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Part I: What is enmeshment and how can it affect child custody?

“Enmeshment” is for many an unfamiliar term, though the concept once explained can be immediately recognizable, especially to those grappling with the phenomenon in a family setting or child custody dispute.

Enmeshment can be described as a breakdown or blurring of boundaries between family members – most often a parent and child. It can make it difficult or impossible for a boy or girl to develop a sense of self that is apart from the parent because of constant concern for the mom or dad and the sense that they “feel” the parent’s emotions and that the parent feels theirs.

Many therapists familiar with enmeshment believe that its roots “can be traced back to parents who overidentify with a child” – a behavior that’s often passed down through generations. The parent can view their child as an extension of the parent, rather than as a unique person – and then treat the child as an extension of self.

The child in an enmeshed family dynamic will often have an undeveloped sense of autonomy and struggle to act on their own interests, especially when those interests do not dovetail with the parent’s wishes or interests. Enmeshment can also result in feelings of guilt in the child when he or she attempts to act on their own thoughts and feelings.

The enmeshed parent might well take offense when the child tries to carve out independence, which can cause both short- and long-term emotional harm to the child.

To those outside of the enmeshed family system, the child-parent relationship might appear to be healthy and close. But mental health professionals say enmeshed relationships are too close and can be considered a form of child abuse.

We will continue our look at enmeshment in an upcoming post to our Ann Arbor legal blog, so please check back. If what you’ve read so far reminds you of issues in your divorce and child custody dispute, please contact a family law attorney familiar with enmeshment and parental alienation and experienced in representing clients confronted with these issues.

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