Narcissistic parents tend to adopt one of two styles of parenting: enmeshment or neglectful. Both styles are loaded with negative consequences for children of narcissists. This post explores the consequences of enmeshment for the child. In a future post we’ll explore the consequences of neglect.
What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment is a dysfunctional state where a two or more people have porous and indistinguishable boundaries. Enmeshment can occur between a parent or child, whole families, or adult couples. This article will be talking about enmeshment between a narcissistic mother and her son. The narcissistic parent could become enmeshed with her daughter or all her offspring, though. The same goes for a narcissistic father.
Since the boundaries between two enmeshed people are permeable, they tend to catch each others emotions. If the narcissistic parent becomes angry at a store clerk who slighted her by waiting on another customer first, her son will grow angry as well.
Emotions are a complicated thing for those in an enmeshed relationships. Unable to tell the difference between each others emotions, each member in the relationship will have times when they feel they need to be rescued from their emotions by the other person. Similarly, they’ll each have time when they feel they have to rescue the other person from their emotions.
Those in an enmeshed relationship come to depend the other enmeshed person for their identity. They become so lost that they lose, or fail to develop, their sense of self.
An enmeshed person depends on the person their enmeshed with for their self-worth. Since narcissists emotionally abuse their children, their enmeshed offspring often have low self-esteem.
What Enmeshed Parenting Looks Like
Enmeshment is all about boundaries between the narcissist and her child. Normal healthy parents raise their children to have a healthy set of boundaries. The child of healthy parents learn that they are separate from other individuals. They develop a strong sense of self.
This is not the case for the enmeshed child of a narcissist.
The narcissist views her child to be part of herself. She is unable to see the child as separate from her. As the development of personal boundaries begins in infanthood, the narcissist’s campaign of damaging her child begins before he can walk. She seeks to establish the child as a reflection of her.
The parent’s efforts to make the child part of her has consequences. As the child gets older, his sense of boundaries with the narcissistic parent are blurry at best, non-existent at worst. The child lacks individual autonomy. His ability to act in ways that will obtain for him what he wants become impaired.
The parent who becomes enmeshed with her child seeks to control everything the child does. Her justification for this control can be boiled down to “It’s my child. I can do what I please with him.”
What does the life of an enmeshed child look like?
The Life of an Enmeshed Child
When a narcissist and their child become enmeshed, the roles of parent and child become reversed. A narcissist with an enmeshed child—or children—expects her child to continually anticipate and meet her needs. In this role reversal the child finds himself catering to his parent’s physical and emotional needs. Meanwhile his needs go unmet.
Narcissistic adults do not provide their children with any guidance. The child is left to fumble his way through the grade school years, preteen years, and adolescence. Likewise, the parent does not protect the child against any threats. No affirmations of his worth as a separate person are given. And the child will lack nurturance as well as appropriate affection.
As time goes on, the narcissistic parent and child become almost fused. Enmeshed adult children do not know where in their childhood their parent ended and they began. This lack of boundary definition follows them into adulthood and with other people—particularly romantic partners.
Children with healthy parents learn to make their own decisions and assert their independence by making decisions that their parents don’t approve of. Not so with the enmeshed child. The corrosive bond he shares with his mother means he seeks to make decisions that please her. For she makes clear that there is to be no displeasure from her child. However, it is simply impossible for any child to avoid displeasing his parents, especially if one of them is a narcissist.
When displeased, the narcissist may react with rage and punish her child for even minor infractions. Or, the narcissist may use the one tactic that all narcissists have a black belt in—guilt.
A narcissist is willing to use guilt against anyone. It is one of her main weapons to control others. She will not only use guilt to remedy her displeasure, she will also make her child feel guiltily responsible for whatever is wrong in her life. A narcissistic parent will even make the child feel guilty for the “needed” forms of abuse the child “forced” the parent to inflict on him.
“Damn it Billy,” says the narcissistic parent. “There you go ruining my only chance to unwind by making me shout at you. How am I supposed to relax? I work hard all day and make sacrifice after sacrifice to feed and clothe you. Get out of here before I get really mad and crack your head!”
