Sure, a parent cannot be there for the child at all times. A parent has work or other commitments to attend to. But as a baseline, we receive enough mirroring experiences to have a foundation. If we have received sufficient mirroring as a child, we will have enough memories to draw from and no longer requires constant reassurance.
We will grow up with a good sense of self-worth and an ability to self- regulate. If, however, we have not had enough mirroring experience, the development of our internal-mirroring would have been hindered, and part of our psyche remains child-like and dysregulated.
In the Still Face Experiment by Edward Tronick in 1975 (there is a short, provocative video clip on Youtube) which demonstrates the process and importance of mirroring, a mother is asked to keep a blank face and ignore the child’s attempt to engage her. The child “rapidly sobered and grew wary” on getting no response from the mother. On several failed attempts, he resigned and turned away, looking hopeless. These events occurred quite quickly, that they could have gone unnoticed. The experiment shows that we learn to regulate emotions by mirroring. Babies only learn to manage and regulate how they feel when they have other people as mirrors.
This skill is particularly crucial for empathetic children. We are likely to have an active mirror neuron system that makes us more prone to emotional contagion and being affected by other people’s feelings. It is easy for us to get overwhelmed by other people when we cannot self regulate.
Adults in some families may disapprove children with scorn when we try to connect with them. This emotional neglect takes a substantial toll on. We do not easily forget these hurtful events.
According to the Separation-Individual theory (1975), babies have a natural symbiotic relationship with their mothers at birth. However, they still need to have a sense of self and know their mothers as a different entity from them so that they can develop healthily.
However, some parents have a hard time letting go and separating themselves from their children, usually due to their own insecurities or unfulfilling lives. This eventually denies the child opportunities to take risks, explore, make productive mistakes, and become resilient.
Anxious parents may subtly send emotional messages like “I cannot survive without you”, “don’t go”, “don’t grow up”, “you can’t go”, “you can’t make it without me”, “it’s a dangerous world out there” to their children.
Often, these parents’ need to be in control comes from the fear of being dispensable. They may try and use the child to fill a void they feel from being displeased with their own lives or relationships.
Alice Miller, in her seminal work “The Drama of The Gifted Child”, explains this situation. On having a child, the parent may feel as though she finally has someone who will love her unconditionally and proceed to use the child to fulfill her own need to be wanted (the female pronoun is used in old psychoanalytical texts. We should be careful not to preserve this mother blaming culture). We can imagine why it is tempting for the parents to use an empathic child as a confidant— they are loving, perceptive, and sensitive. They can sense when their parents feel down even before they do.
When our parents’ needs override our need to be independent, we develop an identity that is tailored to suit their needs. After all, we were afraid of losing their love. This results in enmeshment— a relationship where people become excessively involved with each other.
In enmeshment, family boundaries are blurred or non-existent. A switch in someone’s mood quickly affects the whole family. Since we did not grow up with firm emotional boundaries, we struggle to set them as adults. We have a blurred sense of identity and find it difficult to differentiate between our feeling and the feelings of those close to us. We feel an obligation to help others, sometimes compulsively. It may be difficult for us to have balanced relationships.
Enmeshment often occurs under the guise of love, loyalty, family, or unity, which makes it even more deceptive. Rather than love or family, it comes from a place of fear. A truly loving family encourages the young ones to be independent, to be a “self” rather than an “us”. A child should not feel like there is a condition in which he is loved. Parents should not feel like their children are their only source of happiness, fulfillment, or wellbeing.
Enmeshment is not a malicious scheme by parents. It often is a family pattern, passed down from generations. Parents are usually not even aware that they are enmeshing their young ones; they only are repeating a cycle.
Want to know more about enmeshment in toxic family dynamics? Read 13 Signs You’re Suffering From Toxic Family Enmeshment
5. Competition and oppression
Parenthood comes with an array of emotions; anger, joy, grief, pride, and so on. While it is not commonplace to talk about it in society, jealousy is one of these emotions that parents can feel towards their children.
Parents with unfulfilling lives are particularly threatened by seeing what their children have— opportunities that were not available to them in their youth. As they watch their children grow, their childhood wounds are reopened, and they go back psychologically to when they were children. Sometimes, they even begin to perceive their children as competitors.