Occasionally clients come to see me because they’re estranged from their parents or aren’t as close as they’d like to be. More often than not, they feel trapped in too tight a relationship with parents and don’t know how to create more distance without their parents’ feelings getting hurt. Instead of challenging the status quo between parent and (adult) child, they eat themselves sick.
I am all for parents and their grown children getting along and enjoying each other’s company. But, often parents wish for more than their adult progeny can or should give. This intimacy overload is called enmeshment and it’s no good for either party. Sometimes parents want too much of their child’s time because they have issues with abandonment and loneliness. Other times they want to be best friends with their children, rather than having their own peers with whom they share details of their lives.
“Too much parental closeness asks too much of a child” by Cindy Lamothe (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 4/11/17, E28) cites the work of Lisa M. Hooper, researcher, professor at the University of Louisville, and expert in “parentification—when the parent projects their role onto the child.” Hooper says that this dynamic is especially prevalent in divorced families, where offspring, children or adults, are relied upon too much and feel trapped in the role of confidant or companion. “Hooper’s research has shown that the effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting and multigenerational. In one study in the Journal of Family Therapy, researchers found that people who experienced early parentification are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders [ital mine] and substance misuse as an adult.”
Hooper says that parents become overly attached to their children due to their own insecurities and childhood attachment problems when they were neglected or raised by “distant, rigid” caretakers. They give their children what they never received, overcompensating “by becoming overly involved in their kid’s life.” This begets children who lack confidence and the ability to live well autonomously. Many remain unhappily dependent on these kinds of parents until they, the parents, die. Others don’t realize or deny that they’re unhappy with this overdependence, but exhibit stunted live skills and an inability to emotionally separate from their parents.
If the above describes how you have been or are being parentified, it’s best to seek therapy to learn how to untangle and distance yourself from your parent. If you suspect that your emotional eating is due to feeling trapped or burdened by such a parent (and guilty about wanting more space away from them), therapy will help you sort out your feelings and become more independent. As I said, this is a common dynamic in people, especially women, who have eating problems. The sooner you get it resolved, the better off you and your eating will be.