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:

References:

  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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  • Cher

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 12:48 PM

    This is so true. my mother adopted me in order to USE me as her emotional support. The last time I saw her was about 10 years ago. I was 43 at that time. I told her next time to buy a dog! She still will never admit that she purchased me in order to use me as her emotional support. Most of us never, ever, get the chance to say that.

  • Fiona

    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

    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.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:00 PM

    So true. Yes, it’s much better that you rethink it. It signifies that you are growing as a person. Congratulations, Sharon. I suggest you read a couple of books dealing with emotional incest and parentification. Some of the older books I have read call this “Daddy’s Little Princes, Mommy’s Little Prince” because the bond is usually of the opposite sex. But not always, obviously. Your children will appreciate your apology, if you find that this is your parenting pattern. People learn behavior by example. Most likely you didn’t realize that this is a negative pattern because it’s what you were shown. I think it’s courageous of you to consider that you aren’t perfect and are open. Namaste.

  • Stuart

    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 ………..”

  • Petra

    Petra

    July 8th, 2017 at 4:57 PM

    You just don’t get it Stuart. With attitudes like that I’d had to be your child. Wouldn’t feel safe sharing my inner world and what’s going on in my life. What has been described relates in many aspects to me. The patterns that were set up from an early age seemed the natural and only way to be because that’s how they were. It’s it’s taken a long time to realise and unravel the unhealthy patterns and their consequences in my life. I understand where it comes from. My grandma did the same with my mum. She was only a child when her dad died and grandma relied on her to get her emotional needs met and was clingy and clutching to my mum. My mum had both a loving and controlling upbringing that kept her from having any kind of normal childhood. Grandma expected my mum to never leave home and to be there always for her. It was traumatic to move away and have a life of her own when nearly 30. While my mum tried not to be like her mum and was not as intense, she carried with her so much programming and habits from her growing up. There is no blame but lots of understanding. As well, the consequences played into each of my family’s patterns of life and programming. I know it’s not easy to change, and the resources weren’t there for my mum and grandma. They just touched it out the best they knew how.

  • Nicola

    Nicola

    July 25th, 2017 at 9:06 AM

    My sons girlfriend has told my son that this what he has! The mess his head is in now is shocking. After meeting him he became a drug addict and heavy drinker. I was a single parent worked my arse off, never had a holiday_he had at least 2 a year, he did very very well at college, but he thinks he’s owed something! He does not want to work so they came up with a plan that she would be his career! He would either get a home because he would be under mental health or move into her house then she would give up work and claim rent from the council and money for being his career. She has told everyone that I abused his with this Emotional Incest. Off cause he had chores to do, that would of been the same even if he had a dad. After 2 years with her he has become a total mess and she is 50 and he is 30.! I’m 54. He has had lot of girlfriends, interests but now has no friends She also beats him up. I am now treated like a nasty woman by all. That’s what this rubbish Emotional Incest can and has done to me and him. Family life has ups and downs it’s called life We are not Robots.

  • Elizabeth L

    Elizabeth L

    January 5th, 2018 at 8:46 AM

    Stuarts June 2017 comment merits my input. The mistakes my mother made took place in the 1950s. My sister was chosen at the age of 10 to fill in as co-parent while Dad worked in sales where he was away 3-4 days out of the week. Mom was alone in a house in rural Pennsylvania, with six children under the age of 13. She had no car or a license to drive. In addition, the admission of feeling overwhelmed, alone, or burdened with her role as mother, was considered by most to be a character flaw. Professional intervention nearly always resulted in a trip to a sanatarium for electroshock therapy. Get it?

  • Elizabeth L

    Elizabeth L

    January 6th, 2018 at 1:23 PM

    Stuarts June 2017 comment merits my input. The mistakes my mother made took place in the 1950s. My sister was chosen at the age of 10 to fill in as co-parent while Dad worked in sales where he was away 3-4 days out of the week. Mom was alone in a house in rural Pennsylvania, with six children under the age of 13. She had no car or a license to drive. In addition, the admission of feeling overwhelmed, alone, or burdened with her role as mother, was considered by most to be a character flaw. Professional intervention nearly always resulted in a trip to a sanatarium for electroshock therapy. Get it?

