Our Soul Ties Series: Do You Have Unhealthy Emotional Bonds with Your Kids?

by | Nov 27, 2019 | Uncategorized | 35 comments

Are You Codependent with Your Children? How to keep emotional bonds with children healthy and not use kids as your emotional outlet.
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Are you becoming codependent with your children? Do you have unhealthy emotional bonds with your parents?

This month we’ve been talking about the concept of “soul ties“, which was preached a lot in Christian circles in the 1980s and 1990s, but which I don’t think are actually biblical. The idea was that soul ties can be formed by having sex with someone, and it happens in the spiritual realm. Thus, the tie needs to be broken in the spiritual realm, or it will hurt your life going forward (so you have to pray or do an exorcism or something).

I’ve been explaining this month that while we certainly can have demonic influences in our lives, often a broken heart is simply a broken heart. And sex does not always form tremendous bonds (though it can).

A better way to look at it, I argue, is the idea of emotional bonds.

We are all bonded emotionally to many people in our life. We love them, and they affect us. But these bonds can be either healthy or unhealthy.

A healthy emotional bond is one in which you feel bonded to someone else, and they make your life richer, but you also allow them to have their own thoughts, feelings and dreams without trying to change them, and you have your own thoughts, feelings, and dreams regardless of what others feel or think.

An unhealthy emotional bond is one in which your mood or state of mind is largely determined by what someone else does, what someone else feels, or what someone else thinks of you. Thus, your emotions are outside of your control, because they’re dependent on someone else (hence part of the reason for the term co-dependent, though the term encompasses more than that). 

Now, when something happens to someone we love, that is going to affect us. When my son died, I was understandably devastated. If a child is sick, you’ll be sad. When my girls had their hearts broken, I was beside myself (well, actually, I think in those situations I actually veered into the unhealthy emotional bond, so that’s likely not a good example!).

But with some bonds, we are so enmeshed with someone else that our mood, outlook on life, or dreams for the future are actually dependent on that other person. That is not healthy. That is living a boundary-less existence.

The most common unhealthy emotional bonds are with parents, children, or even siblings.

We can develop unhealthy emotional bonds with our parents, through no fault of our own.

Let me tell you the story of Susie to show you what I mean.

Susie’s mom was depressed again. Daddy was in trouble at work. He was standing on principle, he said. But meanwhile, where was the paycheck going to come from?

As soon as Susie came home from school she could sense that her mom was itching to unload on her. So she took the lunchboxes away from her little sisters and said to them, “let’s play dressup! Why don’t you both run and find all of my fun dresses and shoes and some of Mommy’s old makeup, and we’ll have a fashion show?” Her little sisters ran off, and she hoped they’d be gone for enough time that she could calm her mother down.

As her mom prepared the after-school snack she started moaning about Daddy. And little Susan listened, like she always did, hoping that spilling everything to Susie would stop her mom from worrying her little sisters.

Susie grew up. She got used to running interference for her siblings. She got used to judging her mother’s moods and trying to manage her mother’s emotions. And she started to really dislike her father, who was always irresponsible and got her mother so upset in the first place.

Susie’s story isn’t rare. We women often love to talk, and when there’s no one around to talk to except our children, we often turn to them. There’s nothing wrong with levelling with kids about the financial situation, the work situation, or other difficulties you are having. Kids can sense when something’s wrong, and naming the source of stress can actually be a relief to kids.

But sharing insight into what is happening is quite different than expecting your child to be your confidante. Using your child for emotional connection, or using your child as your outlet for physical affection, can be stifling. It places them in an adult role. And it often forces them, like Susan, to try to protect other siblings.

When you’re geographically isolated or socially isolated (because your husband’s in ministry and you can’t share what’s going on in your family, or because you homeschool, for instance), it can be tempting to use our children as an emotional dumping ground.


