Enmeshed is NOT Attuned and Enmeshed is NOT Healthy

People with the aspects of the Autonomy Survival Style do not trust themselves. They struggle to set internal boundaries and they struggle to understand how they can be loved if they make room for their own needs. They over-function in their relationships. They do not know how to let relationships breathe.

They are like this with good reason – they have had their trust in relationship destroyed and their survival style is to cling with all their might to anyone with whom they feel an emotional connection. Their biggest fear is to disappoint, or let down, other people but at the same time they (often non-consciously) resent the amount of work they imagine they have to do in order to maintain relationships.

They battle with their intellectual belief that they are doing the right thing (being super-friend; super-partner; super-parent) and their unacknowledged guilt at not wanting to do those things. They are subversive and quietly rebellious. When it comes to things that would help them get through their day/life more efficiently, they often procrastinate to the point of failure and self-sabotage. 

This is part of a series that began here: Preventing Our Children From Developing Demons (And Healing Our Own).

I see many of the aspects of this Survival Style in myself and in our eldest son. I accept that the patterns have helped him and I get through some really tough times and I recognise that those patterns are no longer healthy and need to be broken.

Here are a few of the things that he and I work on:

1. Saying things like, “Stop it, I don’t like that.” When fun teasing or horseplay becomes intrusive or unpleasant.

2. Accepting that no healthy relationship (once a child is able to explore alone) is completely attuned and that it is unrealistic to expect it to be attuned. When things don’t go according to plan we use as much direct speech as possible – “ I feel X… I don’t like it when.. X” Because our son is older than 9, he is able to develop healthy conscious reflection around this issue and we celebrate imperfections in our relationship through humour. We both can admit when we’ve been out of step with one another and we can still love one another because of that, as much as despite that. We accept that benign neglect is a healthy state when we spend a lot of time together.

3. I often remind myself that my needs are as important as those of others around me and I make provision to spend time meeting as many of those needs as I can. My oldest son and I often have this discussion – quite frankly he doesn’t always have to concede to the wishes of his friends and if he does concede all the time, those friendships are not healthy. Now that our youngest is older than three years of age, I make a point of spending time away from the boys that is not kindy/school time – I expect all the children to sometimes wait when I am busy doing things I need to do either to keep the family running or for my own pleasure. They learn that they can manage when I am not constantly meeting their every need. They learn that relationships can survive and in fact, thrive, when people aren’t completely attuned (allowing for relationship repair when necessary). Remembering: attunement is our base state and the boys have had most of their normal dependency needs met.

4. Gauging our internal pressure levels. As procrastinators and self-sabotages we tend to wait until our internal pressure level is up around 8 or 9 out of 10 before we take action. In the past, our boy could be up for an hour or longer before he began his chores and then rushed to complete them in a panic. I did the same with paying bills. The best strategy I have found to deal with this is to automate as many things as possible. Bills are usually paid automatically and chores are now broken into very small chunks with small time limits.

5. We play at rebelling. We break some rules. We giggle hysterically when we do things ‘wrong.’ Subversive rule-breaking has been replaced by occasional blatant rule breaking.


When we set appropriate boundaries we give the people in our lives the space to be imperfectly human. We take the pressure off ourselves to be super-heroes. Our stress levels reduce and we can live happier lives with a greater sense of peace.

About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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13 Responses to Enmeshed is NOT Attuned and Enmeshed is NOT Healthy

  1. I like all the points you’ve listed here. As parents we really need to teach our children that if we can’t meet their needs (immediately…), we still love them and will be there when we’re ready. It’s so important to remind that our needs are as important – and often more important – than our children ones. What you say about the internal pressure levels, I do apply this with my children too, as I always felt like running against time and couldn’t bare the pressure anymore. Now we do the things – paying bills, doing chores – at certain moments of the day, when we’re not in a hurry, still have some minutes to “fill” and it works perfectly. My son, he is 10, is taking responsability for his own things (organising his homework, preparing things for school, sports etc.) and I see that not feeling the pressure to do it – and not having me all the time to remind him… – it works much better. I love your point 5! This is so great! Those are the moments I really love with my children. The effect of taking the pressure away and just “be” imperfect is great! And I think our children need to see us how we are: loving but not perfectly human parents.

  2. Mamma Simona says:

    Thank you for this, Karyn! I needed a stint in a Psychiatric Hospital to learn what you’re teaching!! I feel so blessed to have friends like you who totally “get” where I came from! 🙂

    As my son is already 20 years old, I can confirm that you’re 100% on the right track. We put so much unnecessary pressure on ourselves that it’s a HUGE relief when we come to accept that NOBODY is perfect and that “good enough” really IS good enough!

    • Yep! It was one of those great ‘ahha’ moments for me when I realised my not having personal boundaries actually put pressure on my kids. Now they get the space to breathe a little and still know I am there for them when they really need me. Thanks for commenting. 😀

  3. Marcy says:

    This resonates with the idea of detachment, as in Merton or the Buddhists — not turning away from the world and from people and from oneself, but not being so desperately and intensely willful. It’s breathing space — it’s an open hand — it’s relaxed and willing. It allows for more authentic connection and relationship. It’s extremely hard for some of us to reach for! I’m a clinger, a people-pleaser, rebellious, and definitely intense.

    • Marcy says:

      “Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God’ as if God were another ‘thing’ and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see.”

      “Forest, writing years later commented that Merton was ‘convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve.’”

      Click to access merton-handout-4.pdf

    • I love the open-hand image. I have always thought of my style of parenting as having an open palmed with our kids resting on top – to come and go as they please but also to have support when they need it.

  4. I would add to Point #1. Not only should we teach our kids to verbalize when horsing around is getting too much for them – we need to RESPECT them when they do so. My husband sometimes takes horseplay further after my son has asked him to stop. He doesn’t mean any harm, but it does kind of negate the idea of asking our kids to speak up.

  5. Sonya says:

    Just came upon this site as I was researching the Karpman triangle for a presentation I am doing at work. What a breath of fresh air! I believe the pendulum has swung so far to the other extreme of parenting- Jelly fish! I look at these issues from various perspectives…a child of a toxic mother (good intentions, but a teenage mother who gave “everything uo for me.”)…a mother of three young children..a wife..and a psychologist who sees the effect of these power/drama interactions in “diagnosed pathology” People are so phobic to feeling uncomfortable emotionally and physially…and the problem is all in this struggle.

    • Great to have you here, Sonya. I have a book coming out soon that looks at certain parenting styles and the real long term consequences of enmeshing children in Karpman’s Drama Triangles. Thanks for your supportive comments, I appreciate them.

  6. Pingback: Narcissistic Parenting | WorkplaceWise

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