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:03 PM

    Me: You sound defensive.
    Yoda: Described you, it did.

  • Jack

    Jack

    March 9th, 2018 at 2:30 AM

    severely ignorant comment.

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    March 26th, 2018 at 7:34 PM

    By sharing what happened in my family, perhaps it will help someone to take action and rescue yourself and everyone you love before its too late. Looking over my shoulder at the past 58 years, I would not trade places with my sister who mom mistakenly abused, for anything. But to a child watching a sibling get privilege, authority, and access, it is the holy grail. My sisters fell for it. They tried to get moms attention away from the chosen child any way they could for the next fifty years. They were seeking a mirage. They are deeply insecure, cannot endure the hint of criticism, at work, in school, from spouse. There is a trail of dead bodies left behind all three of them. As for me, as the smallest, youngest, most vulnerable, I was objectified; used like a pro pby my sisters, in many schemes, designed to gain what the chosen one had. At 18, I got out. There’s some brokenness but nothing like them. I will tell you I had clarity and discernment at a very young age I can not account for, outside of divine protection. The chosen child hurt me physically . as my babysitter, prior to my being able to talk. My dad questioned her after observing me clinging to him for dear life when he and mom were going out. Mom had already let me down. He was my last chance. My sister convincingly charictorized me as an attention seeking little liar. He turned to mom, who affirmed the lie, and the dye was cast. For the next sixty or so years I have been labeled as such regardless of no evidence to support the label, and volumes of evidence that my sister lied compulsively. This exemplifies a pattern all three sisters have. Unable to endure correction if a mistake is made, all three of them will go to any length to cover it up. An untrained babysitter can be trained if she owns what happened. Not huge or life altering. However, the coverup has been on going for 58 years. I had to give up a family to survive it, then live an entire life in the absence of celebrating successes, comforting losses, companionship, fun, laughter , and tears to share with them because I will not permit the objectifying to continue. If there is any one in your life , labeled as a child like that, please seek the truth. As an expert, I can tell you if there is one thing a child labeled a liar, absolutely cannot do with any success, it’s lie. I survived it because early on I noticed
    terrible names are far less painful to endure if I absolutely know it is not true. Today I am bulletproof because of genuine self respect forged by dignity in adversity. But that wisdom couldn’t come from a six year old. What was meant to harm me, was transformed to benefit me, thanks to Our Lord. Funny, I left home at 18 and became a ships cook on big yachts for nearly 12 years. It was like living in a Harold Robbins novel. I retired at 50 and live the good life in Hawaii . Living well is the best revenge. The chosen one married well and uses her hubby’s money to sabbotage the lives of others behind their backs. Boundry issues of a very unhappy rich lady. The other two sisters looted all of moms wealth and left her to die alone at the age of 94. They took the rings off her fingers as she begged them to stop. Suppressed rage finally reared its ugly head when mom became the vulnerable one. Dysfunction and abuse require a culture of silence to continue. Talk openly and with prayerful honesty. The truth will set everyone free. Best wishes to all in your journeys………………we are one.

  • Win

    Win

    November 25th, 2017 at 7:27 PM

    I’m wondering if your children were adults already when you lent on them for emotional support? Maybe that is a natural expectation, but that wen done for a long time, and in childhood, its more devastating.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 12:36 PM

    Sharon,
    As with most children, I didn’t realize this was happening to me. As a child, my parents fought constantly. My absent father would drive off and mom would cry. What am I supposed to do at age five, six, or seven years old? I was holding mom, hugging her and telling her everything is OK. They first filed for divorce when I was just eight, a process that continued on and off until he died when I was only 15. They never did finalize any of their divorce filings. We spent a fortune on apartments and furnishings. We owned several sets of silverware and a few TV’s. I heard every problem that my parents had, from their finances to their sex life.
    These are things that they should be discussing in counseling, or with close friends. I will say that while dad was drunk and staring at the walls, he never included me in the family issues. My heart was in shreds and I’m having to take care of my parents.
    If this is you…yes, you are absolutely screwing up your kids.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:19 PM

