Brett Coleman

Alienation or Enmeshment in Family Law CasesAllegations of parental alienation are common in high-conflict custody & parenting litigation.

Children often experience difficulty adjusting to all of the changes associated with their parents’ separation, which adds to and complicates the changing family dynamic. Sometimes, children have a hard time developing healthy post-separation relationships with both parents, due to the circumstances surrounding the separation (which could involve family violence, or mental health issues), the loss of meaningful time with one parent or any combination of a number of factors. Particularly where there is conflict with respect to parenting matters, one parent (typically the one who enjoys less time with the child or in respect of whom the child might be exhibiting relationship or bonding difficulties) will allege that the other parent is intentionally turning the child against him or her i.e. alienating the child.

However, as frequently as alienation is uttered from the mouths of lawyers and self-represented litigants in family courts daily, alienation is not always the culprit and it is important to correctly identify the psychosocial dynamic at play so that the appropriate remedial action is taken. The reason that is important is two-fold:

  1. Professional therapeutic intervention is costly, with some types of intervention or assessment being more costly than others; and
  2. An inappropriate intervention or assessment may not get at the root of the family dynamic and issue, defeating the purpose.

For instance, if alienation is assumed, parties are quite likely to end up with a very costly Bilateral Parenting Assessment, when a very different therapeutic intervention would have pinpointed and resolved the issue, possibly at a lesser cost to the parents. Worse yet, incorrectly identifying the primary cause of the unhealthy family issue and thereby selecting the wrong therapeutic intervention can set a family back years with misguided therapy, and related legal proceedings.

A recent article in The Lawyer’s Daily, written by Brian Ludmer, identifies a psychosocial dynamic very different from parental alienation but which presents very similarly – “Enmeshment”:

While in some cases alienation and enmeshment will both be present, it is possible for enmeshment to present independent of any active attempts of a parent to alienate a child from the other parent. Importantly, both alienation and enmeshment result in similar presentations in children, specifically anxious, not affectionate and/or rejecting behaviour.

Enmeshment itself is where a parent experiences insecurities, which can be triggered by a personal crisis such as separation/divorce, resulting in overprotective and “enmeshed” parenting. Emotion associated with this personal crisis can cause a parent to consciously or unconsciously act in ways that would prolong the historical integrated relationships they had with the child as an infant or very young child, rather than encourage a healthy level of independence in the child. In a classic enmeshed parenting case, there is a role-reversal whereby the child is encouraged and rewarded for serving the emotionally fragile parent’s heightened emotional need for support, nurturance, comfort and sense of self-worth.

Psychologically-speaking, the effect on the child is that this preoccupation with the parent’s needs can interfere with the child’s ability to develop critical independence, self-reliance, critical thinking skills and the ability to mature free of undue parental influence. A lack of appropriate parent-child behavioural and psychological boundaries is not supportive of healthy child development. Long term, children of enmeshed relationships may struggle with insecurity, anxiety and a risk of dominant/dependent future relationships with friends and later with life partners.

Often, as Mr. Ludmer explains, an enmeshed child forms an unhealthy alliance with the parent they are enmeshed with against the other parent. Over time, the child’s behavior, thoughts and feelings begin to conform with that of the parent they are enmeshed with, as the child’s own authentic experiences and feelings are systematically obliterated. From the standpoint of a family law lawyer with experience with alienation allegations, it is easy to see how enmeshment could be confused for alienation.

This is an important difference for all family lawyers to take note and be aware of, and just another illustration of the countless ways in which family law intersects with and greatly relies upon the mental health profession.