Emotional incest, also known as covert incest, has nothing to do with incestuous sexual abuse. Rather, it is an unhealthy emotional relationship between a parent and a child that blurs boundaries in a way that elevates the child into an adult role. The parent looks to the child for emotional support. In some cases, the parent also seeks practical support from the child.
In an emotionally incestuous relationship, the child is expected to meet the needs of the parent rather than the parent meeting the needs of the child. This type of relationship, which is similar to enmeshment, is inappropriate and can be psychologically damaging for the child.
Emotional incest often occurs when the parent does not have their needs met by a romantic partner or when the family dynamic is broken. Substance abuse, infidelity, and mental health issues tend to increase the dependency of the parent.
Emotional incest occurs when the child believes they are responsible for their parent’s emotional well-being.
What Does Emotional Incest Look Like?
Emotional incest occurs when the child believes they are responsible for their parent’s emotional well-being. This can happen when the parent talks to the child as though the child were an adult. The parent may request advice from the child regarding adult issues and can even place the child in the role of therapist.
When the parent is sad or lonely, it’s up to the child to make them feel better, or at least feel their feelings with them. The boundaries are blurred and meshed. The child may lack any sense of emotional separation from the parent (Love, 2011).
Is Emotional Incest a Form of Neglect?
Elevating a child to the role of supporter and adult can lead to neglect and emotional abuse. A parent who is overly dependent on a child can also be critical and neglectful. Parents who have traversed or inverted parent-child roles can refuse or be unable to provide appropriate support for the child. This can result in a confusing mix of love and abuse (Hosier, 2015).
When a parent relies on the child, the child’s needs are not being met. Children who are placed in the role of adults often do not know how to ask for help. They understand that their parent is unable or uninterested in providing emotional support, so they deny their own needs.
Why Some Parents Look to Children for Support
It is thought that early emotional deprivation can lead some adults to regard their children as parental figures (Jurkovic, 2014). When divorce occurs, this can leave a vacuum that encourages a child to step in and do what they can to help the family (Freud, 1989).
Parents with narcissistic personality (NPD) may lack insight into how their behavior affects their child (Kriesberg, n.d.). They may also justify or deny their behavior and refuse to see that their child may be suffering.
Narcissistic parents and parents who engage in emotional incest often need praise from their child. Questions such as, “Am I a good mother?” or, “How much do you love me?” can place the child in a precarious position, as the child is not allowed to complain or express their own needs. Instead, the parent is the primary one who needs care. This unspoken understanding that the child’s needs are not as important as the needs of the parent can have lasting effects and can cause difficulties in adult relationships.
A parent with addiction may also develop an inappropriate reliance on their child. The child can assume the role of caretaker both when the parent is intoxicated and when the parent is sick and recovering from using substances or alcohol. Children of addicted parents often understand the parent is not capable of caring for them. As a result, they become the “strong one” in the family. The child may hide or deny their own needs even to themselves, as they know the parent is unavailable to provide care.
Emotional Incest: Child Outcomes
The impact of emotional incest on adult children can manifest in a variety of ways. They often have difficulties setting boundaries in relationships. They may also experience depression, shame, suicidal feelings, excessive guilt, anxiety, and social isolation.
Emotional incest can rob a child of the ability to develop at a normal pace, as they are forced into maturity at an early age and denied the opportunity to experience appropriate and supportive relationships. When they reach adulthood, they can experience dysfunctional adult relationships that perpetuate the cycle of unhealthy relationships.
Processing Emotional Incest: The Role of Therapy
Therapy allows you to understand and address the impacts of emotional incest. Underlying issues can be explored and healed in a nonjudgmental and safe environment. A therapist can provide guidance for building appropriate, healthy adult relationships as well as help with relationships with children.
Many adults who experienced emotional incest as a child do not want to repeat the pattern. Therapy can provide guidance and positive support for parents who want their own children to experience healthy parent-child relationships. Find a licensed, compassionate therapist here.
- Freud, A. (1989). Normality and pathology in childhood: Assessments of development. London: Routledge.
- Hosier, D. (2015). Child-parent relationship too close for comfort? Emotional incest explained. Childhood Trauma Recovery. Retrieved from childhoodtraumarecovery.com/all-articles/child-parent-relationship-too-close-for-comfort-emotional-incest-explained
- Jurkovic, G. J. (2014). Lost childhoods: The plight of the parentified child. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Kriesberg, S. (n.d.). Women with narcissistic parent: Stuck in worry. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved from adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/women-narcissistic-parents
- Love, P. (2011). The emotional incest syndrome: What to do when a parent’s love rules your life. New York, NY: Bantam.
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