Parenting the enmeshed child: a thankless task?

This post is a follow up to last week’s post on the use of stereotypes to alienate parents. This week I am looking at the issue of enmeshment, a peculiar feature of many alienated family systems and one which is almost exclusively seen where fathers are the rejected parent.

Enmeshment is something we work with a lot at the Family Separation Clinic, it is one of the most common features seen in alienation cases where a child has entered into withdrawal because of a too strong emotional entanglement with a parent who suffers over identification with their children.  Whilst this sounds breezy, the treatment of the enmeshed child is one of the most complex and frustrating tasks that we undertake in our work with alienated children and I thought it might be worth taking a closer look at this phenomenon, because it can be present before separation as well as afterwards and it can be present from birth as well as entered into as a result of separation. Teasing out the elements of the picture of enmeshment is a powerful way of understanding what needs to happen to change the child’s behavioural presentations. And when you understand, you can adapt your parenting to help the child and when you adapt your parenting to help the child you start to get a positive response. Which turns what can be a thankless task into one in which you begin to see incremental gains, which in turn is encouraging and which feeds your determination to keep going.  Which is what enmeshed children really need you to do, over the longer term and consistently, instead of giving up in the face of what feels like constant rejection and alignment.

Enmeshment in psychological terms was first introduced by Salvador Minuchin  to describe families where personal boundaries are not well differentiated and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development.  We’ve all known the enmeshed mother and child relationship, in which the mother is unable to see the child as separate from the self and in which the child’s behaviours and reactions develop in a fused circular reflection of the mother.  Anxiety is high in such relationships and the mother is likely to be in an enmeshed relationship with her own mother. These parents come from families where boundary blurring is common and where the individual self is often seen as unnecessary or unwanted. Enmeshment behaviours are those which are seen in children whose rejection of a parent is based upon their inability to act on their own feelings because they have grown up to understand that acting on their mother’s feelings before their own is how feelings of well being and security are obtained.  I say mother advisedly.  Most of the enmeshed relationships that I have seen have been about mothers and their children, especially mothers and their daughters.  This arises, in my experience, from a mother whose own boundaries are poorly differentiated with her own mother, who then goes on to mother a daughter who she is unable to see as separate from herself.  This leads to serious difficulties for co-parenting because the lack of differentiated self means that when a mother’s own sense of self is threatened, for example by the desire of a father to parent his child separately from the mother, (as is necessary after separation), the lack of boundaries means that the mother cannot differentiate between the threat to her own self and the threat to her child.  The reaction in the enmeshed mother in such circumstances,  is to act as if the unit of mother and child is threatened. And actually in enmeshed family situations, a threat to the mother can cause a reaction in the family as if the family itself is being threatened. In many families, mother, grandmother and child all react as if they are the same person, fusing together to ward off a hostile aggressor who is perceived as a threat to the family system instead of a father who would like to parent his child.

The threat to the system, which is posed by the father who would like to parent his child separately from the relationship that he has with the mother of his child, is caused by the desire of the father to separate the child from the mother.  In enmeshed systems, a child cannot be separate from the mother because the boundaries between self and other are blurred. In many respects this is a failure of the family system to allow the process of individuation, (that psychological process of separation from others which begins in early childhood and ends in later life as the individuated human closes the circle of physical life with the recognition that whilst we live life as separate individuals, we return to a place of diffuse boundaries where we acknowledge and recognise our connectedness) instead concentrating upon keeping the family woven together in a state of diffusion which prevents attempts to secure a separate sense of self.  A father who seeks to parent his child separately in this kind of system, must first understand the challenges to the child that his hopes pose and then must understand how the enmeshed system works.  Too many fathers in my experience, do not understand this and spend years as well as thousands of pounds of hard earned cash asking the family courts to achieve what is actually impossible to achieve without the right kind of help.  And the right kind of help is psychological as well as educational and about parenting skills which match the enmeshed child’s needs,  rather than the government’s preferred mediation services which are futile in the face of such difficulties.

I am speaking of enmeshed mothers and I am doing so purposefully because the mother/child relationship is already enmeshed to some degree by the time the child is born. There is no greater an experience of boundary blurring than having a child growing inside your physical self. For those months of growth, the boundary of the mother and child is literally unseen and in the birthing process and beyond, the differentiation of self which takes place between mother and child is a slow emerging from a blurred rainbow of polymorphous experience to a sharpening of differentiated experiences. The very act of growing and giving birth to a child is an exercise in enmeshment but the reality of healthy parenting is that as the early days of blissful floating in the merged sense of mother/baby self fade, the boundaries begin to be set by the parents working together. From feed times to sleeping in their own bed to routines and the satsifying of the attachment needs, babies are helped to gain an independent sense of self which is sequential and which leads towards the healthy independent adult.  Except in enmeshed families, where those boundaries do not form in sequential ways and where the sense of self remains merged with the others in the family.

