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.

Source – APA

It is worth republishing an article I wrote in 2021, about the pathological condition known as enmeshment, in which a parent violates the emotional and psychological boundaries between themselves and a child. It is worth doing so at a time when campaign groups in the UK and USA, are seeking to portray enmeshment as a normal loving relationship. It is anything but.

As Salvador Minuchin said –

“Enmeshment refers to an extreme form of proximity and intensity in family interactions…In a highly enmeshed, overinvolved family, changes within one family member or in the relationship between two family members reverberate throughout the system… On an individual level, interpersonal differentiation in an enmeshed system is poor…in enmeshed families the individual gets lost in the system. The boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped

Salvador Minuchin Salvador Minuchin (1978) (“Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.”

When Child Abuse Looks Like Love

What do we mean by abuse which looks like love? What we mean is that to the outside world, the child is strongly aligned to one parent and outright rejecting the other with a clinging to the aligned parent and a contemptous disregard for the other. This behavioural display is, in itself, the first red flag that tell us that something is wrong because children who do not have a relationship with a parent, children who are afraid of a parent and children who have been physically or otherwise abused by a parent, do not reject that parent with contemptuous disregard. When they reject for what is called a justified reason, their rejection is more hesitant, less stringent and determined. When they reject outright, particularly if that rejection is accompanied by contempt and dismissal of a parent’s feelings, which is accompanied by idealising of the parent to whom they are aligned, the defence of psychological splitting has occurred in which the child is using a coping mechanism, which resolves the problem they face of being unable to hold two realities in mind. The reason they are unable to hold two realities in mind is often because they are being overshadowed in the inter-psychic relationship with the aligned parent, with the unresolved psychological issue of that parent.

Children who cannot hold two realities in mind are being pressured psychologically and that occurs either because of deliberate and conscious strategies, because of unconscious leakage of feeling from adults to children, because a parent has a serious personality disorder which is impacting upon the child or the child is enmeshed and parentified or spouseified. Sometimes a mix of all of these elements of pressure are in play, sometimes it is a clear and distinct pattern of behaviours in a parent which is seen. In such circumstances, the child is serving as an emotional and psychological support to a parent instead of vice versa which is healthy parenting. Whatever the combination of factors, the result is that the child is unable to tolerate the emotional and psychological pressure and defensive splitting is the result.

Defensive splitting looks like a child who says no to a relationship with a parent with accompanying contempt. It looks like the child is rejecting the parent. On closer investigation however, what the child is doing is hyper aligning with a parent who is causing them harm, the child is using denial, splitting and projection, to cope with that and is reconfiguring that harmful behaviour to mean love. Many parents have asked why, a child who has witnessed domestic abuse, will align with the abuser and reject the abused parent. The answer to that is simple. The child who is pressured through witnessing domestic abuse, knows at an unconscious level that if the abusive parent can do that to the abused, they can do it to the child. Children adapt their behaviours in such circumstances, splitting off their awareness that the abusive parent is causing harm and identifying instead with that parent, joining with them in a campaign of determined rejection in order to ensure that they do not receive the same abuse. The reconfiguration of abuse as love in the child’s mind, allows them to live with the abusive parent. The same occurs in a situation where a child is being enmeshed with a parent and who is aware that the parent requires them to confirm their allegiance. Despite knowing that they love the other parent, they will split off that feeling, make it unconscious and deny all feeling for that parent, in order to regulate and keep stable, the parent who is enmeshed with them. Both scenarios are abusive to the child, who is required to give up their right to an unconscious childhood in order to keep a parent psychologically and emotionally regulated. The first scenario is more likely to occur with abusive fathers and the second with abusive mothers. In both situations, the abusive parent will claim that they are protecting the child from the harm being caused by the rejected parent.

The red flag of alienation is the child’s defensive splitting behaviours. When a child outright rejects and that is accompanied by hyper alignment, particularly with disdain from the child about the rejected parent, alienation of the child’s own self from the self is likely. Evidence of the child’s inauthenticity can be heard in their language patterns and rigid behavioural displays. The child who is in this situation is potentially being seriously harmed because they are often beyond parental control, having been given the decision making power by the aligned parent and the other parent has been pushed to the absolute margins of the child’s life. It is being beyond parental control which takes the level of harm to the Welfare Threshold in the UK* and fortunately, with more professionals in social work and the psychological therapies, becoming aware of the risk of harm to a child in this position, better outcomes for children are being seen.

The task to demonstrate the harm being done to children in situations where they are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence after divorce and separation is one which requires tenacity, particularly in the face of the toxicity surrounding these families which at times spreads out into the professionals around them and which is relentless in the ideological campaigns. These campaign groups, which often feature people whose profiles mirror the problematic behaviours seen in parents who are found to cause serious harm to children, lead to uncontained attacks on professionals. which put many off this work. Those of us who continue on despite this, do so because protecting children from harm is the primary driver in doing this work, which will not stop until the outside world is aware of the serious nature of the impact of this on children.

I received an email last week, one of many I receive every week, this one, shared with permission, describes, for me, the reality of what children who are induced to use psychological splitting suffer.

Dear Karen,

I read what you write and I think it applies to me. I am a thirty eight year old woman and I rejected my mother when I was twelve years old. I haven’t seen her since I was thirteen, when a social worker tried to help our family but failed. That is twenty five years ago and I have spent most of that time hating my mother and staying out of her way, even though she lives just two miles from where I live now. Three months ago I found out that my mother is dying of cancer, she is only sixty three. I found out by accident from a friend of a friend and whilst my first thought was ‘good, I am glad the old bag is not going to be here for much longer’ I found myself crying uncontrollably over the following weekend. Since then I have felt incredibly low and actually very frightened, I keep thinking what if she dies before I see her, how can I see her, what can I say and then I swing back to hating her and feeling that if she dies I will feel happier. But in truth I know I won’t feel happier, I know that I will be absolutely torn apart, I can feel it sometimes, it feels like being sick with feelings and then just as suddenly, it goes away again. I feel confused about this, one moment I am panicking then next I am strangely numb and unaffected. I feel as if there are two of me sometimes and when I read what you write about splitting, I wonder if I am feeling things that I couldn’t feel then because my father was so determined that I should not see my mother. I was very frightened of my dad at some level. Not because he hit me or hurt me but because I knew that he was so hurt by my mother leaving and because I worried every day about what would happen if I went to school and something happened to him. Rejecting my mother was part of me looking after him and I suppose showing him that he had someone, that he wasn’t going to be alone. It went on for a long time, so long that I don’t know now what I can do to change how I feel. My dad is remarried now and happy, he doesn’t need me as he did for a decade after my mum left. I live on my own, I have never had a serious relationship. I see my dad and his wife regularly and they have two younger children who are my half siblings. I just wish that I could work out what I feel and how to do something about this situation. Can you help me?

This woman, like so many other adults out there, is suffering. Her mother is suffering. This loss, which is caused by the triangulation of children into adult matters after divorce and separation, continues to cause suffering all over the world.

When the outside world understands that very often in this situation, what looks like love is actually child abuse, our job will be done. Until then, I will keep doing what I do regardless.

*significant harm

The Children Act 1989 introduced the concept of significant harm as the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interests of children, and gives local authorities a duty to make enquiries to decide whether they should take action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child who is …