    Sharon,
    As with most children, I didn’t realize this was happening to me. As a child, my parents fought constantly. My absent father would drive off and mom would cry. What am I supposed to do at age five, six, or seven years old? I was holding mom, hugging her and telling her everything is OK. They first filed for divorce when I was just eight, a process that continued on and off until he died when I was only 15. I was the man of the house, and responsible for mom’s emotional support. Even as a toddler, staying up late and watching TV with mom and waiting for dad to come home. I went places with mom. We did things. They never did finalize any of their divorce filings. We spent a fortune on apartments and furnishings. We owned several sets of silverware and a few TV’s. I heard every problem that my parents had, from their finances to their sex life. I came up with answers to the problems of a middle-aged couple by the time I was in elementary school. Does that sound healthy to you? Oh, I was compensated quite well. I had everything I wanted, except for healthy and happy parents.
    These are things that they should be discussing in counseling, or with close friends. I will say that while dad was drunk and staring at the walls, he never included me in the family issues. My heart was in shreds and I’m having to take care of my parents. In the mean time, I’m taking on household responsibilities, and that’s OK. But, in return, I’m not getting any help from my parents. Sure, I get food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and what I feel and and perceive as love, but I am not helped with any of my problems, She screams when I don’t get homework immediately, until I almost wet my pants. Dad can’t help either. Better to not do homework than to deal with them. Just take the test and barely pass. And I can’t say anything to her that I don’t want on national TV. I am not a person as much as a possession.
    If any of this is you…yes, you are absolutely screwing up your kids.

  • Lincoln

    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.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 12:38 PM

    YES!

  • mason j

    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

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:28 PM

    Yes, because they are empty inside. They have no sense of self. Because they are not allowed to be their authentic self. They must be what the parent wants so that they can fulfill the parent’s needs. The parents don’t help them become the person they are supposed to be. The child helps the parent(s) cope. The parents don’t teach the child what it needs to survive and cope. The child is handicapped as an adult because their needs go unmet. Often, this is also put on the child, that they are too stupid to just “get it”.

  • Diana

    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

    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

    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

  • Paula D

    Paula D

    March 22nd, 2018 at 11:13 AM

    My heart goes out to you, Jo. I am just like you. Our childhood experience were much alike. And I either have jobs that are way to high for my capabilities or way to low. I was a bookkeeper for a major grocery chain. I had no accounting classes or experience. Also, an Instructional Assistant for a Quickbooks workshop at the local J C without accounting classes. At least I had the computer experience! I was able to help out quite a bit just helping people with that. I was an electro-mechanical QC inspector with zero experience. And I worked in an assembly line, and was a cashier/clerk at various companies. Too high or too low for my limited college background.

  • Lissety

    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

    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

    ProblemChild

    June 21st, 2017 at 2:48 PM

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

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:33 PM

    Remember the movie, The Breakfast Club. Claire, who’s father gave her those expensive earrings, is a perfect example of Daddy’s Little Girl. She is his surrogate wife. If you need a more current example, just look at Ivanka Trump.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:43 PM

    The movie The Breakfast Club is a perfect example of daddy/daughter emotional incest. Claire received a pair of diamond earrings from her father. She’s Daddy’s Little Princess. She is always pitted in between her parents because she has taken the place of her mother in the family dynamics.

    If you need a more current example, just look at the First Family.

  • Beverly

    Beverly

    September 17th, 2016 at 9:08 AM

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

  • Fiona

    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

    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

    Andrea

    January 16th, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    I agree.

  • maisy

    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.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 1:36 PM

    Which left me a victim of abuse in my very first relationship and marriage to my ex. I would rather die.

  • Dean

    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

    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

    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.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 4:50 PM

    Fiona, it’s also possible that the parent (overly) involved with the child has been the one, and has made the choice of, disconnecting with their spouse and cutting them out of intimacy. Maybe they are also abusing their spouse by essentially replacing them and convincing the child that something is wrong with the other parent, essentially conning the child into colluding?

  • Dizzy

    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

    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

    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.

