Emotional Incest: When Parents Make Their Kids Partners

View from front door shows living room with child's toy and robe on the doorknobEmotional incest, also known as covert incest, is a dynamic that occurs in parenting where the parent seeks emotional support through their child that should be sought through an adult relationship. Although the effects of emotional incest can be similar to those resulting from physical incest, the term does not encompass sexual abuse.

Many times when I am working with people in therapy who are developmentally stuck, they end up sharing that, as children, they were the person their parent turned to as a confidant or for emotional support. Children put in this position may feel special or privileged because the parent is sharing adult information with them and/or is looking to them for support, creating a sense of closeness. However, given that the child’s needs are ignored in favor of the parent’s, there can be devastating long-term developmental consequences.

Clearly, it is desirable for parents and their children to be close. However, in healthy parent-child relationships, parents prioritize their children’s emotional needs as opposed to children taking care of the parent’s emotional needs. When children are put in the position of meeting the emotional needs of a parent, it creates an unhealthy dynamic in which children essentially become the parents. The children are emotionally abandoned, in effect robbing them of their childhood.

It is important to note that, in most cases, parents who foster a dynamic of emotional incest do not realize the impact of their behavior and do not intend to hurt their children. But the impact and the hurt are there all the same.

Most often, emotional incest occurs when an adult marriage or relationship is fragile, a parent is lonely, or there is a broken family dynamic such as infidelity, mental health conditions, or addiction. One or both parents may seek to get their emotional needs met through the child instead of seeking support from adults. Sometimes a parent will undermine the other parent during an argument or separation/divorce proceedings by putting children in the middle or colluding with a child, which increases the level of the parent’s dependency on the child. The child, in turn, may become concerned about having to take sides or protect a parent.

It is important to note that, in most cases, parents who foster a dynamic of emotional incest do not realize the impact of their behavior and do not intend to hurt their children. But the impact and the hurt are there all the same.

The Impact of Emotional Incest

Children who have experienced emotional incest may have great difficulty setting boundaries and getting their needs met as adults without feelings of excessive guilt. In addition, their relationship with their gender and sexuality can greatly inhibit their ability to maintain intimacy in adult partnerships.

Emotional incest can create an unhealthy sense of loyalty or obligation to a parent, which can result in a love/hate relationship between children and parents. Additionally, substance abuse, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and compulsivity around work, sex, and food are all potential outcomes.

Emotional incest also can impact the family dynamic as a whole. One partner typically experiences being shut out and may be denied opportunities for parent-child bonding. Additionally, other children may be neglected as the parent leans heavily on the “chosen child.”

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Healing from Emotional Incest

For those who experienced emotional incest as a child, there are several ways to promote healing. They include the following:


  1. Adams, K. M. (2011). Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.
  2. Adams, K. M. (2007). When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment. New York, NY: Touchstone Books.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Cher

    September 14th, 2016 at 8:26 AM

    It was hard for me growing up because my mom made me her confidant after my dad left. That is an awful lot of pressure to place on a young girl, and I heard stuff that I should not have had to hear. I think that this is why even now I have a hard time being around my mom because she needs so much and I feel like I have so little left to give to my own family after I am with her.

  • Jacqueline

    September 23rd, 2016 at 7:05 PM

    My appreciation to the author Ms Adams for this resource. It severely comprimises and complicated the intra and interpersonal world of relationships for the unknowing child .

  • thomas

    September 14th, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    This makes me believe that this is something that is pretty common and yet not talked about a whole lot

  • Sharon

    September 14th, 2016 at 6:05 PM

    I did not realize that this was what I was doing.
    I thought that it was normal for me to lean on my kids when I needed them like they have always been able to lean on me.
    Don’t I deserve that in return for all of the sacrifices that I have made over the years for them?
    And I think that they would have told me if it was a burden.

  • Lyn

    September 16th, 2016 at 5:37 AM

    Sharon- I don’t think most parents who do this actually realise, especially as they still often carry the bulk of the adult role & responsibilities. But it’s really about what is appropriate and a child can reasonable be expected to handle. Kids shouldn’t be their parents confidante, or have the parents act or speak in a way that conveys the child in being given responsibility for adult/family matters.
    As for deserving to depend on them, not necessarily, they don’t owe you, but hopefully they respond out of love and gratitude- and I presume you are speaking about your now adult children.
    People rarely tell those they feel emotionally responsible for that they feel burdened- at least not in healthy and direct ways- it’s a dysfunctional relationship, and more than likely any ways that they communicate their concerns will be negatively received.