Because of her displeasure, the narcissist feels justified in using guilt as an emotional weapon against her child. She views herself as superior to her child and her child has failed to live up to her standards. Therefore, guilt and other forms of abuse are acceptable forms of manipulation to use against her child.
The consequences of this tactic on the child of the narcissistic parent? As more and more guilt is heaped upon the child as he grows older, he begins to feel guilty unless he is meeting the needs of his narcissistic parent. He will find himself feeling guilty any time he doesn’t meet other people’s needs. Guilt will become a central emotion in his life.
When an enmeshed child reaches his teenage years, he will generally choose one of two courses. In the first, rather than develop the autonomy he needs to grow into a healthy adult, he will become developmentally stunted. The child who goes this route will remain dependent upon his narcissistic parents. His mother will get to keep her “little me” and the adult child will continue to meet her needs.
The second route is the opposite of the first. Here the teen is repulsed by the enmeshment and runs away from it straight into independence. This can be dangerous as the teen will not have the support of his family unless he relents and become enmeshed once again.
Out in the world without strong boundaries and a strong sense of self, the teen opens himself up to victimization and unhealthy relationships. The odds are good that he will make poor choices and suffer the consequences.
The Enmeshed Child as an Adult
A sad consequence of being enmeshed with a narcissistic parent is that the child enters adulthood without having a strong sense of self. Enmeshed children do not get to pass through the normal stages of development. They do not form a healthy identity because they are forced to take on their parent’s identity.
A strong sense of self allows a person to soothe themselves. Without a strong sense of self, during times of emotional turmoil, a person will look to people outside himself to soothe him.
Having a strong sense of self means you make your own decisions. You don’t constantly run the details of every choice you have to make past everyone you know, asking what they thing you should do.
And having a strong sense of self means you can set strong boundaries. This means having the ability to say no when others put demands on your time and energy.
But all these aspects of having a strong sense of self evade the enmeshed adult children of a narcissistic parent. Let’s see how satisfactory his adult life will be without having a strong sense of self.
As an adult, he will feel guilty if he does not answer his parent every beck and call. He’ll do things for his parent and other people that he doesn’t want to do because he feels too guilty to say no. He, not his parents, will be the one that makes sacrifice after sacrifice because he doesn’t feel entitled to meet his needs and pursue his dreams.
But that’s not where the agony inflicted on his psyche ends. He learns from his parent that love is conditional. All children need unconditional love to grow into healthy adults.
Without this love the child of a narcissist will not know how to enter healthy relationships. They will turn their backs on their own needs so as to meet the needs of their partners. And they—especially daughters of a narcissistic parent—may find themselves in an abusive relationship, or relationships with a narcissist.
Enmeshment leaves the adult child of a narcissist full of fear. One fear is the fear of experimentation. For instance, the adult child may be afraid of experimenting with careers and find himself trapped in a job he hates. He may fear dating several individuals to see who suits them best and land in a relationship with a narcissist. Or he may fear experimenting with his identity to see who he is most comfortable being.
The adult child will also have a fear of failure. This fear can hurt his quality of life in many ways. He may fear failing out of college and never apply, locking him in a job he hates. He may fear failing on a date and never ask out someone he likes. He may have the desire to start his own business but never take the step for fear of failure.
Ironically, while afraid of failure, the adult child is often afraid of success. He may never apply for that job for fear of getting it. He may never submit that short story to publication for fear of it getting accepted. The fear of success is linked to low self-esteem and the fear of succeeding and being found out to be a phony.
By never allowing the child to develop his own autonomy, the narcissist creates fear of the world in her child. Often the narcissist will lead her child to believe that the world is a dangerous place. So dangerous that her child has no chance of surviving without her. And her child will fear that this is so.
I remember this fear as a child. I was led to believe that murderous Mafioso, KKK who sought to kill northerners, and other murderers were stalking our small western Pennsylvanian town. At the same time, my mother would leave me alone in the car in dark parking lots far from the store lights while she shopped. I would crouch down and peer fearfully into the gloom, praying that my mother would return before I was killed.