  • Chery

    Chery

    July 6th, 2017 at 2:10 AM

    Thanks for your insight. Have been in several 12 step programs & want to talk about a situation that erupted recently around emotional incest. If you give me your email that helps as so many emails get buried or sent to spam…thanks

  • Jen

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

  • Mark

    Mark

    June 27th, 2017 at 8:58 PM

    YES, A TYPICAL STORY. . . it seemed COVERT. Dad was cut-off, alco-worka-holic, hostile and introverted; mom was an extrovert, needy, and needed more emotional connection than most, and needed intimacy dad couldn’t give. I was the sweet, good-boy son who became mom’s emotional confidant, but as love/hate goes, I defensively detached from angry dad, and resented the encroaching, overwhelming neediness of mom’s unhealthy femininity. EHHHHHHHH. . . Shake the bottle and let it BLOW. No wonder I started turning toward other guys for affection and affirmation, and felt creepy around girls my age that were dating potentials. I get it–was looking for affirmation from dad through other guys, and repulsed by women who symbolized a vortex of feminine need–GASSSSSSP. I don’t care what the culture says about same-sex attraction, I know that my story is like so many other SSA men. it’s taken some really good therapy, group work, and good men’s work to get through the chaos of my broken family system. To feel comfortable to love and become vulnerable with healthy woman, and to develop healthy same-sex relationships that are nurturing, but not sexual. And still there are days when I feel pulled back to my old identity and role. This is a great article and brings an awareness necessary for many to break free of the toxicity of emotional incest. Thanks for writing!!!

  • Olivia N.

    Olivia N.

    July 17th, 2017 at 10:06 AM

    Upon reading this, I didn’t realize how much it really applied to me. My mother did this to me from the time I was an early adolescent as a result of the problems she faced with my father, who later left her for another woman. I hated it when she revealed things about their relationship that I was far too young to know. In fact, I still resent and mistrust her because of this. I understand that she did not mean to hurt me but, she did hurt me and i was too young to be able to understand what was happening and speak up for myself.

  • June

    June

    July 20th, 2017 at 9:27 AM

    Wow my daughters send this to me. I was crying in/out with emotions. This is exactly what happening with us. They no line of respect when we fighting it even go physical. We all love each other and hate each other for last 15 years. As a single parent everything is my fault and I don’t exist as human or have a voice as one. I lost control after finding safety living for us, I thought work, doing everything else for my children would bring love into our lives. Managing of My OCD / as a foundational depression
    person & seriously codependent on my children in given up state of mind. Wtf I did to my children:-0 :-l what do I do to fix this wrong? How can we be closed stil as a family? We all need help? I so can relate to everyone message in some way more or less. Each one of us want to take our lives at some point. I thought I was awesome person as a parent and now I don’t think so, know all this time I thought safety, security and best thing
    Only. I keep outside monsters out but I think my children saw me as the real controlling and dangerous monster on inside now. Smh@me I am to blame for everything it my actions to be great parent and good person just failed. I feeling over sad I just deeply hurting inside. I was to be better than my parents and awesome one to my children. Now I a questioning myself. I did my best and I think we will be okay now we all read about this topic we will get help and support each other after all we love each other secretly and we family. I have hope for us.I as grateful to experience to learn new living of life. Thanks to everyone who helped us through this process and learn about this topic. Thank you.

