rely on their parents’ advice too much, or their decision-making ability may be compromised. Some people end up moving back to their parents; house as they do not feel prepared to live as adults on their own.

Emotional and Functional Consequences

The emotional and functional consequences of enmeshment trauma can follow a person into adulthood. Their lack of individuality leads to problems with dissociation, such as depersonalization (believing that their self is not real) or derealization (believing that the world around them is not real).

Trauma Bonding

The term ‘trauma bonding’ describes a relationship between the abuser and the abused. Trauma bonds keep people stuck in a cycle of abusive relationships without letting them escape. When a person becomes reliant on another, they think they need them in their lives for survival, making the bond impossible to break. The abuser or the person with control starts calling shots for them. Such trauma bonding commonly exists in enmeshed families and does not allow any healthy boundary setting. Consequently, the abused may end up losing their sense of reality.

Enmeshment Trauma Abuse: How to Heal?

Breaking away from an enmeshed family and finding your true self is easier said than done. However, healing from this potential PTSD element is possible with support and help. Some tips to keep in mind and follow in this aspect include the following:

Creating boundaries

Setting boundaries can be hard for someone who has been a victim of enmeshment trauma, as they may think of it as hurtful, immoral, or wrong. However, over-commitment is also not suitable for anyone as it creates a false perception of human capabilities and causes unnecessary pressure on a person to be available for others.

Finding yourself

Values and identity work are essential to healing from the effects of enmeshment trauma. Explore your inner self and discover what you do and do not like. Consider trying new things and re-discover yourself. There is a high possibility that you love a lot of things that were initially suppressed due to the ongoing enmeshment trauma. Express the true version of yourself slowly and steadily. The process can be difficult and may take time, but it can truly set you free.

Stop feeling guilty

People with underlying enmeshment trauma constantly feel guilt and remain in distress while making decisions for themselves. It is imperative to work through this guilt and find out where it is coming from, as it is keeping you trapped in a state of confusion.

Practice patience

It is essential to be patient with yourself as you go back to reexamine your difficult life experiences. Wishing for a quick fix is completely normal; however, exploring and debunking years-old issues will take time, sometimes weeks or months. Practice patience and keep learning new skills to manage distress as you figure out what is best for you.

Seek professional help

Childhood experiences are an essential focus during professional therapy as it is the time when everyone learns patterns of unhelpful behaviors and thoughts. People with unresolved enmeshed trauma should consider seeking help from a therapist with expertise in treating childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect. It may take some time to trust the therapist and begin working with them; however, in the long run, professional therapy can be highly beneficial


Why does family enmeshment trauma occur?

Enmeshment often occurs between a child and a parent, particularly when the needs of the latter remain unmet by another adult. For instance, in split households where parents have been divorced, they may intentionally or unintentionally start sharing their personal issues with the child to gain sympathy or shift their feelings in their favor. Regardless of whether the attempt is deliberate or not, a child may get into a complicated relationship and start acting as a third parent who has to make up for the parental neglect and care for their siblings while growing up. While it is normal for a child to go through a stage of development where they help and care for their siblings, some may develop a disregard for boundaries, known as enmeshment.

What is a common example of enmeshment in adulthood?

A common example of enmeshment is when you go out with a friend or partner for lunch and dinner. When ordering food, you end up giving in to what they want and failing to express your interests or needs.

What does it mean by an enmeshed mother?

Enmeshment describes a family relationship with a lack of boundaries; hence, people keep confusing expectations and roles. For instance, an enmeshed mother may be inappropriately reliant on her child for support or may not allow her child to become emotionally independent.


1 Coe JL, Davies PT, Sturge-Apple ML. Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems. Journal of Family Psychology. 2018 Apr;32(3):289.

2 Kivisto KL, Welsh DP, Darling N, Culpepper CL. Family enmeshment, adolescent emotional dysregulation, and the moderating role of gender. Journal of Family Psychology. 2015 Aug;29(4):604.

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