An intricate and inherent bond exists between a parent and a child. Most of the time, this bond is healthy and supportive however it can cross into blurred boundaries and harmful dependencies. When this bond becomes detrimental, it can result in enmeshment. Enmeshment is a common phenomenon in family law and often presents challenges when dealing with autonomy and family dynamics. An enmeshed child might find it difficult to maintain or build upon their relationship with the other parent because of their overly close relationship with the other parent. This is not in the best interests of a child which is the paramount consideration of parenting matters under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (‘the Act’). In ensuring that parenting arrangements are made in the best interest of the child, decision-makers and legal representatives need to be aware of a child’s needs, emotions, views, and wishes including what might be influencing the child and whether that influence is one of its parents. This article primarily explores enmeshment between parent and child however the phenomenon is not exclusive to that relationship and can extend between spouses and in the context of property settlement matters.

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a term used in a legal context that involves potential parental alienation due to one parent and the child forming a strong “enmeshed” bond. It is also used in a psychological context to explain relationships (not just between parent and child) where boundaries are poorly defined and blurred. It is characterised by overinvolvement in each other’s lives, excessive emotional reliance, and trouble establishing and maintaining healthy parent/child boundaries. In many cases, the lack of distinct boundaries and co-dependency results in a loss of identity and independence. Enmeshment can occur in all types of relationships, but it is particularly relevant between parent and child in a family law context.

The Implication of Enmeshment in Legal Proceedings

Enmeshment can significantly impact legal proceedings particularly as it relates to parenting matters. In legal proceedings, enmeshment can complicate matters by clouding judgment, influencing decision-making and exacerbating conflicts between parties. It is important for legal practitioners to understand and be able to identify enmeshment in order to provide informed advice and strategy. However, one of the key challenges in addressing enmeshment is its recognition and assessment by legal professionals. Unlike more tangible factors such as financial assets or living arrangements, enmeshment operates on a subtler, psychological level where the enmeshed parent or spouse is involved in all aspects of the other spouse or child’s life.

In cases involving parenting arrangements, enmeshment can often complicate matters by blurring the lines between healthy parental involvement and harmful interference. A parent and child may seem to function psychologically as one person making it hard for decision-makers to determine what is the best course of action for the child and the parent. For a court, they must ensure that any orders made are in the best interests of the child. This may not be remaining with the parent they are enmeshed with however by separating an enmeshed parent and child, are you causing more harm to that child? For example, a parent who is enmeshed with their child may struggle to respect the other parent’s role or prioritise the child’s needs over their own emotional attachment. Additionally, enmeshed children may lack the sense of self and autonomy making it hard for them to set boundaries and build healthy relationships outside of the family unit.

In the case of Lankester & Cribb [2018] FamCAFC 60, the primary judge made orders for a flip of care from the Mother to the Father and suspending any time between the child and the Mother for six (6) months. These orders were appealed by the Mother and “the appeal failed on all issues of substance”. The matter concerned a nine (9) year old child who lived with the Mother whereby “the Mother had imprinted on the child her belief that the Father has sexually abused the child”. Evidence in the form of medical examinations of the child and an investigation by the Department of Communities and Justice concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded. A Family Consultant was involved with the case who expressed that while the child was living with the Mother, the child would experience confusion and distress about their relationship with the Father. The court recognised that a flip of care from Mother to Father may cause distress, confusion, grief, stress and loss in the child, however this was outweighed by the risk the Mother posed. The court considered that the child’s emotional and personal development would be detrimentally impacted by the Mother and while living with the Mother, the child could not have a positive relationship with the Father.