It may seem unfair that I am so focused on mothers here but in my experience the enmeshed father is rare, apart from that is, the father who is enmeshed with his controlling mother. This enmeshment, which is again a case of blurred boundaries, often arises when the father over idealises his mother who has played the role of mother AND father in his life.  These controlling mothers are often married to or in partnership with a silenced and emasculated father who is dismissed and disregarded.  The boundary blurring which takes place in these families is that of the mother taking her son as a quasi spouse, replacing the dismissed husband and persuading the son that he is the rightful head of the household. This enmeshed father will often force his children to accept their grandmother (his mother) over their mother and will persuade the children that this is the right thing to do. This is the psychological aspect of the gendered use of stereotypes to cause alienation which I wrote about in my last blog.

Parenting an enmeshed child, if you are outside of the enmeshed system can feel like a thankless task because the enmeshed child who is removed from the enmeshed system is clingy and fearful and finds it very difficult to enjoy life outside of the system. This is because the enmeshed system feels warm and fluffy, fluid and responsive, blissfully so in that the child’s every needs are anticipated and met. Anticipated and met because those needs are not very different to those experienced by the mother who meets them. You can see these enmeshed systems every single day of the week, mothers and children wearing similar clothes, talking about similar things, enthusing about the latest Harry Potter film as if they are friends rather than adult and child. Some mothers do not know that this is not parenting a child, some, when they do realise, are able to make the shift., some are not. Treating the system depends on whether the adults involved can accept that there is a difference between being the parent and being the child.

Advice for dads who want to parent an enmeshed child is focused upon learning as quickly and intensively as possible, how to use empathic responding. Essentially, to get an enmeshed child out of the enmeshed system you have to mimic the enmeshment as much as you can, think fluffy, think fluid, think loving, thinking nurturing, think about the way in which you can create for your child the conditions she is leaving, at least at first.  Think also about the threat that the system faces when you try to remove the child, placating the system by offering reassurance, agreeing to timetables and sticking to them, supporting communications between the system and the child (at least at first) is the way to do it. When you have soothed the system and proved you are not a threat you can concentrate on helping your child to build stronger boundaries and a differentiated self. But to do that you have to actually have time with your child and for too many dads, getting that time is the first hurdle they have to overcome.

Some enmeshed systems cannot be helped because the problem is pathological and the child’s right to an independent self is suffocated. Those systems need more robust intervention because the suffocation is abusive. Some systems can be helped and all enmeshed children need the intervention of the other parent at some stage if they are to live a life outside of the system.

Parenting the enmeshed child, with all the clinginess, alignments and rejections it can bring can be a thankless task but it doesn’t have to be a hopeless one. Enmeshment can be treated and it can be helped and some mothers who recognise they have the problem are willing to get help and be helped. Learning how to approach the problem of enmeshment, how to recognise it and how to intervene in it is a major task for a lot of separated dads.

And it is one that your children will one day thank you for undertaking.

9 thoughts on “Parenting the enmeshed child: a thankless task?

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Some enmeshed systems cannot be helped because the problem is pathological and the child’s right to an independent self is suffocated. Those systems need more robust intervention because the suffocation is abusive. Some systems can be helped and all enmeshed children need the intervention of the other parent at some stage if they are to live a life outside of the system.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong but the fluid, fluffiness of the system is also what makes it so difficult for professionals to spot that something is not right. On the surface the enmeshed child will appear well care for and in a closely bonded relationship with its mother and separation anxiety is common in children so the clinginess is also not an alarm bell. The mother will appear to be very caring and engaged with her child, so all appears well, but the reality is that there is only one person whose needs are truly met and that is the mother’s. I guess spotting this comes down to being able to see, not what is there, a closely bonded relationship, but rather what is absent, the age appropriate space and support to move away from the family system.


