In the previous post, we discussed how children lack internal resources which the parent provides to them so that they can develop their own sense of self, internal peace and what many authors describe as a sense of abundance.
Healthy parents understand that their children cannot tolerate or process many aspects of living because of the natural characteristics of children. They understand that they are immature and dependent. When the child reaches maturity, ideally, they've developed a sense and personal worth as well as a sense of peace about being alive and okay in the world.
In the diagram, an empty beaker represents the child's lack of resources, and a heart represents the healthy adult sense of self. Parents that tend to be full of shame unload their shame onto their children, but this is not the only way that a parent uses a child when they fail to respect their developmental needs.
The enmeshed parent uses their child in a slightly different way. As we will see in the next post to come, both of these patterns set up the child to become an adult who does not look to who they are in Christ to find worth but obtains all of their sense of worth and peace from performance, circumstances, and the esteem of others.
Quick Review of Enmeshment (a recap of the Vulnerability/Boundaries post)
Loosing sight of the fact that their children lack boundaries, a strong sense of self, and experience negotiating rights and responsibilities in relationships, or if they fail to recognize and honor the immaturity of their children, they can find the attention and love that their child has for them to be nearly irresistible. The dysfunctional parent shares inappropriate emotional intimacy with the child, drawing them into the world of adults in some sense, by treating them as a peer. The relationship lacks the friction encountered in their adult relationships, and it seems to the needy parent that the child has become their friend and companion.
A parent can use a child in many ways, though we have only described the ways a parent my use a child for their own emotional benefit at the expense of the child. This type of abuse becomes sexually tagged when the parent focuses excessively on gender, and an iconic example of this is the “Daddy's Little Girl” or “Mommy's Little Man” type of relationship.
This type of prolonged relationship creates marital problems within the nuclear family because the enmeshed parent and child will become more tightly bound and emotionally intimate with one another and almost inevitably exceeds the intimacy shared between the parents. This tends to alienate the other parent and it is thought to set up problematic lifelong relationship patterns for the child. (For more information on these types of relationship problems, please visit Overcoming Botkin Syndrome and explore specific relationship topics via the link list.)
Consequences for the Child
This creates multiple problems for the child.
First, because the parent utilizes the child as a source of support, in effect, they siphon back to themselves the love and energy that the child needs to help develop their own sense of self and wholeness. The child becomes dependent upon the parent for their internal sense of peace and wholeness which is appropriate when they are very young but increasingly inappropriate as the child matures. As the child matures and ventures into situations wherein they cannot rely on the parent, it creates a great deal of anxiety for them when they cannot have access to them.
Secondly, though the child enjoys some gratification and sense of specialness because they are so valuable to the parent, this benefit comes at a terribly high price. The child learns rather quickly that they have also become responsible for meeting their parents' needs for support. Because of their own needs and lack, this responsibility becomes overwhelming for them.
They learn self-worth through care taking behaviors and performance, and they feel shame over their inability to comfortably meet demands because they are given responsibility without authority. When the moments arise when it is blatantly obvious that they are not really their parent's peer or the parent behaves differently with them in the presence of others, they also feel a great deal of shame. These children learn that love is about duty and the overwhelming anxiety and pressure they feel on a regular bases leaves them feeling dead inside.
And as previously mentioned, these children become consumed with the overwhelming needs and concerns of their parent. Their own life is displaced by the concerns, the reality, and quite often with the shame of the parent. Instead of awareness of self, the child's inner world must be negated (their heart denied) in favor of the adult's experience, wants, and needs.
In the next post:
How lack of respect for the characteristics of a child creates
adults that are victims of circumstance.