Deal with the issues in your marriage head on, even if it’s hard. Speak the truth to your husband and work through things. But don’t rely on your kids. Doing that means that you develop an unhealthy emotional bond with them, so that you need your kids to feel at peace and not alone in the world. But they also develop unhealthy bonds, because they feel responsible for your happiness. As they grow up, they often carry that into other relationships. They’re never taught to identify their own emotions, but only to manage other people’s emotions.

I’ve got more about how this can play out in the extended family right here:

When You’re Estranged from Family at Christmas

If you feel like you’re a Susie, and you’re carrying a lot of the emotional load of your family of origin, I’d encourage you to read the book Boundaries.

Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend

We can develop unhealthy emotional bonds with our children, too.

Susie’s mom was a great example of this, but relying on your kids to be your emotional outlet isn’t the only one. It could also take one of these forms:

Getting so tied up in dreams for your kids that you don’t have any for yourself–but only for them. And those dreams are often imposed by you.

Think of the mom who really wants her kid to make it as an Olympic skater, and who sacrifices everything for that to happen–even if her child isn’t actually on board. Or the mom who really, really wants her child to become a doctor, a lawyer, a preacher, a missionary, or even a stay-at-home homeschooling mom.

Or perhaps it’s not about career or calling, but instead mate. I know how difficult it is as a mom when you get emotionally bonded with someone your child is dating/interested in, and then that relationship ends. We can become very invested in our own visions of our kids’ futures, and that can throw us into a tailspin if it doesn’t come to pass.

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

Getting so tied up in your identity as a mom that you don’t know who you are otherwise. 

Being a mom was the best thing I ever did, my favourite vocation I’ve ever had, and the best thing in my life. I loved being home with my kids. I really did.

But I was also proud of them and okay when they left home (though I certainly bawled all the way home from Ottawa after we dropped our oldest off at university).

And when Katie left home, I embarked on a lot with my career that I had been putting off until she left.

Being a mom is all-encompassing, yes, but it is still not ALL that you are. When you put all of your identity into being a mom, then your kids’ successes and moods will impact you disproportionately, because if they don’t do well, it looks like you failed in your calling.

How can we make sure emotional bonds with family members are healthy, not unhealthy?

Know who you are.

Remember that you belong to Christ, and He has a unique calling on your life. He has planned good works for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). You matter.

Learn about boundaries.

Two great books for that: Boundaries and The Emotionally Healthy Woman. Both awesome!

Cultivate close friendships

I’m great friends with my daughters, but I also have friends. And when my daughters were children, I did not confide in them the same way I do now. Everybody needs friends!

Pursue hobbies, callings, and interests.

Everybody needs something in their life that doesn’t revolve around family. For some it’s a job, but for others it may be volunteer work, a hobby, or anything. But have something else that brings you joy that is not related to family.

I could say more about cutting out toxic people, or about getting counseling, but you all get the idea.

The people who can most affect our moods are often the people closest to us. So just make sure that those relationships have boundaries, and that they reflect the Christian idea of “spurring one another on to love and good deeds”, rather than anything regarding manipulation, coercion, or codependency.

Don't Become Emotionally Dependent on Your Kids: How to make sure your relationships aren't codependent

What do you think? Have you ever felt responsible for a family member’s feelings? Do you carry your children’s disappointments? How can we keep the right balance? Let’s talk in the comments!

Read Our Soul Ties Series:

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Cara

    This is so interesting. I found out someone said this about me-that I had an unhealthy emotional attachment to my children. Ironically it was said to my married, adult daughter-who is one of my best friends.
    Reading this, the only one of the symptoms I might have is that my identity is extremely tied up in motherhood. I want to do a good job tho! It is my only job outside of wife.
    The irony of the timing this person said that tho…my oldest son (17) was across the country (we lived in Texas and he was somewhere around Utah, Idaho or maybe Washington State!) with his best friend in a Jeep. On a trip I encouraged because it was his dream and this summer was the ONLY opportunity with his best friend.
    Was I worried (or ya know, terrified?) absolutely! Did I stifle him? NOPE.
    And I was also sending my youngest to church camp for the first time with ZERO friends of his going in the boy group. So I was likely a little preoccupied with my sons. But I didn’t keep them from going! I had to push the youngest a little!