  • Fiona

    September 19th, 2016 at 9:55 AM

    Sharon, I am happy to read that your speak in the past tense “I did not realize…” etc. and I believe this means that you are now re-thinking the situation. Yes, we definitely do deserve to have our emotional needs met and no, we don’t have the right to expect our children to meet them. In an ideal world those needs are met by a peer or peers. The Transactional Analysis model can be helpful in getting an overview of emotional development within the family and can help, not only demonstrate the value of, but clarify how to promote, develop and maintain emotional boundaries

  • Ana

    October 18th, 2016 at 12:53 PM

    THANK YOU for recognizing the behavior. Most parents like this do not think what they are doing is wrong and get offended when a child grows up, moves out, gets married, etc and leaves the parent finally by themselves. It is nice to know that this article can help parents change as well as children accept and find ways to heal.

  • Stuart

    June 15th, 2017 at 11:21 PM

    Amazing to think that there is someone out there getting paid for developing such theory. The idea that “emotional incest” exists in isolation from all other external variables to create negative lifechance outcomes for people is fundamentally flawed. The article is nothing but subjective psychobabble developed by somebody who has counselled people who at some level need to blame their parents for their situation. Total rubbish and I don’t see what value to society such theory has. “They mess you up your mum and dad ………..”

  • Lincoln

    September 15th, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    I can see where it would be so easy to get caught in this trap of using your children as your partner but you have to understand that they are not going to have the capability to help you with these real life adult problems that are so much bigger and more complicated than what they are. It is unfair to use them for this because obviously this sets them up for a lifetime of future problems and issues in their own lives. It is a cycle that they will likely have a difficult time breaking free of.

  • mason j

    September 15th, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    But parents are never charged with screwing up their kids lives when it is something like this, although it can be harmful to them

  • Diana

    September 15th, 2016 at 3:18 PM

    I think this occurred in my family, my Daddy always put me before my own mother….. And he trained me to always stay his helpless baby. Now my oldest son is way too dependent on me, yet he says he is my parent, or at the very least I’m his little sister.

  • Jo

    September 15th, 2016 at 5:53 PM

    I was used this way as a child and what I can now see is that it did rob me of my childhood, though I would have said thats just fine at the time – if there were “adults” around they would not have accepted that from me, instead they would have encouraged me into my life, my young life to do whatever. I spent my entire childhood worrying about what was happening at home and all my energy and focus went into their adult stuff…I got rewarded at times by being told how good a listener I was or how kind I was. So much development and focus for school and life went by the by and I went into life ill prepared (thats an understatement!) I tried to the best of my ability to emulate them, copy their morals and attitudes – I was lost before I began. It makes me so cross when I see it now, its very common and people don’t think there’s anything up but of course anyone who knows children, knows what up and there’s very little anyone can do about it while it happening and even after and the child will do anything to protect the parent so no one can get in to help. Yeah its a tough one

  • Shannon

    September 23rd, 2016 at 12:21 AM

    Sounds like my and my sister’s situation. It was only when we crossed 30 we realized how irritating waa as

  • Lissety

    September 15th, 2016 at 6:58 PM

    I think it’s important to note that there is a version of this occurring in immigrant families. There is pressure on children,often the oldest, to translate language as well as customs which quickly includes adult situations (bill paying, school info, etc).

  • seth Y

    September 16th, 2016 at 1:48 PM

    I am not sure why I think that but my first thought was that it has to be more moms who do this to their kids than dads.
    I don’t know, I just kind of still think that there are times when mothers will lean on their children more than dads will, like the moms will try to pull everything inward and closer while the dads might be more inclined to push them aawy.
    It’s probably stupid to generalize like that

  • ProblemChild

    June 21st, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    I disagree. My father leaned on me more than my mother did.

  • Beverly

    September 17th, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    No Seth I think that there are just as many men complicit in this too

  • Fiona

    September 19th, 2016 at 10:03 AM

    Hi Beverley, I agree with you, it happens with the male parent as often as with the female parent. However, Seth, it is never “stupid” to offer your take on something and you may well be more aware of this trait in the mother figures since you are a son; a daughter will often see this trait more frequently in a male parent. Seeing it at all is really good because it’s only when it’s recognized that it can start to be dealt with :-)

  • Sally

    September 17th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    They know what they are doing is wrong. That’s why they don’t do it in public/in front of the children’s teachers, etc. Even the simplest of parents knows that children do not have the maturity to handle adult problems. They know exactly what they are doing. They simply don’t care about their children’s emotional needs, nor do they care to behave like an adults and find appropriate emotional help elsewhere. Stop making excuses for these emotional monsters.

  • Andrea

    January 16th, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    I agree.