  • Rose

    Rose

    July 21st, 2017 at 11:18 AM

    This article describes my life and my sister’s life to a T….. I’ve been living in emotional hell since I was 9 and im almost 25 now….my sister is almost 30 and turned herself into a shut-in after graduating college and is just NOW taking steps towards her own future. My mom does not think she has done anything wrong. We have been her emotional support since our father died. What made it worse was people telling me and my sister to “be strong for [our] mother” every time they would see us cry after his death. So I have been unable to share feelings with people and I feel guilt for everything. My entire life has been a guilt trip. I would not say my mother is a bad person, she is an amazing human being and I honestly do not believe she even knew what she has been doing. Ever since my father died my sister and I have been her therapists listening to all the issues she has suffered through as she grew up. It is like a record player on repeat. Even when she had adult friends she chose not to confide in them or share her feelings with them, only with me and my sister. I have had one dysfunctional relationship after another until I stopped trying to make friends. It almost feels like I am reliving my mom’s life and I hate it but I dont know how to change it or stop it. I even ended a relationship with someone I love because I know in my situation I wouldn’t be able to pursue such a relationship. He doesn’t seem to understand it, but oh well…. I can barely wrap my head around the ridiculousness of this myself. The guilt is overwhelming and so is the fear of making adult decisions. I do not even think my mom sees me as an adult, I’m still in need of being shielded and protected. It’s like she is projecting herself and all she went through as a child and adult on us. I am 24 and I feel like I have missed out on so much in life because of this. If you are a parent who is doing this to their child then you need to STOP. YOU are the ones who made us and wanted us, we don’t owe you ANYTHING. It’s like adopting a pet and then expecting the pet to do stuff for you because you adopted it….it’s absolutely ridiculous. You are the ones who owe us the dignity of our feelings and decisions.
    Needless to say I have tremendous anxiety and anger issues and lash out at my family all the time. I can’t wait for the day I can leave except I know it will be a day full of pain and I might have to live with the guilt of leaving for the rest of my life. I truly believe my mom gets insecure and jealous of any relationships I have had because of her reaction to my friends. So it’s fucked up. And there is truly nothing I can do. It feels like entrapment. But I am glad I got this off of my chest, and that I know I am not imagining this stuff, and that other people go through it as well.
    If there is anyone reading this who has gotten out of this situation, what can I do? How can I change things? Please…I really need the help, and so does my sister. I suggested counseling so many times to my mom and family and it never happened…and I need to know what I can do for myself now because I don’t want to lose any more time in life. I don’t want to live with guilt anymore for wanting normal things, like the person I love, or privacy, or making my own decisions.
    Thank you.

  • Paula D.

    Paula D.

    February 18th, 2018 at 4:34 PM

    Rose, My experience has been that you need very strong, inflexible, boundaries with your parent and probably other family members. If you let your boundaries down, even just a little bit, you will become angry and you will be resentful. Unfortunately, when you stick up for yourself and don’t allow the abuse, they will get frustrated with you and push harder in an attempt to put you back in your place. But, you can’t have any of that. You will come to the realization that you must remove yourself entirely, unless they say goodbye first. It’s sad, but that’s reality. When that happens, you need to mourn the loss of family, the loss of the ILLUSION of the family you never had. I feel ya, sister!!!
    Stay strong! Work on yourself. There’s a beautiful person named Rose who’s wanting to meet you! She’s in there and she loves you. Namaste.

  • Heather

    Heather

    July 25th, 2017 at 5:16 PM

    I have difficulty with my significant other because his mother expects him to be emotionally married to her. She has even voiced that he owes her his loyalty as a son. She will get needy and desperate and start making up lies that I assaulted her and left bruises on her and that I was there trying to break into her house. It’s awful and difficult!!

  • John

    John

    July 25th, 2017 at 11:38 PM

    Heather,
    I am sorry to hear this. It is more common than you think. There is a book that may help you. When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment by Kenneth Adams.

  • Gayle

    Gayle

    September 13th, 2017 at 1:01 AM

    Excellent name for this..
    i was in a relats like stated..? My x would talk to her daughter like they were married .. Right down to calling her pet names that u would say to ur partner etc baby cakes .. darling.. girlfriend but none of these towards me…Often I was the outcast .. wot ever daughter wanted was done.. this went on for 4 years .. I could not understand wot was happening .. often blaming myself when goaded into an argument .. I was walking on egg shells … It became very degrading to be sitting with friends & she would never shy from calling her daughter those lover names in front of them . They would Often look at me with eyes that said did I hear right..?
    Emotional incest she was capable of doing to with her friends too
    They never had sex but the talk was like they had or were about to
    Just glad I’m out of this now
    Good luck to any others that r experiencing this

  • Whoever

    Whoever

    March 22nd, 2018 at 2:46 AM

    I am sorry, but calling this incest is disgusting to me on so many levels, as I am a surivor of sexual abuse within my own family. I can not even start to imagine what hell people supposedly went through by their parents showing emotions in front of them and sharing whatever with them and holding them precious and close. My hell was a very different one, with no boundaries allowed for myself, no rights, no importance whatsoever. Being daddy’s precious princess in every way but sexual sounds like horrible abuse to me. I am sarcastic here. Having your mother cry and tell you what your precious little ears cannot handle, like things are going bad, when any idiot in the house anyway can tell even without being told… really, get a f—— grip on yourself, you weaklings! If that is all the abuse you ever suffered, and you are now acting like a helpless baby as adults because you were supposedly treated as adult as children, that makes no sense. I had to be an adult as a child, plus suffer from serious abuse from several adults including my own parents, and I function as an adult. Listening to someone or being the chosen child, calling this emotional incest, wow, you are all sick! Honestly, yes, if it is such a big deal to support your parent when they are a single parent, or see them as humans, you are not a good person to me. Whiny pieces of sh.