    Anyways, thanks for the clarification. I’m pretty comfortable with who I am as a mom and more so after reading this. I did however create boundaries with the person that talked negatively about me to my child. 🙂

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Good for you, Cara! That sounds really healthy.

      I’m very, very good friends with my daughters. I really am. But I’m also learning lately that I have a lot of issues in my own life and I’m really busy, so when one of them has a problem, I give advice as far as I can, but then I say, “You know what? You can handle this. Talk to your husband (sister, friend, whomever).” I know I don’t have to fix it or carry it anymore, because they can deal with it.

      And then I try to let it go. So, yes, we’re friends. But I’m not responsible for their lives, and they’re not responsible for mine.

      • Cara

        I didn’t even add that my oldest got married at 17 (NOT pregnant lol) and has lived away from me since 16 (due to stupid life circumstances-we had to travel for work and she needed to keep working and do her dual credit courses).
        Did I like that? No! But I tried to do what was best for her!

        I try never to interrupt her and her husband! I don’t even call when he’s home unless there’s something urgent. We (my daughter and I ) have come to the conclusion that other than our husbands we are our best friends. People have become so flaky and busy. I figure getting through the teenage angst, I EARNED this best friend!! Lol

        Thanks again for the healthy definitions. It really helped me because you always wonder If there’s truth in someone’s criticism.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          When my son-in-law was working outside the home, but my daughter was working for me, I tried to only call during business hours, so that when her husband was home, she was with him. My other daughter is married to a guy in the military, who is away a lot. When he’s home, I try not to call. I think that’s a good boundary to set, because they all should get the chance to put their marriages before me. But I do love talking to them when we get the chance!

  2. Sarah

    I know I was dependent upon my oldest for emotional comfort and friendship when she was younger, like 8 to 10 years old she is now almost 18. We lived literally in a community of hardly anyone because it’s where my husband wanted to live, on 5 acres of pinion pine and scrub oak. He worked out of town Monday-Friday and our marriage was not in a good place. Looking back now I think I wanted my daughter to be just as angry at him as I was. So sick and twisted, I see that now. My husband and I have developed a much better relationship, I dare say it’s a hundred times better, we moved to a large town, he changed careers and is home every night, I found healing and counseling to abuse that I had buried since my own childhood. I worry though that I may have damaged my oldest for life. She has seen counseling at the age of 16 for what he called social depression and anxiety and has learned to set boundaries with her friends. I see a Huge improvement in that area of her life but… there still seems to be a wedge between her and I. How do I remove that wedge? What can I do to make this right for her?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s so tough, Sarah! It’s wonderful that you’re recognizing it now, though. I really think for most of these things the biggest point of healing is being able to name something and talk about it. So even saying to her, “I feel as if I leaned on you too much when you were younger, and made you feel like you had to make sure I didn’t get depressed. I’m sorry for putting that pressure on you. I want you to know that you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s feelings.” If you can say that out loud, then you give her permission to speak and acknowledge it, too, which helps her identify and name some of the things that are holding her back.

      And then just time. Time helps a lot!

  3. Rebecca

    I’ve had to put up strong boundaries with my mom as an adult. My whole life she’s used my emotional energy for her needs. I’m in a horribly difficult season right now, and I need all the energy I have–besides, I’m not responsible for how she feels, nor is it my job to handle her emotions. She’s not happy about it, and we’re not doing Thanksgiving as a family this year, but the older I get the less time I have for foolishness. I love her, I’m trying to forgive her, but I’m done being her emotional proxy.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Rebecca, that must be so hard. You’re very right, though–it’s not your job to carry her emotions. It really isn’t. And it’s okay to draw boundaries.

      (I just need to point out, though, that this isn’t MY daughter Rebecca, if anyone is wondering. )

      • Rebecca

        Oh gosh, no, I’m not Sheila’s Rebecca! 🤣 Sorry for any confusion!