The purpose of filling me with fear then leaving me in the dark was twofold. First, she used the fear to control me. Second, she left me in the car to harvest narcissistic supply from me. I would be so glad to see her that I nearly explode with happiness. Meanwhile she guzzled up my happiness to see her in a banquet of self-glorification.
This is how a narcissist treats her children.
Healing from Enmeshment
If you grew up enmeshed to a narcissistic parent, you may still be enmeshed with that parent or be the teen who fled from his family and are now all grown up. Either way, you are carrying a lot of emotional baggage around.
You can start the healing process right this second by telling yourself—and believing—that “I have the right to my own thoughts, feelings, and life.”
It’s important that you believe this statement at the outset because you have quite the journey ahead of you. At the end of this role you will become a healthy and whole person, with strong impermeable boundaries, rock solid self-esteem and the ability to express your needs and act to get what you want. You will accept only healthy people as friends and romantic partners. And you will have the self-confidence, persistence, and willingness to achieve your dreams.
There’s more. But if this isn’t enough, you prefer being enmeshed. That’s OK. We all change when we’re ready. Not a second before. We still love you and are here for you.
For those ready to change, your transformation begins with that single statement: “I have the right to my own thoughts, feelings, and life.”
If you don’t believe this statement, you’re going to have a hard time healing. Your goal is to become an autonomous person with a strong sense of self. If you think you have no right to your thoughts, feeling, and life, you will be unable to develop a strong sense of self.
My recommendation is to enter therapy with someone who has experience treating adult children of parents with narcissistic personality disorder. Ask your therapist to help you discover why you don’t believe you have trouble believing you have a right to you own thought, feelings, and life.
For those of you who already believe this statement, you need to find a therapist as well. Building a sense of self and learning to form impermeable boundaries is critical ongoing work.
Shop carefully for a therapist. There are those who will tell you they have experience treating victims of NPD who don’t. Interview them on the phone. If any become irritated by your questions or try to end the call before you’re finished or say you have to come in for a session to get your answers, hang up. Don’t even say good-bye. Cross them off your list. You deserve compassionate care from the best therapist you can find.
Questions you might want to ask include:
- What’s your experience treating adults whose parent has narcissistic personality disorder?
- What condition do you see most frequently in adults with a narcissistic parent?
- What are you treatment goals with someone who is trying to recover from a childhood where they had a narcissistic parent?
- How much contact do you advise your clients to have with their narcissistic parent? (Listen for the sense of importance they place on establishing boundaries.)
- What are your concerns about the sense of self of someone who grew up with a narcissistic parent? (That it’s weak or nonexistent and open to abuse.)
- Can you tell me the two forms of narcissistic parenting? (enmeshed and neglectful)
- Adult children of narcissistic parent have a lot of issues, which ones do you usually address first? (See if they can identify an issue besides low self-esteem.)
Beware the therapist who tries to make you feel stupid by using a lot of jargon and $2 words. He’s trying to hide that he doesn’t know. Politely hang-up and pursue someone else.
A final word of warning. The field of psychotherapy attracts a certain number of damaged individuals to its ranks. Be careful of this. You probably won’t know a psychotherapist is wounded until you start treatment with him.
One way you can tell he’s damaged is he continually interrupts you to talk about his hurtful past. Get away from this sort of therapist as fast as you can. He will only add to the damage your parents did. You need not remain under the care of anyone who you don’t like or makes you uncomfortable.
That being said, there are lots of good therapists out there. I’m crossing my fingers that you discover the one who is perfect for you.
It’s time now to leave that hell that life with your parents was and is. Another thing you can do before starting therapy is erect firm boundaries between you and your parents. See here for info on boundaries.
I wish a life of happiness for you from this point on. May you become you own strong person and treasure your thoughts and feelings. I wish gentleness in all your dealings and a healthy relationship with the romantic partner of your dreams. Peace till we meet again.
What was you enmeshed like? Tell us in the comments below.