  • Tara M.

    Tara M.

    March 22nd, 2018 at 3:15 AM

    Paula, are you out there?!?!? I stumbled upon this page while googling about hating my Mother lol….years ago a friend told me that I had an incestuous relationship with my Mother, I didn’t really get it, I was in my 20’s at the time. Fast forward 20 years, I am a Mom now….and I think it is starting to make some sense, so I google it and OMG….I feel like everything suddenly makes sense! My Mom had me at 23, she was the “other” woman, so they never married, and she worked her tail off to keep us off welfare and state aide, I give her so much credit for that…but the drain of being her only child, her husband, her best friend, literally EVERYTHING to her was rough, her Mother was sick and lived with us, in a hospital bed for a while, at 10 I was cleaning her wounds and helping her….I knew about every financial trouble, every work issue, friend issue, EVERYTHING….sometimes I just wanted to go to my room but she wouldn’t let me, said I had to spend family time with her and her Mom…and I would be stuck watching murder she wrote lol! Any relationship I had with a friend’s family, or even co-workers as I got older, was viewed as a threat by her, she criticized everything…everything was always a battle, a struggle to make sure SHE felt loved! As an adult, and has her emotional caregiver/support system for 30+ years (not to mention financial, paying her rent at times, car payments), I am tired, and she is quite sick….and since she moved in with us 7 years ago (BIG mistake) her health has gone down hill….now we find ourselves in a place where she is in a rehab/nursing facility and I want them to transition her to long term care, she is young, 67, but she needs help that I just feel like I can’t give anymore! I am tired, she has drained me…is it bad that I don’t want to do it anymore? I feel like the description of covert incest above is me to a T….I have always had intimacy issues, just don’t like it…sex fine, snuggle, ehhh not so much lol…I have serious weight issues, I definitely sooth with food…and I just want to be left alone lol, not in a negative way, just that I feel so emotionally drained by her! When I met my hubby years ago, and she thought we were nearing engagement, she met a guy online, had 5 dates, got engaged ASAP, rushed to have a vegas wedding, then on the day we were going for MY wedding dress, she showed up and the first words out of her mouth were, “I can’t take it, I am leaving him”….so now, when I finally feel like she isn’t my problem anymore, I spend the entire time at the dress shop, wondering if my fiance will still marry me if my 57yr old Mother has to come with lol! You seem so well versed in this….tell me, is it ok to be DONE….I will visit, I will do all I can, from a far, I just can’t have her here anymore…she just keeps saying, “you’ll know how this feels some day….I thought I had family…..was your life really that bad….what did I do to deserve this…I must have been a horrible mother!”….she can’t just see it’s me needing to focus on ME!!! Thanks for listening!