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I just thought it was super funny! (But I am very sorry for what you’re walking through. I’m sorry, too, that your mom doesn’t see what she’s doing to you. She’s hurting herself as well.)

  4. Phil

    This isnt exactly on topic but has to do with boundaries. My Mom and us and close family friends would go out to eat every Sunday after church. They would sit there right in front of us and berate the church and its politics and the people involved. We knew way more than any child should know about what was going on in our church. It was just plain wrong. That lack of boundary while not codependent definitely had impact on both me and my brother with regard to how we handled things growing up. We got a ton of really wrong messages that we had to overcome as adults. Unfortunately I believe my Brother is still dealing with that as an ordained minister who is 50. Oh so critical how we parent and act as adults. Makes me grateful to know that while I am not perfect for sure I know I am parenting my children in a healthy manner. I guess thats my Thanksgiving message 🙂. Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends and many blessings to the rest of you as well.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is a very good point, Phil. I think I may have veered too much in this direction with my kids, too. There are some things that kids just don’t need to hear.

      • Cara

        That is a super hard balance! I think I say too much in front of and to my kids also. (In my defense, I’m with them or they’re in ear shot of me almost 24/7. We have never had any help really)

        The upside of this (I hope) is that they know truth about many things. My kids are more mature than many their ages. (Except the baby of the family-he’s the quintessential “baby of the family”)

  5. Anonymous

    I think I maybe need to read this boundary book. My kiddies are young still and at the stage where they are so incredibly dependent on you as caregiver that you go a little crazy sometimes. Lol. Feel like I haven’t screwed them up too badly yet.

    But my mom. Right now the woman has way too much of an emotional hold on my life. At one point I had a counsellor tell me that it was important for me to cut the emotional ties to my mother. She wasn’t advocating cutting her out but imagining all the emotional ties as rope that was tying my emotions to her and the getting a bit pair of scissors and snipping them to let the emotions go. I did it quite capable at the time. (I was about 20-22 at the time?).

    Now though I am 36 mother of two toddlers and pregnant again and I’m just so angry at her all the time because of all the drama she has and has created and is creating in her own life and in all our lives. I just can’t let the anger go because every time she does something it brings it all up again. I need to go back somehow or forward and find a way to sever those ties again. Because what is going on in her life and her emotional ridiculous drama and her ridiculous decisions and life choices shouldn’t impact my every thought. I might try that book Boundaries….. anyone have any other suggestions for good books??? (I should add I’m the eldest sibling and have always felt more responsible for my siblings and what is going on with my parents 🤦‍♀️)

    At the end of the day I want to focus on my life and my children’s life and not have this ridiculous dark cloud hanging over me due to someone else’s poor choices.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I completely hear you. Other people’s drama shouldn’t sap our energy. I’d honestly start with Boundaries; it’s a great general book that teaches principles that will help in a variety of ways. Then maybe turn to some more specific ones: When To Walk Away by Gary Thomas; Changes that Heal by Cloud again. I hope those help!

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Sheila. I’be sent the Boundaries book to my husband as part of my Christmas list so maybe I will get that. Lol.

    • Lea

      A friend of mine just said i need to take a ‘not my circus not my monkeys’ attitude in regards to stuff my family is doing that bothers me and that works, sometimes. (helps that I’m a grown adult living on my own with a bit of distance)

      • Anonymous

        Yes I understand that theory in principal and I find it difficult to execute in practicality especially concerning my parents. I don’t know why. I think our relationship (with my mom) has been unhealthy most of my life. Sigh.

    • Tammy

      This particular subject has been one of many that I have found hard to untangle from some of the teachings I learned growing up in Christianity. Sheila’s blog has been a help to me in discerning the differences in broadly applying scripture and understanding and applying it with wisdom.

