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Untangling Enmeshed Boundaries with Grown Children

What was once necessary for survival can hinder later development.

Key points

  • Boundaries express our needs for distance and separation, intimacy and connection. Our boundary style reflects a balance between them.
  • As parents, we invade children's boundaries in order to keep them safe. Once that's not necessary, we need to respect their own.
  • Does the enmeshed boundary style necessary earlier in their lives influence the relationship you have with your grown kids now?
  • Enmeshed boundaries make it difficult to forge a mutual, adult-to-adult relationship between the generations later in life.

There are no perfect parents, even fewer who never fail their kids in some way. We take liberties with them from the time they’re too little to protest, overriding their boundaries in pursuit of protecting them and keeping them safe. We tell them when they’re too cold, too hot, too hungry, or too tired, which is often when we are; the line between us is fuzzy and sometimes hard to distinguish, and ignoring it becomes almost second nature.

Boundary invasion is a fact of family life, and as such, a difficult habit to break. If you doubt that, try this exercise: For one 24 hour period in the company of your adult children, refrain from commenting on how they look, challenging their opinions, pointing out their shortcomings, telling them what to do, demanding that they share their feelings, feeling disappointed when they don’t, or casually reveal their secrets.

It’s almost impossible not to trespass on boundaries when they’re as enmeshed as they are in early childhood, when their dependence on us is absolute. But if the line between where the parent ends and the child begins isn’t clear to both generations by the time childhood is over, intimate relationships later in their life may reflect the still undifferentiated self that unconsciously yearns for that oceanic oneness with mother experienced so long and fleetingly ago.

Enmeshed boundaries make it difficult to forge an equal, mutually respectful relationship with grown children, one in which everyone is an adult, entitled to their own selfhood, their own choice about how close to or distant from other members of the family they want to be. Instead, what happens to either parent or child feels like it happens to both. Their moods and feelings affect each other and conflict between them is painful and often unsatisfactorily resolved, reflecting their competing needs for connection and separation.

How aware are you of how the boundary style that long ago outlived its usefulness in raising your children still influences the relationship you have with them now? Consider these ten descriptors of enmeshment, especially if you feel your children pulling away from you and find yourself still yearning for the sense of completion you felt when they were safely delivered and in your arms . Are those feelings as appropriate now as they were then?

1. You worry about how open or private you should be with them.

2. You wonder whether they're keeping things from you that you ought to know.

3. Their moods and feelings affect yours; their needs take precedence over your own.

4. You find it hard to stand up for your views and opinions with them.

5. You get so involved with their problems that you lose sight of your own feelings and obsess about them even when they have nothing to do with you.

6. How they feel about you affects how you feel about yourself.

7. Conflict with them is hard on you; after an argument you replay it over and over in your head.

8. When they're angry with you it's hard to concentrate on anything else.

9. When they're mad at someone else, you get angry with that person, too.

10. When something good or bad happens to them it feels like it happens to you.

Allowing your adult kids to determine where on the continuum between distance and separation, autonomy and intimacy feels most comfortable and authentic in their relationship with you is a gift, The more generous you are with it, the more likely it is to yield the life-long intimacy you want.

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