Vital to spot difference between alienation, enmeshment

By Staff

In some separated families, a parent who is experiencing bonding difficulties with the children will allege that the other parent is attempting to alienate the kids from them — but constructing the appropriate intervention in these cases means understanding the difference between alienation and enmeshment, Toronto family lawyer Brian Ludmer writes in The Lawyer’s Daily.

“Often, whether or not alienation dynamics are also present, the primary dynamic is that of an enmeshed relationship between the favoured or primary parent and the children. The needed intervention in the family will differ, despite the confusingly similar presentation of the children (anxious, not affectionate and/or rejecting),” writes Ludmer, principal of LudmerLaw.

As Ludmer explains, while raising a child requires a balance between protectiveness and “letting go,” the personal crises couples experience during separation often trigger insecurities that can result in overprotective and enmeshed parenting.

“In a classic enmeshed relationship, parents allow their own troubles and insecurities to promote a role-reversal relationship where the child is used to meet the parent’s emotional needs for support, nurturance, comforting and sense of self-worth. This preoccupation with meeting the parent’s need is considered to interfere with children's ability to develop critical independence, self-reliance, critical thinking skills and the ability to grow and mature free of undue parental influence,” he writes.

Unhealthy enmeshed relationships, he says, can result in a dependency on one parent through a process of “infantilization" of the child or through “parentification", where the son or daughter assumes the burden of meeting the parent's needs.

“In some situations, the child may as a result become ‘triangulated’ into the interparental dispute and form an unhealthy alliance with the parent they are enmeshed with against the other parent. In each case, the child will have great difficulty transiting between the homes and exhibiting healthy bonding with the other parent and their extended family,” says Ludmer.

However, he says, a failure to differentiate the principal causality of the unhealthy child behaviour — enmeshment as opposed to alienation — can set a family back years with misguided therapy and legal proceedings.

“The expected developmental problems of a child in enmeshed relationships which interfere with their development of critical thinking skills and an independent persona can include insecurity, anxiety and a risk of dominant/dependent future relationships with friends and later with life partners,” writes Ludmer.

“Through a process of misattunement (anger, guilt induction, display of disinterest or disappointment or withdrawal of love or attention) enmeshed/intrusive parents wind up behaviourally controlling the child and the child’s thoughts and feelings so that behaviour, thoughts and feelings will conform to the parent’s need to feel needed. Over time, the children learn not to report positive experiences with the other parent and are taught that they are accepted and understood if they report only negative experiences. The child’s authentic experiences are then systematically obliterated by the continual repetition of relational move sequences with the enmeshed parent,” he adds.

The treatment for an enmeshed parent-child relationship, Ludmer says, involves focusing on the youngster's psychological separation from the experience of the enmeshed parent.

“The treatment goal is to help the child psychologically differentiate what the parent feels, from what the child authentically feels regarding their experiences with the other parent. Detailed and strong court orders and expectations will be required to make this work, as the enmeshed parent can be expected to actively resist the treatment efforts to psychologically separate the child from the enmeshed relationship.”

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