Parents form the earliest relationships for their children. Infants require constant care, and many new parents are reluctant to leave a baby with anyone else. While this level of bonding is healthy in early infancy, relationships with the wider world are a critical part of child development. As a child grows and matures, it is healthy and natural for him to create significant relationships with others. Children also need autonomy and the space to make their own mistakes and use their own judgment. Yet parents are needed for guidance and support. Finding a balanced relationship with your child is not easy, but it is crucial for your mental health and that of your child.
In a balanced relationship, both parent and child operate as autonomous individuals with their own experiences, thoughts and emotions. The parent’s job is to set age-appropriate boundaries and foster open communication, but then to back off and let the child operate within those guidelines. A balanced parent feels concern and empathy when the child is upset, but does not take ownership of those emotions. Likewise, the balanced parent may feel strongly that the child is making a mistake, but he allows the child to make and learn from that mistake. In addition, the balanced parent has his own life. He is open and available to the child, but does not make her the center of his universe. He operates autonomously, interacting with his own peers, relatives and friends.
Over-bonding occurs when the parent and child do not have the emotional space to operate autonomously. The parent feels overly responsible for the child’s decisions, or the child feels obligated to take on the role of caregiver or friend to the parent. The two are unable to separate their own emotional reactions, taking ownership of each other’s feelings. Over-bonded parents and children spend virtually every spare moment together, often turning down their own social invitations or desired leisure activities.
Codependency and Enmeshment
If over-bonding continues, it eventually leads to codependency and enmeshment. At this stage, the parent and child feel entirely dependent on one another. They are completely unable to form friendships, manage tasks or make even simple decisions without the other’s input. Codependent or enmeshed parents often convince their children not to live on campus at college or move away for a job opportunity. Likewise, codependent or enmeshed children feel a personal obligation to stay close to their parent even in adulthood, focusing on the parent’s needs to the exclusion of their own.
Children living in over-bonded relationships are at higher than average risk for developing dependent or addictive personalities, depression and helplessness. Some children rebel, launching themselves into difficult or dangerous living conditions in an effort to escape. Parents in over-bonded relationships tend to lose their sense of self. They may have trouble forming new relationships outside of their children and may be completely devastated if the child breaks free of the enmeshment. Because the risks are so high, monitor your relationship with your child. If you see signs of over-bonding, consider contacting a mental health professional for assistance.