Why Enmeshed Families Are Too Close

Multi generation family on window seat using smartphone to take selfie
Tim Macpherson / Getty Images

Having a close-knit family is something most people aspire to. They want to build strong family bonds as their kids are growing up so that they not only enjoy spending time together, but also support one another through tough challenges. But there is such a thing as being too close. When this happens, it is often referred to as enmeshment.

What Is Enmeshment?

Families who are enmeshed usually have personal boundaries that are unclear and permeable. When boundaries are blurred or not clearly defined, it becomes difficult for each family member to develop a healthy level of independence and autonomy.

What's more, enmeshment goes beyond the bonds of a close family. Enmeshment often involves a level of control where parents attempt to know and control their children's thoughts and feelings. They also may rely too heavily on the children for emotional support and may even try to live their lives through their kids' activities and achievements.

When enmeshment occurs in families, it's hard for people to develop a sense of self, engage in peer relationships, and regulate their emotions.

Signs and Symptoms of Enmeshment

When a family is enmeshed, there is an expectation that the children will develop and adhere to the same belief systems as their parents. There also is pressure on the children to follow parental expectations such as the career path laid out by the parents as well as an expectation that the family unit will be the center of their world.

Children from enmeshed families are discouraged from having a life outside of the family. They face pressure to remain physically close to home and are not encouraged to pursue their own interests. For instance, they might be expected to put the needs of the family before anything else, including their college and career aspirations.

If they do decide to pursue a life apart from the family, they are often met with extreme resistance. The other family members may try to manipulate them and make them feel guilty for stepping outside the family expectations. They may even be cut off financially for trying to separate from the family.

Those in enmeshed families are expected to look inside the family for satisfaction and support rather than turning to the larger world. This habit may stunt their growth as individuals because they often don't learn collaboration or conflict resolution.

Likewise, children from enmeshed families may feel like they have to take care of their parents emotionally. And, they often feel guilty if they put their own needs first. Other signs of enmeshment include:

  • A lack of privacy between the parents and children
  • Expectations that children to be best friends with the parents
  • Parents confiding in the children or expecting the kids to provide emotional support
  • Parents telling one of the kids that they are the favorite child
  • Children receiving special attention for maintaining or going along with enmeshment
  • Parents being overly involved in the child's life

Closeness vs. Enmeshment

Of course, there are many benefits to being a close family. In fact, research has shown that family cohesion reduces stress from outside sources and improves the overall health of family members. Hispanic families, for example, are traditionally close, and according to research, that closeness may contribute to the longer lifespans that Hispanic Americans enjoy.

In healthy family relationships, however, closeness does not mean sacrificing identity or self-esteem for the sake of the family as seen with enmeshment. This cohesiveness is marked by support for one another, warmth, and intimacy without compromising one another's emotional well-being.

Healthy families also enjoy spending time together, but in doing so, they still respect the other family members' need for privacy and independence. They freely allow one another to have a life and relationships outside of the family and enjoy coming together individually or as a group when they can.

For most healthy families, the goal is to be in touch without being demanding or intrusive.

Close families also support one another as they pursue their dreams and their goals, and are there for each other when times get tough. But they don't use this family closeness as a weapon or a tool to get what they want. They respect and love one another unconditionally.

Effects of Enmeshment

When families are too close, the family relationships have displaced other normal relationships. Consequently, it's difficult for the family members to distinguish where one family member ends and another begins so much so that they often report being able to "feel" one another's emotions.

People who grow up in enmeshed families often struggle to develop a sense of identity and may suffer from low self-esteem. They also may avoid taking healthy risks and may be reluctant to try new things.

Many people living in an enmeshed family struggle with feeling controlled, which may cause them to either lash out or completely withdraw.

Enmeshed families also are deeply impacted by the decisions of the other family members. For instance, a decision by a family member to take a job in a distant city can cause great consternation as the belief may be that the family is being betrayed and abandoned. In a healthy family, this decision may cause sadness, but it's not seen as a betrayal of family.

In an enmeshed family, members are made to feel guilty if they don't visit enough, call enough, or if they miss family events. By contrast, in a healthy family, such members may receive some complaints or some teasing, but they are not made to feel guilty.

Another type of dysfunctional behavior that is observed in enmeshed families is that alliances within the family are constantly being formed, broken, and re-formed, mostly because family members are expected to choose sides on every issue.

Consequently, people who grow up in enmeshed families often have a hard time developing healthy relationships with others. For instance, they may be overly guarded in relationships with others because they fear that opening up and sharing their lives with another person will be draining.

Or, they may seek out partners where they are thrust into the caretaker role, repeating what they know. This also can increase their risk of getting involved in emotionally abusive and physically abusive relationships.

How to Heal From Enmeshment

People who have grown up in an enmeshed family may benefit from getting counseling, especially because it can help them understand how enmeshment has impacted them. Therapy also can provide insight into how different patterns of unhealthy behavior are being repeated in other relationships so they can be changed or modified.

If you feel trapped in an enmeshed family, a therapist can help you learn how to navigate those relationships in a healthier way.

For instance, a therapist may work with you to set boundaries with family members and find healthier ways of communicating with them. They may also work with you on building independence, breaking unhealthy habits, and improving self-esteem.

Finally, if you grew up in an enmeshed family, you need to recognize that it's common for you to ignore your own wants, needs, and emotions. You may even question your memories. But through counseling, you can begin to sort through your thoughts and feelings, make your needs a priority, and begin to heal.

How to Prevent Enmeshment

If you grew up in an enmeshed family, it can be very easy to resort to old thoughts and feelings when raising your own children. You can avoid this trap by being aware of what enmeshment is and trying to break your old habits and thought patterns. You also may benefit from engaging in consistent counseling.

It's important that you develop a sense of self and allow your kids to do the same.

Encourage your child's independence and autonomy as they get older, and promote the need for relationships outside of the family. And if you struggle with them not making the family the center of their world, ask your counselor for help working through your feelings.

While having a history of enmeshment may cause you to struggle with allowing your kids to have some independence and the freedom to be who they are, it is healthier for everyone involved. To help you feel more balanced in your relationship with them, be sure you have hobbies and interests outside of your kids' interests and that you work hard to create an identity that is unique to you and not based on your family.

A Word From Verywell

Although the roles and habits of enmeshed families can be hard to break, it's still possible to effect change. If you're recovering from enmeshment and don't want to repeat it with your children, find a counselor to help you change your mindset and your habits.

It will take some work, but it can be done. And in the end, you will be able to build a family where you not only support one another but also love one another unconditionally even when you don't agree.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Senguttuvan U, Whiteman SD, Jensen AC. Family relationships and adolescents' health attitudes and weight: The understudied role of sibling relationships. Fam Relat. 2014;63(3):384-396. doi:10.1111%2Ffare.12073

  2. Lariscy JT, Nau C, Firebaugh G, Hummer RA. Hispanic-White differences in lifespan variability in the United StatesDemography. 2016;53(1):215‐239. doi:10.1007/s13524-015-0450-x

  3. Coe JL, Davies PT, Sturge-Apple ML. Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children's externalizing problems. J Fam Psychol. 2018;32(3):289-298. doi:10.1037/fam0000346

By Susan Adcox
Susan Adcox is a writer covering grandparenting and author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.