  • maisy

    September 19th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    Can you only imagine how messed up these kids must be as they try to go into their own relationships later on? They have never been shown what the boundaries are and so they won’t know.

  • Dean

    September 20th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    So I am guessing that most of the time this would mean that the other parent is out of the picture and is not around to help stop this from happening?

  • Lyn

    September 21st, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    Dean- Sometimes the issue is a dysfunctional relationship between the parents. I know someone who was her Dad’s “companion” & the second parent as her Mum was severely depressed… the daughter developed suicidal depression & was told by a number of counsellors & psychs that she didn’t have any reason to be depressed as she had nice parents… she was lucky to find a counsellor who understood what he called “psycho-sexual abuse” … and she does now have a healthy relationship with both her parents. Her parents still don’t know why she was depressed!!

  • Fiona

    September 20th, 2016 at 4:14 PM

    Dean, it’s sometimes the case that the other parent is complicit, possibly by being emotionally unavailable or simply by disengaging from the marriage dialogue. So yes, in fact, the other parent is, as you say, effectively not around.

  • Dizzy

    September 24th, 2016 at 4:43 AM

    But where is the beginning, and where is the end? Is that even possible?
    No doubt this happened in my relationship with my daughter, although I tried not to “parentify” my daughter, she was the only one there in the household with me. So whether I spoke to her directly, or within her earshot, she heard a lot – as I went through a lot. And yes, I valued my daughter highly and put as much positive energy as I had into being interested in her activities, wishes, fun times and also spent much energy getting to family gatherings with my healthy surrogate family so that she could experience well-functioning family time, and good male role models.
    That said, I was raised through many problems, by a mom who herself (in my opinion) suffered from PTSD stemming first from WWII which involved terror, bombing, death and her being evacuated away from her family in London – where the area she lived in was devistated, and then, after finding happiness and moving to the USA with a man who adored her (my father) and having three small children, her husband, my father, died in a tragic accident – leaving my mother in the U.S. (she was from Europe) away from what was left of her family, with three small kids. I was no doubt also a parentified child.
    But my daughter has paid for much of this, and the effects are clear and listed in your article above. Her father though, I must add, was also an alcoholic from a deeply deeply alcoholic family. I divorced him early as he did not work consistently and would not take care of his child. Without someone to watch my daughter, I also could not work. There was less conflict in the home without him, and I was able to make ends meet by going back to school, working, getting more education again, and working etc.
    I feel terribly guilty, but this is a nasty cycle. As a parentified child, I always felt guilty and inadequate growing up, and as a parent. Now my daughter is happy, but has had and still has mental health issues that she does not address. She is married to someone who was also raised by a single mother who could not handle her marriage to his father, diagnosed as having schizophrenia . . . and so it goes.
    I am not sure that there is ANY solution. Personally, I do not encourage my daughter and her husband to have children but take no position at all – although I adore children and even teens! But I fear that it would push my own daughter over the edge emotionally, possibly lead to an end in her marriage and would lead to yet another generation with emotional challenges.
    Like so many advices, it is easier said, than done.

  • Kenneth

    September 24th, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    ……Going through emotional incest, I feel, guilty seeing the logic in this post. I feel like I’m trading on my mother, violating the trust we have.
    Growing up with mental illness along with physical illness and many life threatening situations, me and my mother got close. I felt like she was the only one that could see the good in me and she disclosed the world to me because she knew I could be trusted. How I felt, what I experienced she knew and understood, while I did the same with her regarding her relationships and daily stresses. We bonded and now I feel guilty for moving on with my life and her moving on as well. We seem to be juggling our old life, the life of dependency on each other while moving on with the moment, with recovery. She holds on to me because of my care for her and I the same.
    I don’t want to feel guilty anymore. I don’t want to look at a women and see my mother. I don’t want to feel overly attached to my partner. I don’t want to feel guilty for wanting a life for myself, independence.

  • Dawn

    October 17th, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    What an amazing conversation.
    I would personally like to share that there is no need to feel guilty about anything. Everyone does the very best they know how to do. From my experience as a Spiritual Consultant for over 40 years, I must change my inner before I can reap the benefit of outer reward of fulfillment. The emotion of guilt is not an real feeling. It is merely a result of not taking action on something I felt but then neglected to follow up on; thus guilt becomes the outcome. How many times, even in challenging situations, did you ignore the signs, the impressions, the feelings, or inner knowings that were being fed to you? When we can learn to be in command of our own energy, we are then in command of the situations we are involved. One of the biggest gifts we have and do not utilize is that of “detachment”. Detachment allows me to see things before they get so close I cannot identify what something is. For more information, feel free to contact me. I would love to be of service to help clarify some of the confusion that remains confusion until one takes a look at themself, as adults, and is able to release the past through the growth and learning your experiences have provided for you.

