Family Financial Enmeshment

Family Financial Enmeshment

It’s a parent’s job to care for their children and prepare them to become independent adults, and this job is complex and multi-faceted. Part of becoming independent is becoming financially independent, however many people have a complicated relationship with their finances. Money was revealed to be a primary source of stress, topping relationships and work according to the Planning and Progress Study by Northwestern Mutual. Considering how you want to talk to your children about money and creating healthy boundaries is an important part of preparing them to enter adulthood.

In a previous post, I explore the relationship between money and mental health, but I want to take a closer look at financial enmeshment to discuss how it happens and how to avoid or move forward from it.

An article published in the Journal of Financial Therapy, “Financial Enmeshment: Untangling the Web” by Randy Kemnitz, M.S., Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D. and Kristy L. Archuleta, Ph.D. explores financial enmeshment within the family, stating that “financial enmeshment occurs when children are expected to fulfill adult roles in financial situations, including carrying the financial stress of the family.” A study by the American Psychological Association found that 65% of teens reported they felt stress related to family financial concerns. According to the article by Kemnitz, Klontz, and Archuleta, the following behaviors are examples of financial enmeshment within a family:

  1. Sharing developmentally inappropriate financial information with children who aren’t equipped to cope with the information or in a position to help. Examples of this would be exposing children to the extent of parent’s emotional distress around events such as job loss or bankruptcy.
  2. Parents processing their stress about finances with their children, such as treating their child more as a therapist in order to relieve the adult’s emotional stress about finances.
  3. Inappropriately controlling a child with money by offering financial incentives for meeting parent’s emotional needs (example, monetarily rewarding a child to encourage them to spend time with their parents rather than other people).
  4. In multi-child households, providing particular children with non-work related financial rewards, while not providing it to the other children.
  5. Taking money from children to handle financial responsibilities that belong to the parents.
  6. Putting a child in the position of mediator between two parents who are fighting over financial issues.
  7. Having a child field phone calls from creditors.
  8. Asking a child to manage bills or checkbooks belonging to their parents.

The article by Kemnitz, Klontz, and Archuleta explained that consequences of financial enmeshment for children can be significant, including blurred boundaries, difficulty for the child in developing their individual personality or coping skills, depression, aggressiveness, and anxiety, among other troubling mental health and life challenges.

If you suspect that your family may be dealing with financial enmeshment, working with a therapist can help to uncover familial patterns and identify ways to develop more appropriate boundaries. It’s okay to admit you’ve made a mistake; this is the first step in healing the damage and moving forward.

Or, maybe you are trying to figure out developmentally appropriate milestones to introduce different money concepts to your kids, and the most constructive ways to do this. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides a helpful Money as You Grow resource to help you determine when and how to approach money milestones with your children.