enmeshment n. a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.APA definition
One of the most common problems seen in post divorce relationships between parents and children, is enmeshment. This problem, which causes serious harm to children, arises from the inability of a parent to promote develpmental stages towards individuation in a child. When it is seen in families where children are outright rejecting a parent, it is one of the red flags which prompt further investigation into the child’s relationship with the parent they are aligned to. Enmeshment causes emotional and psychological problems for children because it prevents normal, age appropriate steps towards independence of mind and body. It is a serious problem when the child is seen to be enmeshed to the degree where they are regulating parental anxiety. When this is seen, the child is highly likely to be parentified, a situation in which they are meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent, eschewing not only their own needs in favour of the parental need but being prevented from knowing that they have needs. In such circumstances, where thechild is strongly aligned to one and rejecting the other parent outright and where the child is meeting the emotional and psychological needs of a parent they are aligned to and that cannot be changed in situ, they are considered to be without parental care they are entitled to and beyond parental control, another risk factor which meets the welfare threshold in the UK.
The welfare threshold is crossed, when parents are doing something that has already caused harm, doing something which may cause future risk of harm or when the child is beyond parental control. The welfare threshold being crossed in a case is likely to result in an order for intervention. Whilst enmeshment alone is not enough in most cases to cross the welfare threshold, when it is accompanied by a child being beyond parental control due to the range of issues including parentification, resistance to outside intervention, inability to accept external authority and rejection of a parent who could provide healthy care, the likelihood is that the threshold is crossed and a Section 37 report, in which the Local Authority is asked to make an assessment of the family is ordered. In many cases I have worked in, this is the route through which enmeshment between a child and parent is addressed.
Enmeshed relationships look like love from the outside but from the inside they are a distortion of what is healthy. In enmeshment, the parent experiences their own feelings as indivisible from the childs and expects and demands that the child aligns with their world view after divorce or separation. Not only is the child expected to feel the same, projections from the parent onto the child, mean that the parent sees their own split off feelings enacted by the child, meaning that the interpretation of what a child says and does is coloured by the parents own feelings which they deny. Parents who are enmeshed with their children do not understand that their children may feel differently to them and the signals that they give to the child in the inter-psychic relationship are that the other parent is to be feared/pitied/kept at distance/not trusted/rejected. When the child acts to reflect these unconscious signals from the parent, the parent is comforted that the child is saying and doing what the parent expects and uses that as evidence to show that the child feels the same way as they do.
Differentiating enmeshment from a situation where a parent is helping to keep a child safe from an abusive parent, is undertaken by observation of whether or not a child is using defensive splitting as a coping mechanism. The child who is rejecting a relationship with a parent because of something that parent has done, will show a more ambivalent resistance to the relationship and their pattern of rejection will not have echoes of the other parent’s feelings. A child who is enmeshed however, will show a strong and unrelenting rejection accompanied by a strong and unrelenting alignment and their speech and behaviour patterns, will echo that of the parent to whom they are aligned. In observation of these dyads, the child and aligned parent will act in ways that demonstrate enmeshment, the child will not answer a question without looking at a parent to check the parent’s reaction for example or the parent will answer for the child repeatedly. An enmeshed child will not be able to manage independence of mind and feelings in such circumstances and will be seen to need to regulate a parent in order to feel safe in themselves.
Enmeshment is very difficult to treat in situations where a child is strongly aligned and rejecting and it is therefore with the aligned parent that we must begin work first. Many practitioners new to this work, undertake the intervention the wrong way around, trying to fix the rejected parent enough to please the aligned parent in the belief that the child will then be released from the enmeshed grasp. This is unhelpful because it does nothing to address the real issue and simply re-traumatises the child by exposing them to the false reality that the parent they are rejecting is the problem. Starting with the parent to whom the child is aligned is the right approach and asking the Court to order a trial of contact between the child and rejected parent which enables the testing of the depth of the enmeshment (the more time the child is asked to spend with the rejected parent, the more the enmeshed behaviours are provoked into plain sight). When enmeshed behaviours are in plain sight, it is then possible to provide the kind of consistent support which regulates the aligned parent (supporting handovers, giving information about how the child is in real time, providing support in situ for the child and assisting with the child’s return home). This allows for testing of whether the enmeshment is transient and related only to the failure to adjust to post divorce life or whether it is deeper and related to psychopathology in the aligned parent.
Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a complex issue which involves parental mental health and prevention of harm to children. I hope that by reading more detailed accounts of what this work is about, the campaign strategy to portray this issue as only a tool used by abusive fathers will be diluted in its power to detract from reality. In my work with families over the years, the notion that children are plucked from innocent mothers to be placed in the care of abusive fathers, is made a nonsense of by the rigorous assessment, differentiation and thorough analysis of the courts who hear these cases. In the High Courts, where I am currently only working, the thoroughness of hearings, the depth of understanding and testing of the evidence in such cases, ensures that every action taken to protect a child, is done so on the basis of careful and detailed excavation of risk of harm. When a child is removed in such circumstances, it is done on the basis of the underlying psychopathologies in the case, not on the basis that parental alienation has been claimed as a counter argument to domestic abuse.
Protecting children and their right to independence of mind and body is what working with alienation in the family courts is all about. Divorce and separation are adult issues and ensuring that children are not triangulated into them is a core aim. Being able to differentiate between childrens needs and parental wishes and feelings is an important skill in this work. Capacity to put the child’s needs first and hold that boundary is a necessity.
Recognising that outright rejection, when accompanied by hyper alignment, causes the child to produce a false self, denoting alienation of the self from the self, enables a child protection approach which puts the child’s right to their own life first. This is what this work is about, children first and nothing else. Don’t let those enmeshed with a false narrative convince you otherwise.
The evaluation of the services of FSC is underway. Accredited training which is based upon the evidence base of the work of the Clinic since 2011 will be available in 2022. I will update on this project here and you will find further details of the project shortly on the Family Separation Clinic website.
I will have news soon of exciting developments in EAPAP, which includes an expansion in geographical converage and launch of a new resource for clinicians working with alienated children and their families. News of the next conference, which will be held in Israel in 2022, will be available shortly.
I am often approached for supervision of cases. Whilst I run an international supervision group with colleagues from EAPAP, I do not currently supervise work with anyone who has not been trained by the Family Separation Clinic. This is because we use a model of intervention which requires that a clinician is working in a way which is conversant with international research on interventions with alienated children and families. From 2022, practitioners will be able to access evidence based, accredited training from FSC and anyone completing this will be eligible for supervision. More news on this over the coming months.
Training for Practitioners
I am currently delivering online training for the Family Mediation Association and other Therapeutic Services in the UK.
FSC will be delivering training face to face again when the pandemic allows. Our current suspended schedule of face to face training includes Poland, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Malta, USA, Australia and Germany.
Training for practitioners in the evaluated and accredited FSC model will be available from 2022.