      I too am a mother, and this issue of understanding unhealthy attachments became clearer as I began to invest more of my time there. That said, I have read many helpful books that have helped me to understand where I did not realize I had become entangled in scripture. Here are a few:

      Cloud and Townsend also wrote a book that was titled: The Mom Factor that may be helpful. They have since updated it and renamed it (I believe) to: Our Mothers, Ourselves.

      The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick

      Adult Children Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD

      Fool-proofing Your Life by Jan Silvious

      Setting Boundaries with Your Aging Parents by Allison Bottke

      I also recommend the books that Shelia mentioned in her post.

      It is not always easy to understand how to handle these difficult situations from the common scriptures thrown at the situation/you. I previously had started a blog to try to vocalize some of the ways I had learned things from scripture that had entangled me and left me feeling victimized and/or confused from lack of discernment. I would like to get back to it. I have been thankful that Sheila has a blog that helps people see the distinctions in applying scripture and working through things in relationships!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Tammy, I’m so glad you’ve found the blog helpful! And I’m glad to dismantle this whole idea of soul ties. Yes, we can have very unhealthy emotional bonds that do need to be dealt with. But we also need discernment so that we’re not seeing a demon behind every corner. I don’t think that’s healthy either!

  6. Nathan

    Due to divorce and some geographical things, my mother was very dependent on me for emotional support when I was younger. It was complicated by the fact that at that time I preferred to spend time alone.

    We finally got to a place where she could establish a good circle of friends and other family members, so it all worked out well in the end.

  7. AspenP

    This is spot on! I have read both Cloud & Townsend’s Boundaries In Marriage book and Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (and I love Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage) so I feel like I’m on the same wavelength or book club as you lately. What are we reading next? 🤣 I’m actually on a book right now by Mark DeJesus called Exposing the Rejection Mindset and it has been solid.

    Another thought on codependent parenting…my husband grew up with a mom who relied on him emotionally to fulfill her needs and even somewhat physically care for her including some odd cuddling/bedsharing while he was in high school and she was lonely after getting divorced. When we got married a decade ago, there was a jealousy dynamic like I had stolen her man…and I think I kind of did. To this day, I wonder if any of that dynamic plays a role in our own struggle with sex and intimacy. It’s almost as if there was an emotional incest going on which has made it difficult to break from and connect to me.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m reading The Body Keeps The Score next! But I’ll check out Exposing the Rejection Mindset. 🙂

      I definitely think there could be a case of emotional enmeshment there with your husband and his mom. Sleeping in the same bed while he’s in high school? That’s just weird and definitely crosses a line. I’m sorry. If he’ll talk to a counselor about it that would likely be a very good thing!

      • AspenP

        I have The Body Keeps the Score on my reading list! Crazy….I’m not even making that up. 🤣

  8. Karen

    Great post! Often a strong (and sometimes condemning) message comes from women in my Church circles that you shouldn’t do this—they promote and advocate as “most biblical” a very dependent relationship between mother and children. They encourage motherhood to define a woman’s every moment and look down on mothers who don’t pursue that identity in the way they do or a way they approve of. To me it’s damaging like the purity culture messages were damaging to me as a teen, and I only get these messages or am exposed to the pressure in Christian contexts. While our family life is central to us, we also encourage and pursue relationships outside of our family to the benefit of all. I can’t imagine my life wrapped up in my home and kids with no enriching outside relationships. Thanks for once again being a voice of reason in the Church!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Karen! 🙂

      • Karen

        Question I have been meaning to ask: Are you/Keith familiar with the group Biologos on blending faith and science? I recently discovered it and am enjoying learning more so far.
        On the pressure: Recently I have had to take a hard look at the Christian tradition I was raised in and, though it feels like home to me, many things about it don’t seem to “work” anymore. For context—if you are familiar with the group Girl Defined—I grew up in a church plant from their home church, then when I graduated from college ended up joining their actual home church (ten or so years ago—I didn’t really know them beyond occasionally seeing them in singles group stuff years ago and don’t cross paths with them now.). I was there when the ministry was formed, then was away for a few years, and upon returning recently (and having forgotten who they were between times) I am surprised that they are still at work and don’t always agree with their point of view. I can only comment on the points of view advocated—I’m not trying to comment on them as individuals or personally. Having two daughters, I wonder how prevalent these ideas are at this church/others like mine and especially for the youth. What will they hear in youth group? How influential are they? Should I even let them go or just dive into 4H or something? The church has a great heart and a lot of good things going, but this is making me think. What does a mom like me do?

