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The changing roles of parents throughout childhood

Baby animals of several species start walking, even if a bit unsteadily, right after they are born. All of us have seen those videos of spindly-legged, tiny creatures walking unsteadily while sticking close to their mothers. Human babies, on the other hand, take their first steps sometime around their first birthday. And this is just one aspect of their development. Human babies need prolonged and close supervision, care and protection as compared to other animals. Is there any surprise then, that the care of children virtually takes over the life of their parents?

Careers, rest, leisure, hobbies, and much more are set aside by parents for many years as little children are growing up. Parenting is a job like no other. The parent is on-call 24/7, the job description is undefined and one never really retires. One of the toughest aspects, though, is the change in requirements with the changing age of children.

Babies need their parents to fulfil their every need. Then ever so slowly, their capabilities increase. It is this change that throws many of us parents off our game. The child may reach an age when he does not need his parents to do certain things for him. He can make his breakfast, he can fix himself a snack, he can put away his clothes, and he can prepare for his exam. Yet his parents go on doing those things for him. Or stand right behind his shoulder as he does them, ready to point out his mistakes, never letting him gain the confidence that comes from failing and learning from his failures. Most of us are guilty of these excesses at some time in our life. Problems arise when parents don’t learn how to let go.

What is enmeshment?

Family therapist Salvador Minuchin suggested the concept of ‘enmeshment’ in the 1970s. Enmeshed families are families where it becomes difficult for each member to have a separate identity.

Enmeshment is an extreme form of overinvolvement of parents in the lives of their children and is not beneficial to any of the involved parties. Parents consider children to be an extension of themselves and not separate individuals. The children are denied autonomy and individuality.

What are some features of enmeshment?

Career, finances, marriage, investments, friendships, beliefs, and life choices need to be in accordance with the parents’ wishes. Parents may try to forcefully direct the actions or even the thoughts and beliefs of the child.

More often than not, this dysfunctional pattern spans generations. Parents who have had such a childhood, and have seen their own parents to be part of such families are unable to think of any other way of life. Dysfunctional family dynamics get passed on from generation to generation.

The enmeshed family may involve several family members and not just the parents. As a result, the child’s life is lived under the scrutiny of and the control of the powerful members of the extended family. Personal decisions are taken by family consensus with no attention to the child’s wishes. Going against these decisions is a betrayal of the family and has repercussions from the whole enmeshed family unit.

It does not help that movies and television serials popularize and normalize this kind of family dynamics. Unhealthy behaviours get mislabelled as culture. Saying anything against these behaviours, or even talking about them then becomes taboo.

How does enmeshment affect children?

The effects of enmeshed families on the lives of children are often devastating. The child fails to develop a sense of individuality. She does not know what her own beliefs are, what her strengths are, and what she is capable of. When she gets into some difficulty, she may lack the coping skills to handle it with a degree of equanimity.

Children from enmeshed families may have low self-esteem and may constantly need the approval of their parents or other powerful members of the family. These children may not be able to assert themselves, since they were always taught that obedience and acquiescence were essential.

In some enmeshed families, it is the parent who is completely dependent on the child. The child has to keep the parent’s interests above all else, even to the detriment of his own mental and physical health. The children in such families are constantly plagued by a feeling of guilt when they try to prioritize their own well-being. Any separation from the family is taken as a betrayal. Attempts at asserting financial or emotional independence are met with a lot of resistance. There is a constant requirement of accomplishments from the child so that the parents can feel a sense of self-worth. The child may be afraid to try new things because the child’s failure is viewed as an injury to the parent’s fragile self-esteem. Saying no to the demands of parents and family members is strongly discouraged.

Relationships outside the family suffer, too. Children may find themselves unable to make close bonds with people outside the family or assert themselves in other relationships.

How does one get out of an enmeshed family situation?

For those caught in enmeshed family relationships setting boundaries is essential. As is trying to get to know yourself, and your interests and beliefs.

Family therapy may help family members see how their behavior is adversely affecting the environment within the family. Sometimes parents are able to step back when they realize that autonomy is essential if their children are to become healthy and well-adjusted.

Often, however, family members or parents may not see any problem in their behaviour. In such cases, the individual can himself seek therapy to understand in what ways his life has been affected by enmeshment and learn skills to handle the situation.

Families in whom these behaviours have become ingrained over generations may find any attempt at separation unacceptable. Sadly, resistance to change comes not only from the family but also from within the enmeshed individual. Patterns learned over a lifetime are not easily changed, even when they are for the best. It is important for the child to understand when guilt is unwarranted.

Prevention is better than cure

Children are easiest to love when they are young and dependent on us. Sometimes we subconsciously try to prolong their dependency on ourselves, so that we may continue to have an important role in their life.

We need to understand that to lead a fulfilling life and to realize their potential children need to individuate (become separate individuals). This involves emotional, financial, cognitive, and other forms of separation. It is our job as parents and elders to nurture children, ensure their safety, and teach them about life. And as they grow, to slowly increase autonomy. We have to let them take their own decisions. And let them make some of their own mistakes.

Even people who love each other need boundaries. Emotional boundaries help all relationships to flourish. They help even the younger generation express clearly what they are comfortable with and what makes them uncomfortable. As children grow, these boundaries should be allowed to change. Children should be given the freedom to choose their own goals, their own beliefs, and their own limits of privacy.

It helps if we keep in mind that we are the caretakers of our children, not their owners. As writer and poet Kahlil Gibran has famously said:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

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