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Emotional enmeshment caused by alienating parents.

A look at what enmeshment is and how it plays a role in family dynamics and as a result of parental alienation.



I've had a number of PAPA members reach out recently to ask about enmeshment and what it is and how it plays a role within parental alienation so I thought I would write an article in order to help those of you who may be witness to it or even victim to it.


Part of fighting against parental alienation is learning the dynamics and how they play a part in the relationships between alienating parents, the target parents and their children.


It's important to be aware of the different terminology and dynamics within parental alienation in order to be well equipped when fighting for our child's best interests.


Knowledge is power.


Each family is connected, bonded, and supportive in different ways. Some family dynamics are considered healthy, and other dynamics can be more concerning. Certain family dynamics can cause severe harm to those involved.


Enmeshment occurs when family members are emotionally reactive to one another and wholly intertwined in an unhealthy way, such as codependence.


Enmeshment can very often be observed as a "by product" of parental alienation, usually between the alienating parent and their child(ren).


In an enmeshed relationship, there is no emotional independence or separation between the parent and child. This can lead to a child's inability to form individual thoughts and behaviours separate from the alienating parent.


In healthy parent-child relationships, there is a balance between having a supportive connection and encouraging the child's autonomy. There is also a healthy separation between parents' relationship with each other and their relationship with their children.


With enmeshed relationships, parents rely on their children for emotional support. They also foster an environment where their children excessively depend on them. In doing so, they don't help their children develop independence. Children who are raised to rely on their parents for all their emotional needs will struggle to handle basic adversity and form their own identity.


In situations where a child has been alienated from their other parent you will see the alienating parent creating an environment where the child feels highly dependent on the alienating parent. The alienating parent will use tactics such as belittling the target parent as well as exaggerating their own importance in order to build that feeling of sole dependence within the child.


At first the alienating parent may use tactics in order to strengthen their bond with their children and may only be concerned with their own ego however over time enmeshment can have extremely negative consequences for their children.


Signs of enmeshment


Enmeshment can present itself in many ways, below are some examples of what it can look like, you may observe some or all of these between an alienating parent and their child:


  • An unhealthy emotional attachment that feels uncontrollable.

  • Difficulty separating their emotions from their parent's.

  • They feel guilty when advocating for themselves.

  • They are isolated from other relationships.

  • Personal boundaries are shut down and overstepped.

  • They are not happy unless their parent is happy.

  • They find extreme closeness and dependency comforting and safe.

  • They can't have healthy conflict with their parent without feeling scared of offending them.


Warning signs your child may be in an enmeshed relationship with their other parent:


  • They do not have a strong sense of self.

  • They depend on others to provide validation and self-esteem.

  • Cannot function well alone.

  • Does not engage in activities for enjoyment but instead does what others want.

  • Is unable to act and think separately to their other parent.


The above are just some examples of what enmeshment can look like. I have seen it described as the child feeling as though they have no identity.


If you can't set healthy boundaries and you can't determine where you begin and the other person ends, that's not closeness, that's considered to be enmeshment.


Mental health effects of enmeshment.


It's important to be able to identify and prevent enmeshment because of the devastating effects it can have on a child's mental health. These effects often last through to adulthood if not addressed.


The resulting mental health issues can include:


  • Depression is a common experience for those in enmeshed families, especially mothers and children. This is because mothers with depression will likely have unfulfilled emotional needs and seek to fulfil them through their children and children are not yet mentally developed enough to understand their parents attachment and/or manipulation tactics.


  • Anxiety can occur especially when a person has to function alone.


  • Substance misuse is sometimes used as an attempt to alleviate emotional discomfort and is often a destructive coping mechanism.


  • Eating disorders are especially common in adolescents with overly involved parents. Anorexia or over eating being prevalent issues among alienated or emotionally manipulated children.


Overcoming enmeshment trauma.


If you or your child are overcoming the trauma of an enmeshed relationship it can be very challenging, particularly if the relationship was developed over a significant amount of time.


Below are some tips on how to overcome enmeshment trauma:


  • Set healthy boundaries. Learn what you or your child are comfortable with and communicate this clearly. It's important to know yours or your child's boundaries clearly and to stick to them consistently even if/when you get pushback.


  • Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can help bring attention to your interactions with others and how you feel about them. Noticing these patterns will allow you to recognise whether you are in an enmeshed relationship and/or need to set boundaries.


  • Therapy. Recognising the impact of growing up in an enmeshed family can be difficult. Setting boundaries can be hard, as can saying no and finding a sense of self and identity. Talking with a mental health professional can help break the cycle of enmeshment and provide support and tools as you learn to function autonomously and understand your own needs.


When working to overcome the impact of enmeshment it's important to recognise that you or your child have been a victim of manipulation and emotional control.


It can be very challenging to break the cycle so allow yourself or your child a lot of time and patience as you navigate towards a healthier future.


In need of help or support?


If you are an alienated parent reading this article and feel you are in need of help and support then please make sure to join PAPA today by signing up here on our website, completely free.


This will give you access to our community support forum as well as our upcoming Resource Centre, which will include free downloadable guides to help through the process of being alienated and regaining contact with your children.


We also have a free to use Facebook support group that you can join here.


If you are a member of PAPA you can also send us a message here on the website and we will try to get back to you as soon as possible but please bear in mind, we have hundreds of messages weekly so it may take us a while to get back to you.


Thank you for reading and for your continued support of PAPA and our mission to end parental alienation.

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