Barber and Buehler (1996) defined enmeshment as “family patterns that facilitate psychological and emotional fusion among family members, potentially inhibiting the individu-ation process and the development and maintenance of psychosocial maturity” (p. 433). Barber and Buehler contended, further, that enmeshment is a culprit in chil-dren’s stifled development of skills to deal adequately with common social stressors. Enmeshed families are character-ized by levels of emotional closeness that are often seen as constraining. These families use manipulation, usually in the form of overly excessive, but superficial expressions of love and unity to demand loyalty from their members. Conflicts are blanketed under the guise of solidarity and great effort is expended in maintaining the status quo. Members of enmeshed families typically describe their families as conflict free, while at the same time, these very units are characterized by high demands for conformity (Barbarin & Tirado, 1985; Williams & Hiebert, 2001). Enmeshed families depend on each other excessively. Paradoxically, members of these families tend to have a limited sense of their own identity, and therefore make deci-sions based on emotions, and as a reaction to the perceived wishes of other members of

Continue reading “Enmeshment”

The wounds of enmeshment for the child

Dr. Pat Love wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When A Parent’s Love Rules Your Life. She describes the cost to the child, “If the parent represses the girl’s (or boy’s) anger not just once but over and over again, a deeper injury occurs: the girl will eventually dismantle her anger response. Ultimately, it’s safer for her to cut off a part of her being than to battle the person on whom her life depends.”

There’s the setup for perfectionism and depression. You begin to feel that your life should be devoted to the well-being of that parent. And you better be really good at it—or something bad could happen.

Dr. Love’s point? In order to emotionally survive, you cut off the anger as you feel more and more pressured to meet the expectations of the parent on whom you depend—at least as a child. And even shame yourself for any feelings of resentment that might try to seep into your awareness. 


The Trauma of Enmeshed Families

A serious illness, natural disaster, or sudden loss may cause a family to become unusually close in an attempt to protect themselves. When this pattern persists well beyond the initial traumaenmeshment loses its protective value and can undermine each family member’s personal autonomy.

Dysfunctional Excess of Relationships within the Family: Overinvolved or Enmeshed Families

Overinvolvement of parents with their children can create serious difficulties for all family members. The most extreme example of such overinvolvement is termed enmeshment; this is a situation in which the ego boundaries among individuals are so poorly defined that they cannot separate or individuate from one another without experiencing tremendous anxiety, anger, or other forms of emotional distress. The preconditions for overinvolvement include intergenerational patterns of overinvolvement, insufficient separation and individuation of parents from their own parents, parental disharmony, situational or developmental crises, perhaps temperamental predisposition, and other related factors. The primary characteristic of these families is the extreme emotional closeness that exists between parents and children. Although this may be a normative aspect of parenting during infancy, as the child begins to separate from the parents, they usually respond by “pulling back” emotionally and allowing the child to become a separate individual. If parents feel threatened by the child’s move toward autonomy, they may undermine this process by focusing all their attention on the child, conveying to him or her the message that it is not all right to be a separate individual.

In some cases, the parents may continue to perform functions long past the age when the child is capable of self-care, such as feeding or dressing. In other situations, the child may withdraw from facing normal developmental tasks (e.g., going to school, sleeping over at friends’ homes) and may exhibit overt signs of separation anxiety. As with other forms of dysfunction, this ranges from minimal to severe.

Children whose parents are overinvolved also do not experience and learn normal family roles. Anxiety about normal developmental tasks and preoccupation with their parents’ emotional well-being leads some children to avoid developing friendships or to resist going to school. In the most severe cases, children can present with anxiety disorders, depression, and somatization disorders.

The physician’s approach to overinvolved or enmeshed families is outlined in the section on overprotective families. The most important function the physician can perform is to challenge firmly the parents to invest their emotional energy in areas other than their children. Emphasizing that the children need to separate from them to become healthy, independent, and self-reliant adults can help parents to relax their grip and to allow their children some emotional freedom. If discussion of these issues fails to result in change, the family should be referred for psychotherapy. Continue reading “Dysfunctional Excess of Relationships within the Family: Overinvolved or Enmeshed Families”

Parental Alienation And Enmeshment Issues

Stahl (1999) reports that the children who are most susceptible to alienation are the more passive and dependent children, or the children who feel a strong need to psychologically care for the alienating parent. The child and alienating parent share a sense of moral outrage and there is a fusion of feelings between them. While noting that there is a plethora of research studies in this area, Stahl suggests that the clinical descriptions which have found their way into the professional and legal literature offer some useful guidelines for consideration in custody decisions. Long-term effects of alienation left unchecked may lead to various pathological symptoms, which include but are not limited to:

  • splitting in their relationships
  • difficulties in forming intimate relationships
  • a lack of ability to tolerate anger or hostility in relationships
  • psychosomatic symptoms and sleep or eating disorders
  • psychological vulnerability and dependency
  • conflicts with authority figures
  • and, an unhealthy sense of entitlement for one’s rage that leads to social alienation in general.