    1. You are absolutely bang on Kat. The fluffiness, the happiness, the cosiness, the perfectness, the closeness, the absolute loviness, is what blinds professionals to the problem. The mothers needs are met as her own mothers needs were met by denying her needs as a child. Alice Miller wrote about this, she said something along the lines of, the girl gets the love she didn’t get when she is mother of her own child and expects that child to mother her in the way she had to mother her own mother in childhood. In working class cultures in this country at least, this expectation ‘honour thy mother’ was and in some families still is, standard. The denial of the self of the child is not seen as abusive, but it is, very much so, in fact it is more abusive than physical harm – studies have shown it recently – because the child does not know that the ‘love’ is abusive and does not know that in being so loved their own life chances are curtailed and shaped.


      1. Thank you so much for this comment, Karen……having already achieved relative peace of mind (despite a totally unresolved situation with my 4 adult children) the “penny has dropped” and provided a moment of clarity for me that has been lacking for some 14 years following the start of my journey as a targeted parent. Being, that my ex-wife was so damaged in her feelings of loneliness, rejection and inadequacy that the acceptance, understanding and filling of her vast “void” of/by our children (ie unconditional love) has provided a cure for her pain that has been worth far more to her than the emotional well-being of our children (which includes the failure of our marriage)

        Despite enduring, what feels like, the hatred of our 3 daughters (24, 22 & 20) and our son (16) for 14 years I genuinely see those children as my “gift” to someone very very needy (albeit that, in reality, she believes she stole the sharing of their lives from me). The fact is, however, that I have the choice of how to feel about whether it was my gift or her theft…..just like I had a choice in whether to enter the relationship in the first place.

        In summary, having compassion has to be the best response for our children in the long-term……”but for the grace of…..there go I”


      2. I need help! I have been separated and now am recently divorced. I have two daughters, 8 years and 16 years old. Not long after my youngest daughter was born my oldest daughter and my ex wife began to spend more time together and this intensifies the last several years. Once we separated I bought the house we used to live in and my ex wife got a condo. I wanted to have both my daughters stay at my house half the time. I really love them and have always been involved in their lives. But my oldest daughter was hesitant to stay at my house. She would stay a couple of nights a week and them would spend less time.
        One day I talked with her and told her that my relationship with her was really important to me and that I really wanted her to stay at least two nights a week at my house. She told me that if I pushed her too much she would not stay atall. I asked her why she did not want to stay at my house and she told me that she wanted to be with her mother and that she would miss her. Since that time she has not spent many days at all at my house. This breaks my heart. When she does come over, she will wait by the door when she know her mother is picking her up. I feel as if she is pulling further away from me. I try to talk to her. I text her every night to tell her I love her
        I have been driving her to school most days of the week and picking her up from school two days a week. She is now getting her drivers license and I am afraid I will hardly see her. I really miss her and I want to be a good father to her. But I feel as if her and her mother are so involved with each other that there is no room for me to be a father to her.
        What can I do? I don’t think this is good for my daughter.



  3. Life continues to be an eye-opener. It must be a wonderful thing to reach a state of independent thought (as if that were ever possible).

    How much of what we think and how we behave is determined by how we relate to our parents?

    As our children start to “fly away from the nest” what do they pack away for a rainy day and what are they prepared to leave in tatters by the roadside seemingly of no consequence to them?

    On leaving for a new life at University “Mind how you go”, she said tearfully to her daughter as Dad stood stoically by……………….. as if this was a proud determinate moment of his precious child’s development.

    No more fevered desperate instructions from home then, just a friendly voice at the end of the line for when things get tough.

    I guess we have to manage enmeshment with our Dandlebear Bridge, giving our children understanding and coping strategies, putting the big wide world out there in better context making it not such a scary place after all. In spite of all the conditioning and compulsions our child might feel when overpowered by a controlling parent it is possible for the understanding parent to live alongside the controlling parent and help their child develop their sense of self worth and identity.

    Acceptance, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, acknowledgement are all worthy of your armoury in these circumstances……………….like some giant empathic sponge.

    Kind regards


  4. Wow,
    Describes the maternal family system perfectly, sad for all concerned watching the mother of your children still desperately trying to gain approval from her own mother to keep the anxiety at bay.

    As you state the parent (mother in this instance) sees themselves and the child as one, often I find communications a give away when the mother speaks on behalf of the child stating “we” or “the children and I”…don’t want you to come to the school play.

    Thank you Karen, the more you write, the more we learn.


  5. Is it common for the alienator to actually use a symbol/branding to further enmesh the relationship? I ask because my child is now wearing a symbol on a necklace and wearing t-shirts with the same symbol on, whilst the alienator has got a tattoo (at the age of 50) of the symbol: like a declaration of the bond and their own personal brand. Have you come across this before ?


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