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When Your Parent Becomes Enmeshed With Your Sibling: 4 Ways to Cope When You’re Left Out

Having a mother and in-laws who are enmeshed with their troubled adult kids, Ms. Meyers has advice on how healthy siblings can cope.

Some mothers unconsciously become enmeshed with their sons so they'll have someone to take care of them when they're old.

Some mothers unconsciously become enmeshed with their sons so they'll have someone to take care of them when they're old.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

When I was a kid, my family faithfully attended mass each Sunday, and I remember always being irked when the priest read the parable in Luke about the prodigal son.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciated its message about forgiveness. I admired the father for showing mercy to his troubled younger son by enthusiastically welcoming him home after he blew his fortune by drinking, gambling, and hobnobbing with hookers.

My frustration with the story stemmed from the father’s inability to perceive how the prodigal son’s older brother clearly felt unloved, unseen, and taken for granted by him. It infuriated me that the dad ignored the older son’s hard work and dedication while celebrating the flaky younger son’s return.

It felt unfair that the loser kid got rewarded while the good kid got the shaft. Moreover, it seemed like poor parenting.

When a Parent Favors the Troubled Child

Little did I know that this dynamic would play out in my own life as my mother and future in-laws became so intertwined with a struggling adult child that they neglected their other kids and grandkids.

As you may well know from your own experiences, this form of enmeshment between a parent and a troubled grown-up kid is not uncommon and can tear families apart. It can leave the well-adjusted siblings feeling excluded, like outsiders in their own homes.

The Favorite Child. . . as an Adult

Each year when the priest gave a sermon about the prodigal son, I’d hear a similar message: God is like the father in the story who will always forgive our transgressions and welcome us back into his loving care no matter how far we’ve strayed. I’d always think, yes, that’s all well and good, but what about the older son who felt slighted as dad put all his efforts into his loser kid?

Even as a child, I remember believing it was unfair that some parents dote on their adult children who are in need of rescuing but neglect those who are responsible and hardworking.

Even though I knew nothing about psychology, I thought: Isn’t that the perfect formula for a problematic kid remaining a problematic kid? They keep their parents laser-focused on them by being pathetic. If they straighten themselves out and become competent human beings, they’ll lose mom and dad’s attention. Therefore, what’s the incentive for them to become healthy, strong, successful, and independent?

What Is Parent-Child Enmeshment?

According to Hanan Parvez, founder of PsychMechanics, enmeshment can occur in any relationship but is most prevalent between parents and children, especially mothers and sons. He describes it as an unhealthy alliance where there are no boundaries between the parties, and they intrude upon one another’s spaces.

When my father died 25 years ago, my mother urged my younger brother to move closer to her, and they’ve been enmeshed ever since. Now he’s in his 50s, has never been married, has no children, has few friends, and his life revolves around our mother. The two of them are thick as thieves—leaving me, my siblings, and our children feeling shut out.

The enmeshment between my in-laws and their 47-year-old son, who’s never left home, is even more intense.

During decades of dealing with enmeshment in my family, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Because of my missteps, I now share these four critical pieces of advice with anyone who finds themselves in such a trying circumstance.

How to Deal With Familial Enmeshment

Most of all, I don’t want you wasting your time and energy like I did, thinking I could change the situation only to be heartbroken time and time again when I couldn’t. Read on to find solutions for how to deal with enmeshment.

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1. Accept that you can't change the situation.

Moms and dads become enmeshed with their adult kids for a whole host of unhealthy reasons.

  • They may feel guilty about how they parented their troubled child in the past and are now hoping to repair it.
  • They may feel responsible for how their youngster turned out—scared, dependent, and dysfunctional—so they want to take care of them and protect them.
  • They may unconsciously want their adult child to remain reliant on them so they’ll have someone to take care of them when they’re old.
  • They may be unhappy in their marriage and use their adult child as a buffer between them and their spouse.

Whatever the reason is, you don’t have the power to change the situation and you’re wasting your time trying. Over the decades, I watched my siblings and my husband’s siblings try in vain to weaken the enmeshment without a shred of success.

The simple fact is: Moms and dads don’t want their grown children telling them how to parent. They resent it and will resist it.

2. Don’t talk about your troubled sibling with your enmeshed parent.

I made a whopper of an error with this one so I hope you’ll learn from my blunder.

For far too many years, my relationship with my mother centered around one thing: discussing my problematic brother. I fell into the role of her therapist, listening and dispensing advice as if I were qualified to do so when I wasn’t.

My mom continually thanked me for hearing her out and giving her guidance. Yet, she never once followed any of my suggestions. While she found relief by sharing her concerns about my brother with me, I ended up feeling drained and depleted.

Today, when my mom wants to discuss my brother, I tell her gently that she needs to speak with a professional. She’s never taken me up on this suggestion but, at least, I’m now unburdened of my therapeutic duties.

It's essential to get your parent away from the enmeshed relationship and talk about things other than the troubled sibling.

It's essential to get your parent away from the enmeshed relationship and talk about things other than the troubled sibling.

3. Look out for yourself.

If you’ve ever spent time around folks who are enmeshed with one another, you know how awkward it is.

As newlyweds, my husband and I stayed with his mom and dad when we’d visit from out of state. His middle-aged brother lived in the basement and was omnipresent. He and his parents had a strange dynamic, and I hated every minute of being there.

When my husband and I had kids of our own, my father-in-law would shush them when his son was asleep downstairs. Instead of doing activities with the grandkids and us, my in-laws just went about their established routine with their grown son and left us to our own devices.

I learned from this experience that enmeshed folks are content with their situation, don’t see anything dysfunctional about it, and aren’t looking to change it. Moreover, I realized I had to speak up and tell my husband that I no longer wanted to spend my vacation time feeling uncomfortable around his parents and brother. This saved my sanity and my marriage.

Just because my in-laws didn’t have boundaries with their son didn’t mean I shouldn’t have boundaries with them.

At first, I felt guilty about establishing such confines, thinking I was being a bad wife and daughter-in-law. But reading Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself helped me get over it and become more assertive about my needs in this uneasy situation.

4. Let yourself feel sad.

It’s certainly reasonable to feel sad when your parents are enmeshed with a troubled adult child. Their unusually tight bond leaves little room for you. You know intellectually that this intense closeness is unhealthy but your emotions can get the better of you, making you feel jealous.

Being able to understand that relationship dynamic and name it accurately as “enmeshment” can give you peace of mind. You realize you’re not alone and can spot other enmeshed bonds around you, on TV, in movies, and in literature.

The psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel advises his clients: “Name it to tame it!”

I found that tip to be so advantageous when I started to talk to others about my family ordeal and described it as enmeshment. Using that term has opened the door to many wonderful conversations with those enduring their own unhealthy unions, whether between their parents and a problematic adult child or someone else.

Talking about it helps us grieve. Because of enmeshment, I’ll never have the involved mother I longed for and the doting grandmother my kids deserve. But by embracing this reality, I’m able to find fulfilling relationships elsewhere and stop wasting my time going to a well that’s long been dry.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 McKenna Meyers

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