It is also important to understand something of the family process of enmeshment. While the literature does not often incorporate discussion of this topic into descriptions of parental alienation, it would appear that enmeshment and overidentification of the child or children with one parent may significantly contribute to the level and intensity of observed alienation processes. The term enmeshment has been widely used in the family therapy literature since it was popularized by the work of Salvador Minuchin (1978). Describing psychosomatic families, Minuchin and his colleagues outlined the impact of four disruptive family dynamics: enmeshment, overprotectiveness, rigidity, and lack of conflict resolution methods. The offspring in these families included anorexic girls who were so caught up in the family pathology that they were unable to differentiate themselves and were locked into an illness that reflected the family disorder. They were trapped in rigid roles with their other family members and they were treated in such an overprotective manner so as to make a virtual moat around the family system which blocked out the outside world. Attempts to penetrate these protective walls were rebuffed, leaving no opportunity for corrective feedback, new learnings, or breaking the suffocating mold that held the members captive.

Enmeshment refers to an extreme form of proximity and intensity in family interactions…In a highly enmeshed, overinvolved family, changes within one family member or in the relationship between two family members reverberate throughout the system…On an individual level, interpersonal differentiation in an enmeshed system is poor…in enmeshed families the individual gets lost in the system. The boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped (Minuchin, et al, 1978, p.30).”

Minuchin described the lack of clear ego boundaries between family members which produced a form of fusion, a condition that interfered with a clear sense of self as apart from the family while still being a part of the family. Taken with the family failure to have suitable means for conflict resolution, Minuchin traced how the family system contributed to the production of psychopathology in the members and how it was unable to move forward to more healthy and adaptive roles. From this seminal work, a large body of literature has emerged which has been most influential in the family therapy world. As with parental alienation described above, varying levels and degrees of enmeshment may occur, ranging from mild and isolated elements of enmeshment to more pathological and pervasive features. In divorcing families, the impact of enmeshment can become more pronounced as the normal balancing influence of the other parent is gradually diminished. Much like parental alienation, the phenomenon of enmeshment may be found in varying degrees of intensity, with corresponding degrees of negative impact on child development. Continue reading “Parental Alienation And Enmeshment Issues”

Signs of Covert Incest

1. Taking a Child on “Dates”

Adams told The Mighty he’s had patients describe going on “dates” with their parent to see age-inappropriate movies or go to romantic dinners. Though it’s completely natural for a child to see a movie or go to dinner with a parent from time to time, these scenarios can cross into covert incest if, for example, a mother tells her son multiple times during dinner that she has the most handsome date there, or she insists on watching a romantic movie with adult content while holding her son’s hand the entire time.

2. Calling the Child Inappropriate Names

In covert incest, a parent might call their child inappropriate names typically only used when referring to an adult romantic partner. After a difficult divorce, a covertly incestuous father might tell his daughter something like, “Your mother left me, but you’ll always be loyal to me my sweet girlfriend, the love of my life.” Adams said other common inappropriate names may include, “boyfriend,” “husband,” “wife,” “sweet lover,” etc.

3. Engaging in Sexual Talk With a Child

A common feature in a lot of covert incest dynamics is the presence of age-inappropriate sexualized talk. For example, a covertly incestuous mother might talk to her child in great detail about her frustrating sex life with the child’s father. The child often feels unable to leave or stop the conversation due to the parent-child unequal power dynamic.

4. Commenting on a Child’s Physical Appearance or Developing Body

A covertly incestuous father might comment on his daughter’s developing body, making note of change in breast size or hips, for example. Though he doesn’t touch his daughter in a sexual way, making comments about how she has the “best body” of her friends, or that he would date her if he was her age can make the daughter feel uncomfortable and deeply insecure about her body.

What “Causes” Covert Incest?

If you read the above section wondering why a parent would engage in the behavior listed above, you’re not alone. Like many types of childhood emotional abuse, covert incest is complicated. Both Rutherford and Adams point to three primary “explanations” for why a parent might resort to covert incest to get their emotional needs met.

