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What is enmeshment and how can it affect a child custody case

Mother sitting with daughter on couch - family struggling with enmeshment

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is when the boundaries and roles between a parent and a child become unclear, blurred, or in some situations, even completely broken or unrecognizable. In the most serious of situations, the child becomes so wrapped in the parent’s feelings, beliefs or displays of anger that the child takes them on as their own and even believes that the parent’s feelings and beliefs are the child’s own. There are many different reasons a parent may become enmeshed with a child, generally the reasons are related to traumatic events or serious illness.

Certainly, a divorce or change in family dynamics can be a traumatic event for both, the child and one or both of the parents involved such that enmeshment can occur. Often, the emotions surrounding the changes in family dynamics can either consciously or even unconsciously cause a parent to act in ways that enmesh him or her with a child. The integration process, when done to an extreme level, can make the adult feel as though the child is co-dependent upon him or her, as though the child is an infant again. In serious forms of enmeshment, abnormal, unhealthy behaviors can seem normal to the parent who is enmeshed with the child.

Identifying Enmeshment

Some examples of enmeshed behaviors that are concerning for a child include when the relationship between a parent and child seems to become an equal relationship where the child’s wants or desires are given equal weight (in the parent’s or adult’s mind) and the parent uses the child as an adult confidant and support system.

Another example is when a role reversal occurs such that the child feels he or she is “rewarded” when the child serves an emotionally fragile parent’s need for support, self-worth and/or comfort. In other scenarios, a parent turns to a child to fill the “missing” role a spouse in providing comfort, helping with emotions or even doing the chores that were expected of a former husband such as asking the child to become the “mane of the house.” In other situations, fathers will request that a daughter serve a motherly role in making meals, caring for younger siblings and other similar scenarios. Additionally, often in enmeshment situations, the enmeshed parent will frequently accuse and/or make the child feel that they are betraying the confidence of the enmeshed parent if the child is bonded with or enjoys time with the other parent. Finally, frequently, in enmeshed situations, the enmeshed parent makes the child feel as if the other parent is wrong/incorrect and has alienated him or her (often to earn or gain the sympathies of the child).

It is important to note that the behavior of enmeshed parents will often have long-term, lasting effects on a child that may continue through adulthood. The really sad thing that occurs is when an enmeshed parent creates a belief on the part of the child or children involved that makes the child believe that one of the parents (the other parent) does not want the child and/or does not want anything to do with him or her. This unhealthy scenario with an enmeshed parent will create a scenario where the child begins to adopt and conform to the enmeshed parent’s beliefs about the other parents thoughts, feelings and opinions.

When deeply seated enmeshment occurs, a child stops understanding the difference between a parent’s beliefs or desires and the child’s beliefs and individual thinking. The child stops having a conceptual understanding that he or she is an individual person and capable of having autonomy (in an age-appropriate way) with their own feelings, beliefs and thoughts. Enmeshment can also create intense feelings of guilt, shame or other negative feelings associated with any time the child believes he or she has a thought or belief that differs from the parent the child is enmeshed with. Ultimately, enmeshment can create mild emotional harm or even significant, long-term, several emotional harm that rises to the level of emotional abuse. People outside of the family system would not readily see concerns and would often believe or assume that the parent and child have an appropriate, tight-knit bond, however, mental health and other legal professionals such as guardian ad litem’s (who advocate for the best interests of the children) are likely to have significant concern about the emotional abuse and harm that a child suffers in these circumstances.

How should enmeshment be dealt with?

If you have concerns about your child being enmeshed with the other parent, it is imperative that you involve a team of professionals to help your family work through these issues. Often the team needs to involve a qualified child therapist, as well as a legal professional to try to assist with legal solutions. An experienced therapist can help a family struggling with enmeshment recognize the issues, the problems and begin to work on solutions and strategies that will ensure productive, emotional growth for both, the parent and child. Unfortunately, in almost all families involving enmeshment issues, the family law litigation surrounding the family is more complicated.

In many situations involving enmeshment, there are accompanying concerns of parental alienation. While these issues are not quickly or easily resolved, they can be worked through methodically with the assistance of knowledgeable and experienced professionals.

Enmeshment & Child Custody

Enmeshment can certainly complicate a family law matter. If a child custody matter is being discussed, parental alienation will absolutely be brought up.

If you believe your family is struggling with enmeshment and accompanying parental alienation issues, allow our office to join your team of supportive professionals. Call Pingel Family Law today to schedule a consultation to discuss your options- and solutions at (816) 208-8130.