  • Paula D

    Paula D

    March 22nd, 2018 at 10:16 AM

    Tara, yes, I am here, if that’s what you mean. I am glad you are finally coming to terms with your abusive relationship with your mother. This form of abuse is insidious and incredibly damaging. With bruises and scars, one can visibly see the abuse. But, in this form, a person, especially a child, doesn’t understand that they are being used. Instead, they feel that they are getting parental love. But, in this form, it’s given for what you do vs who you are. And that’s a very important factor here.
    From what you describe, you have been adultified and parentified. Adultification occured because you were forced to deal with very sophisticated subjects in order to provide your mother with emotional support. Parentification happens when you are forced to run the household at an early age, caregiving for a sick grandparent, and any other mature responsibility that you remove from a parent, such as working to pay their bills. Please understand that this is a form of codependency and you are, in fact, enabling your mother. I think you have come to the point of resentment in enabling and removing the consequences of her behavior, whatever her excuse may be. And at this point, maybe you understand that your mother is a sick individual in the sense that these are very unhealthy behaviors. Therefore, you have learned unhealthy coping mechanisms too. The whole thing sounds generational, as it may very well be that your grandmother behaved this way to her daughter too.
    This enmeshment is making you sick and tired too, as you struggle to support another person at the expense of self. I suggest you read up on toxic mothers and parental enmeshment (this can happen with a father too) to get an idea of the ways in which a child can be silently abused.
    Therapy is a great idea, provided you can afford it, but you must find a counselor that understands these behaviors. Otherwise, you will come off whiny because your parent did the best they could under circumstances. Which, in a sense, is true. Your mother had no spouse, which isn’t your fault, forcing you to deal with the consequences. To a certain extent, this is what happens in this situation, or when forced to be a caregiver; you are codependent, meaning who you are is tied up in someone else. However, healthier people have better coping mechanisms, and this is a spectrum (sliding scale). Since your mother had no husband, no parental support, and no healthy friends, you became her everything. The childhood is gone once you are thrust into all these support roles.
    If you have friends that are capable of understanding, and also willing, that you can bounce this stuff off of, then great. Most of us don’t have this (cherished) type of friend. Most relationships are fair weather. And many are driven off by the family sickness, leaving you alone, like your mother was. Now, I avoid these sick situations like the plague! It’s often easy for people like us to get sucked into the vortex and have all of our healthy goodness extracted until there’s nothing left. So, I help people online and avoid the entanglements.
    Therapy is paramount. If you can’t afford it, then I suggest Codependent’s Anonymous, aka CoDA. It’s a 12 step program designed to help people understand unhealthy behavior and learn how to create boundaries. It’s an organization of volunteers who have been through it and stick with it. This way, they keep themselves in check while helping you. No money is required to join, however, they always have a can for contributions of a buck or two in order to keep functioning. If you stay in, you are expected to do the 12 step program and continue to work on yourself. And buy a book or two. At their website, you can see if there are any meetings near you. I think they have an online community for people who aren’t near a meeting or can’t attend. But, I do recommend that you attend. You will meet people who are going through similar issues that can provide validation and empathy. I suggest doing this in conjunction with therapy if possible. coda.org/
    It’s a sad moment when you wake up and realize that reality isn’t what you thought. I speak from personal experience but I think many here will agree. It will be much harder to separate from your mother since she lives with you. Normally, I suggest no contact (which is what my therapist advised me) but it’s hard to make a clean break. There’s a plethora of feelings involved when you consider never speaking to a parent again. In which case, low contact is in order. Eventually, something will happen to dissolve the relationship.
    Let me tell you a secret. Once you set strong boundaries, once you refuse budge, and you don’t allow their behaviors, they will choose to leave on their own. Your mother is pretty entrenched in your life, so it will be much harder to do this. As long as you are footing the bill and enabling her without consequence, she isn’t going to budge!
    When you set strong and inflexible boundaries, the first thing that happens is that your resolve, your fortification is tested. They will use any and all means to get you to fold. That means that they will use guilt, anger, blackmail, and any other trick that they can pull out of their hat. You can’t let it phase you. Make simple rules, and stick to them. When they confront you, repeat the rule to them out-loud. Type up a simple statement and have them sign it. Give them a copy. Keep a copy and refer to it when necessary. That works best! The second you give in you have lost. Once they understand your sincerity and know your resolve they will leave. They can’t use you anymore. They fall away like fleas on a dead dog. Just a warning, this is a lonely time and many won’t understand. Actively seek support from those that do and ignore the rest. The concept of honoring parents is ingrained in our culture. No matter how you were abused, many feel that you should just shut up and take it because you came from sperm and egg. As soon as they argue for a parent, either shut up or cast them aside. They don’t understand and never will. Many may agree but express their sadness at the state of things. Just say thanks and ignore anything you don’t agree with. They just don’t now how to empathize. And, yes, it is sad. But I will tell you that after the mourning period (yes, you must grieve) you will feel better. You will be happier. Yes, you are sad that this must come to pass but it is your salvation on the line. For once in your life, you can just be you. Most likely, you don’t know who that is. I suggest you try anything and everything. The exploratory time is exhilarating! You will learn to love yourself for who you are.
    Best of luck to you.

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