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I think Girl Defined is sadly quite influential, even though what they’re preaching is very legalistic. It’s very sad. I know my girls went to a youth group which definitely had elements of that. Happily we were totally the opposite at home, so it didn’t scar them too much. But it certainly did affect them, and it really did hurt others in the same situation.

          I haven’t heard of Biologos–I’ll look into that. It sounds like something Keith would love!

          • Joanna Sawatsky

            I’m SO late to this party – but BioLogos is FABULOUS. I feel like a complete dweeb for not mentioning it to Keith myself (I have a microbiology degree, so this issue is near and dear to my heart.)

            Thanks for reminding us of the many wonderful resources that are out there!

  9. Anon

    It would be great if you could write some more about how to set wise boundaries in families, when someone is or wants to be emotionally dependent on you.

    My mother has always been over-dependent on me (including sharing some very inappropriate things with me as a child). Now I’m in my mid-40s and engaged to be married. My fiance and I have had several conversations as to how to build boundaries so that she doesn’t assume she can call me for hours every night, expect me to drive to see her whenever she wants… It’s hard to know the balance between honouring & caring for her, as is Biblical, while maintaining the space around our relationship both now as an engaged couple, and once we are married.

    • Anon #2

      I have been in an unhealthy parent/child/sibling bonding state my entire life, until about 5 years ago, when I started to realize that it wasn’t working for me anymore. and I read the book boundaries like 5 times, set limits, and this year I finally joined a support group with this whole thing in mind. I desperately wanted help in what Anon was asking about. What is biblical boundary setting? I had no idea because I was never taught. I was taught to manage my actions to make my mom and sister happy; denying my “selfish” wants or needs. but, thankfully, through Boundaries, and Changes that Heal, and, most critical to my recovery has been going to a certified, licensed therapist. Instead of changing my mom and sister, i am learning to change my responses to them. I cannot recommend those two books enough, but also finding a support group and therapist, because you need people to practice those emotional skills with. Ones that won’t react terribly to your boundary setting, but support you. There’s so much to cover with all this, but I am so grateful to Shelia because reading her blog spurred me on to get that good therapist and help. I think she mentioned it in an earlier post, with holidays and difficult relatives with good boundaries. That was a fantastic post. Also, Anon, you are not mean or selfish for limiting other people’s bad behavior. What you will allow, will continue. thanks Shelia for all your good advice!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I’m so glad that I pointed you in the right direction! And I’m so glad you found a great therapist, too. That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing!

      • Anon

        Anon#2, thank you for your comment – I will check out the books you recommend. It’s good to hear from someone who has experienced a similar situation.

        I’m fortunate in a way, in that follow some extreme (even for her) behaviour a few years back, I finally gave up the expectation of ever having a normal mother/daughter relationship. I actually went through a process of mourning – grieving the loss of that hope in the same way that I’ve seen other daughters grieve the loss of their mother – but my grief was the acceptance that I would never experience that relationship. Now, her behaviour doesn’t affect me emotionally in the way that it used to, which is a blessing. But I am aware that I still have a responsibility to care for her – it’s just sometimes hard knowing how! It’s encouraging to be reminded that I’m not the only one struggling with this issue.

  10. K

    When I got married I had to come to grips with fact I was from an enmeshed family. Good post on it. I would add that also beware of enmeshed sibling relationships. In my family that was an offspring of enmeshed mom-child relationships. If there is one enmeshed relationship in a nuclear family, seems hard for any relationships in that family to be healthy. I am working now to do it different with my own kids. Reading blogs like this help untangle all those messed up messages from growing up.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad it’s helping, K!


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