Sometimes it's the parents who need help separating, not the kids. Dr. Fran Walfish — Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and costar on WE TV's Sex Box — offers expert insight on why parents need to let go.
The enmeshed parent is not a great kind of parent to be, especially because children of this type of parent have a high risk of experiencing separation anxiety. This is because the enmeshed parent is unable to contain their own anxieties and worries within themselves. Unconsciously, these parents use their child as a container into which they spew their own uncomfortable feelings. Then, enmeshed parents become dependent on their child for relief of these unwanted feelings. This is the opposite of the way it is supposed to be. You need to be the sounding board for your child, not the other way around. You need to be sturdy enough to hear and hold all of your child's unwanted feelings. And, you need to demonstrate, by example, your ability to bear feeling unwanted emotions for your child. It is good to teach your child that hard feelings are temporary, that the feelings are big now, but will not stay forever.
Children of enmeshed parents also read subtle cues from their parent about behavior expectations, which is usually to stay close. In most cases, the son or daughter works out the problem for herself, either by the onset or the end of adolescence. However, these children can evolve into adults with two possible options: they either become an enmeshed parent themselves, or they rebel.
One of the messages children often get from an enmeshed parent is that they don't have to own up to personal responsibility. This is because the enmeshed parent constantly steps in to help, fix, rescue, or excuse their son or daughter. An example of this is when a young girl gets a poor grade because she didn't study for the exam. The mom blames the teacher for giving too tough a test. But I ask you, if this parent always helps her child out, always runs interference, how will the girl ever learn the important lessons this and other situations provide?
When children of enmeshed parents grow up they often tell me they suffer from too much worry. This is because they were subjected over and over to an enmeshed mom or dad who worried when they were separated. The child then grows up to worry about separation, too. Often, these kids grow up to feel panic or hysteria when stressed with simple tasks of self-reliance, such as washing their clothes or picking up their room. These children were taught dependency, not independence or autonomy. As adults, they are not equipped with the necessary coping skills for frustration, disappointment, and scary situations.
Kids of enmeshed parents also often have trouble in their adult relationships because the enmeshed parent has given the child no opportunity for a true disconnect, which is required to move forward in healthy adult relationships. In a very subtle, unspoken, unknowing way, the enmeshed parent communicates to their child that the parent will go down, suffer, if the child separates. The child invariably buys in to this mutual distorted belief.
And, it gets better (or worse). I hate to tell you but if there is no separation, the son or daughter of an enmeshed parent usually partners as an adult with a spouse who cannot understand the over-attachment between mom and child. The partner then becomes critical and distant. This gives an enmeshed mom even more reason emotionally to hold on tighter, and the child becomes a substitute companion. Often these moms talk too much to their child by sharing adult issues that should only be shared with their spouse.
Dr. Fran's Top Tips Chapter Two
- Embark on a new path of hard, honest, looking within.
- Cut yourself some slack by giving you permission to not be consistently successful at the beginning.
- Separate your own feelings from those of your child's.
- Praise every increment in your child's moving away from you. This includes making her own choices, decisions, and even disagreeing with your ideas.
- If this process is too painful or difficult to bear, enlist the help of your partner/spouse, or another trusted adult, to engage your child in the separation process.
- Expect your anxiety to rise as you let your child go. Part of the reason you need your child close is to avoid feeling your own anxiety. Be brave and own it.
- Get supportive help for yourself. Choose people close to you that you trust and feel safe with to talk about your feelings. It is too hard to do this alone. You may feel more comfortable talking with a clergyman or counselor. Build your support system as best you can.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Fran Walfish, The Self-Aware Parent, Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, December, 2010.