Deacon & Castle [2013] FCCA 691 concerned two (2) children aged eleven (11) and nine (9) years old at the time of the hearing. The Father took on the role as sole carer in the years immediately following the parties separation. The Mother applied for shared parental responsibility however the Father continued to seek sole parental responsibility. Both parties made allegations against the other in relation to their fitness as parents however the Mother made an allegation that the Father had an enmeshed relationship with one (1) of the children and was emotionally and psychologically abusive to her. The trial judge made orders for the children to live with the Mother however the eldest child refused. The younger child was happy to spend time with the Mother but the court ruled that the two (2) children should not be separated. The Father appealed the orders made by the trial judge and was ultimately unsuccessful in his appeal. The Family Consultant opined that the Father was unlikely to encourage and facilitate a relationship between the children and the Mother and the enmeshed relationship between the Father and eldest child was likely to cause psychological harm to the child. At paragraph 675 of the judgment, Judge Harman wrote, “On the basis that I accept that X is psychologically enmeshed with Mr Castle, I have no real option available to me but to make orders that would see X passing to live with her mother. To do otherwise would be to accept that she is exposed to an unacceptable risk of psychological harm in her father’s care and do nothing when there is an available, all be it untested, option. That would be nothing more than a failure to act”.

Similarly, in the case of Dawson and Wright (No. 2) [2018] FamCa862, the Father had no contact with his two (2) young children for four (4) years. The Mother had never made an attempt to encourage a relationship between the children and the Father. The Family Consultant involved in the trial found that the children, “were not emotionally free to have a relationship with the Father”. The court agreed with the Family Consultant’s remarks and found it crucial to protect the children from this enmeshment. The court did not put much weight on the children’s views and wishes to remain living with the Mother as by this point, they had essentially been indoctrinated by the Mother who was found to constantly criticise and denigrate the Father in front of the children. Therefore, the court ordered that the children live with the Father and spend time with the Mother on regular basis.

Enmeshment can also impact property division and financial settlements. In some cases, an enmeshed spouse may exert high levels of control over the other making it hard for that spouse to determine what is the best outcome for them. Additionally, spouses who are enmeshed may have difficulty separating their individual assets and liabilities, leading to disputes over ownership and entitlements.

How to Approach Enmeshment

A multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach is often required by family law professionals, combining legal expertise with psychological insights to identify and understand enmeshment dynamics within a family. Expert assessments, such as psychological evaluations or family assessments, provide valuable insights into the nature and extent of enmeshment, helping to inform legal decisions and interventions. Counselling or therapy is recommended for family members to help them understand enmeshment, address unhealthy patterns of interaction, and navigate and restructure family dynamics.

Legal professionals play a crucial role in establishing clear boundaries and facilitating communication to mitigate the impact of enmeshment on legal proceedings. Clients should be aware of and educated about the impact of enmeshment and emotional reliance on the other spouse or child. Legal practitioners can also recommend counselling and therapy if they suspect enmeshment is involved. Training programs and professional development opportunities and courses can equip lawyers and mediators with the knowledge and skills needed to identify enmeshment in their practice.

Identifying enmeshment behaviours early on is important and aims to prevent long-term psychological setbacks for spouses, parents, and children. Family law proceedings are already stressful and traumatic enough, so minimising instances of enmeshment is important for personal growth and maintaining a meaningful relationship with one’s family members. Navigating enmeshment in Australian family law requires a sensitive and nuanced approach that takes into account the complexities of family dynamics and the stress of separation. By understanding the impact of enmeshment and implementing appropriate interventions, legal professionals can help families navigate separation with greater clarity, compassion, and fairness. Parties involved in legal proceedings can also be educated on enmeshment, not only to assist in identifying it but in proactively ensuring that they themselves are not inadvertently encouraging enmeshed relationships with their children or spouses.


If you are concerned about enmeshment in your family law matter, please consult our experienced family law specialists at Ramsden Family Law. We are available to provide you with the necessary legal support and guidance to protect your family’s best interests during this challenging time. Empathy and understanding are crucial to helping clients through these difficult situations.

Our team of dedicated family law specialists brings extensive experience to the table. We understand the nuances of family law cases involving parental alienation and enmeshment and will seek the best outcome for our clients.

Please do not hesitate to contact our team today, and organise a consultation to discuss your family law matter.

The content of this article is intended to provide general guidance to the subject matter and must not be relied on as legal advice. Specific advice should be sought about your circumstances.