  • Jen

    November 23rd, 2016 at 1:07 PM

    This is so us!
    Me and my siblings. Dad cheated on mama twice and had another daughter. I know practically ALL their stories since I was 12yo. They are separated (living in two different countries) but NEVER divorced, and hilariously still trying to play happy couple whenever there’s a family gathering or celebrations. How I wish they were divorced and move on.
    Mom is immature (with OCD and very poor financial management skill), and dad is a pathological liar. They rely heavily on us the kids, not only to ‘feed’ their needs on getting love and attention, but also to manage their so-called ‘marriage’.
    I am now a 28 years old female. Went into dating world wayyyyy tooooo lateeeee. I was 26 when I had my first kiss and my first BF. Fortunately I have no problem maintaining relationship (actually thanks to my dysfunctional parents. So much lesson learned!). My two siblings, who are younger than me, have never dated (I hope soon!)
    Nevertheless, I have several personality issue and seeking therapies.
    Glad to know that I’m not alone! Stay strong people <3

  • Fiona

    November 24th, 2016 at 7:47 AM

    Well done you! Writing the story down, or telling it clearly to another is in itself a therapy. I suppose the one thing I’d be hung up on is that you say “lessons learned.” Frequently we find ourselves involved in or observing repeat patterns of behavior. And sometimes, out of fear of finding ourselves in that sort of situation we practice avoidance. Better to observe and comment to yourself on what you see and experience than overindulge in Avoidance. Don’t overparent yourself — allow space to stumble and start again.

  • Jessica

    January 9th, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    I really enjoyed this article, an interesting take on enmeshment.
    Could someone say a bit more about what the author means by:
    “In addition, their relationship with their gender and sexuality can greatly inhibit their ability to maintain intimacy in adult partnerships” .
    I’m curious to understand the connection between this type of relational trauma and sexual it and gender identity.

  • Jessica

    January 9th, 2017 at 2:31 PM

    I really enjoyed this article, an interesting take on enmeshment.
    Could someone say a bit more about what the author means by:
    “In addition, their relationship with their gender and sexuality can greatly inhibit their ability to maintain intimacy in adult partnerships” .
    I’m curious to understand the connection between this type of relational trauma and sexuality and gender identity.

  • John

    January 30th, 2017 at 11:31 AM

    This article is right on. My mother did this to me while she was a single mom and continued after she got married again. I wrote a poem about this a few years ago which starts out “Mammas don’t raise up your sons to be substitute spouses, just because you’re divorced or your marriage is a mess” This messed up what little of a dating life that I had in high school which was non existent in college. I also think it had something to do with why I did not get married until I was 31.

  • Jay

    May 6th, 2017 at 6:49 PM

    It’s definitely not always the mothers as it was my dad who did this. He’s an alcoholic and would always complain about how my mom won’t sleep in the same bed as him or how she won’t have sex with him. I hated it. It always made me feel so uncomfortable but he’d be so sad that I felt sorry for him, so I’d sit there and listen.

  • Alison

    June 8th, 2017 at 2:05 PM

    My siblings and I are just realizing our mother did this to us our entire childhood. The dark secrets she told us about our dad (true or untrue) and her childhood, the inappropriate level of dependency, the sabotage of our lives and friendships. For a long time I thought it had been good to have a rough upbringing because it made me able to cope. But the lost childhood, anger, and subsequent drinking was a steep price to pay. Its due to our inherent smarts and resilient personalities that we’ve all come out the other side, but we still have her to deal with. And it appears with age we’re only going to see our detachment make her mean.

  • ProblemChild

    June 21st, 2017 at 2:39 PM

    Boy, do I relate to this. My father was an alcoholic when I was growing up, and my parents consequently got divorced when I was twelve years old. After their divorce, I had to see him on weekends. We would go see movies a lot. Whenever we did this I often felt like I was going out on a date with him, which creeped me out.

    He would also confide in me a lot. I often didn’t know what to say to him when he did this.

    He would also tell me that I cheered him up, and would act very needy and clingy with me. He would also tell me that I was “unique.” I often found all this sickening, and I never knew why. I felt that he expected me to be this weird woman that entertained him all the time, and that did not interest me because there is so much more to my own life than doing that. Then I would feel guilty for having all these negative feelings. I would feel that I was an ingrate and a killjoy and a crank for not appreciating his remarks or clinginess more. After all, they were supposed to be compliments. And he was only being needy and clingy because he “loooooved” me.

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