Family is often considered the cornerstone of our lives, a source of support, love, and understanding. However, not all families function in healthy ways. In some families, dysfunction is deeply ingrained, leading to enmeshed family dynamics. These patterns can be passed down through generations, culturally, or through traumatic experiences.
Family enmeshment often involves intricate patterns of unhealthy roles that family members unconsciously adopt to maintain a reputation and safeguard internal struggles, but these roles can become detrimental to one’s emotional well-being and the family unit. It's not uncommon for families of divorce to have a lack of boundaries, as the high-conflict co-parent has deemed their beliefs as the collective truth the family must adapt to. Family members who choose to no longer adapt, like yourself or the kids, will often feel the wrath of their psychological and emotional abuse when they choose to rebel against the high-conflict co-parent beliefs and unspoken rules.
These beliefs tend to impact the children into their adulthood, and parents may find it difficult when their children distance themselves from home or desire to spend less time with them. The children who decide to break free from the family norms and values can experience manipulation, trauma, guilt, shame, or emotional abuse from the high-conflict co-parent. They may feel like they can’t be independent or make life decisions without lying or limiting contact with those who try to control them.
Children who feel like they don't have a voice in an enmeshed family often pick up maladaptive coping strategies such as people-pleasing, lying, blaming, avoiding accountability, or numbing through substances as they reach their teenage years. They form these defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the pain of not being able to safely express their feelings.
Signs of Family Enmeshment:
Poor boundaries between family members
Co-Parent may depend on the children for emotional comfort
Co-Parent may exhibit power struggles over their children and play favoritism
Children don’t feel respected or seen for their individuality
Children aren’t treated fairly
Poor communication skills for conflict resolution
Children are praised for maintaining the status quo and reputation of Co-Parent
Co-Parent will split the children for parenting time
High-Conflict Co-Parent will make the compassionate Co-Parent the scapegoat to the children
Recognizing Roles In the Enmeshed Families:
1. The Hero
The hero is the responsible, high-achieving family member. They strive to excel academically, in their career, or other areas, often at the expense of their own needs. Their purpose is to maintain the family's reputation, and they may become the peacemaker in conflicts, yet create power struggles or triangulate. However, this can lead to the suppression of their own emotions and desires.
2. The Scapegoat
The scapegoat consistently shoulders blame for the family's issues and becomes the identified patient. They are criticized, shamed, and made to feel responsible for the family's dysfunction. This role serves as a distraction from deeper family internal problems, allowing others to avoid addressing their issues or taking responsibility.
3. The Golden Child
The golden child is the favored family member who receives excessive praise, attention, and high expectations. They are pressured to excel and meet the family's demands, sometimes neglecting their own needs and desires in the process. They can come across as entitled and use stonewalling to control family members.
4. The Lost Child
The lost child is often quiet, withdrawn, and overlooked within the family. They attempt to stay out of conflicts and may feel invisible. While this role provides relief from family chaos, it can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. They can turn to external vices to cope with their emotions and fears.
5. The Martyr
The martyr sacrifices their own needs and desires to cater to others. They may seek approval and validation through self-sacrifice, often appearing selfless. However, this role can result in resentment and burnout as they don’t know how to say “No.”
6. The Peacemaker
The peacemaker strives to mediate conflicts and maintain family harmony at all costs. They may experience stress and feel responsible for the family's emotional well-being. They will go to great lengths to rescue whoever's having a difficult time by neglecting their own needs.
7. The Caregiver/Parentified Child
The caregiver or parentified child takes on adult responsibilities from a young age, often caring for younger siblings or even their own parents. This role can lead to a lack of a normal childhood and difficulties in forming peer relationships, as they may take on family chores, financial responsibilities, emotional support, and experience role reversal.
8. The Black Sheep
The black sheep does not conform to the family's norms and values. They may have a different lifestyle, beliefs, or choices that distance them from the family. Their differences are often used as a way for the family to avoid addressing their own issues.
Breaking Free and Fostering Change
From a co-parenting perspective, it's vital to recognize that family members can shift between these roles, and not all families display all of these dynamics. Enmeshed family dynamics often involve blurred boundaries, a lack of emotional autonomy, and a reluctance to address underlying internal issues, such as unresolved emotional wounds. The high-conflict co-parent may continue to alternate favoritism among the children if one or more children show a preference for the other parent over them. One minute a child may be viewed as the golden child and the next they are rejected and seen as the scapegoat. This will weigh heavily on the child's self-esteem.
To break free from these roles and nurture healthier family dynamics in your home, usually requires mutual respect and open communication among family members. The better understanding you have of the dynamics and how they contribute to conflict or dysfunction, the easier it will be to help your children feel heard and understood. Developing their inner voice when it has been denied for so long, and yours as well, takes rebuilding the family dynamics and household with clear boundaries.
Dealing with enmeshed family dynamics can be particularly challenging in a co-parenting situation, but awareness and guidance can lead to positive transformation. Identifying these roles within your family dynamics is a significant stride towards breaking free from detrimental patterns and cultivating meaningful relationships with your children. It's important to remember that seeking help and working together is never too late to build a more functional family dynamic based on mutual respect and support.
Looking to rebuild trust with your children and develop a healthier dynamic? Click here to sign up for a discovery call.