1. Disruption in the Marital Bond

Adams told The Mighty that one of the most common precursors to a parent’s covertly incestuous behavior is a breakdown in the marital bond — usually due to divorce or separation. He explained that when the marital bond is weak, a lonely parent might inappropriately exploit their child (who is often an endless source of adoration for the parent) for the emotional comfort they are no longer getting from their spouse.

2. Personality Issues

Personality issues like being highly emotionally dependent or “narcissistic” can contribute to covertly incestuous behavior, according to Adams.

When a parent is highly insecure, they may use the attention of their child to try to regulate their own inner emptiness or loneliness. “Narcissistic” parents may feel entitled to take what they need emotionally from their child, and may not view their actions as damaging at all. Rutherford said some parents view their child as an extension or reflection of themselves, so they may control how the child dresses, or what they say or do.

3. Generational Enmeshment or Covert Incest

A covertly incestuous parent may be replicating behavior they experienced in their own upbringing, or adopting behavior that has been passed down from generation to generation. Hearing a parent say something along the lines of, “You and I are going to be just as close as grandma and I were,” is a strong indicator of generational enmeshment.

4. The Parent Had a Distant Relationship With Their Own Family of Origin

Similar to generational enmeshment in the sense that a parent is responding to their own upbringing, a parent who had a neglectful or emotionally distant childhood may try to “overcorrect” by having a deeply intimate relationship with their own child.

“Maybe the parent had a terrible relationship with their own parent, causing them to yearn for a different kind of relationship with their child,” Rutherford told The Mighty. “[But] since they haven’t experienced what normal and healthy boundaries are, their own needs to be loved and attended to overwhelm the relationship.”

Impact of Covert Incest

Unsurprisingly, this type of childhood emotional abuse is enormously damaging to a child’s development. This is something Mighty contributor Monika Sudakov wrote about in her piece, “Covert Incest: The Type of Childhood Emotional Abuse We Don’t Talk About.” Her words may give you a better picture of what it really feels like to be trapped in covert incest as a child.

I was exposed to sex talk from a very young age. I knew all about sex by the age of 5 and was aware of every man my mom slept with, how the sex was and details thereof. As I got older, this boundary became even more blurred when it came to privacy. I was often told that she was entitled to look at me naked because I came out of her body, as if that ascribed some kind of ownership of my body to her… Even after I was married, my mother always asked about how our sex life was. Did we have “nookie nookie”? [She] seemed to live vicariously through me in an odd perverted way.

I’ve learned in therapy that all of this is not ‘normal.’ It’s not healthy. It’s destroyed my sense of self and has contributed along with my sexual abuse to my PTSD. What makes this type of abuse even harder to heal from is that it occurs within what should be the most sacred of relationships, that of parent and child. While there is still love there, there is also deep anger, regret, disgust and shame. 

Among feelings of anger and shame, common symptoms that can follow a survivor of covert incest into adulthood include:

  • Difficult or distant relationship with the other parent (i.e. the non-covertly incestuous parent)
  • Strong feelings of guilt for “leaving” or “abandoning” the covertly incestuous parent
  • Interpersonal difficulties, especially in romantic relationships
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Perpetual feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Difficulty with saying “no” and establishing healthy boundaries
  • Inappropriate behavior with their own children (generational enmeshment)
  • Identity struggles, becoming a person outside of the abusive parent

Continue reading “Signs of Covert Incest”


Enmeshment is a concept introduced by Salvador Minuchin to describe families where personal boundaries are diffuse, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development.[1] Enmeshed in parental needs, trapped in a discrepant role function,[2] a child may lose his or her capacity for self-direction;[3] his/her own distinctiveness, under the weight of psychic incest;[4] and, if family pressures increase, may end up becoming the identified patient or family scapegoat.[5] Enmeshment was also used by John Bradshaw to describe a state of cross-generational bonding within a family, whereby a child (normally of the opposite sex) becomes a surrogate spouse for their mother or father.[6]

The term is sometimes applied to engulfing codependent relationships,[7] where an unhealthy symbiosis is in existence.[8]

For the toxically enmeshed child, the adult’s carried feelings may be the only ones they know, outweighing and eclipsing their own.[9]


Clarifying boundaries, putting the generations in separate compartments,[10] and finding a better balance between involvement and separation,[11] are all useful remedies.

At the same time, it is important that the therapist avoids becoming enmeshed in the family subsystems themselves[12] – the unconscious enmeshment of helping therapist/needy client.[13]