Enmeshment and Blurred Boundaries: Emotional Incest Explained

Child standing by lockersEmotional 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.

References:

  1. Freud, A. (1989). Normality and pathology in childhood: Assessments of development. London: Routledge.
  2. 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
  3. Jurkovic, G. J. (2014). Lost childhoods: The plight of the parentified child. New York, NY: Routledge.
  4. 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
  5. Love, P. (2011). The emotional incest syndrome: What to do when a parent’s love rules your life. New York, NY: Bantam.

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Fabiana Franco, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Carla

    Carla

    February 16th, 2020 at 6:19 PM

    I admit that I haven’t read the article above. I’ve already read two articles on the subject tonight. I don’t need any more information about the disorder. What I need is support and possibly therapy. I’m so tired of trying to deal with this. The people I talk with about everything in my whole life, my mother and brother, are involved in the problem. I’ve tried to tell them about emotional incest, but they really don’t want to hear it. They are smart people. I suggested a book by Patricia Love on the subject, but they won’t read it. They want me to go away when I don’t just say what I have to to get along. Help? I’m very smart (National Merit Scholar). I understand a lot of things. I just don’t understand how to change the things I understand. It is like trying to unravel a big knot of yarn. I feel so alone, but I can’t stand getting too close to people. I don’t know what to do. I’ve given up trying to kill myself. It’s pointless. If I really wanted to die, I would stop “trying” to kill myself. I’ve got the methods down, but they are quite painful. I’m not a fan of pain. Everyone thinks I’m so wierd. I just want to huddle in my house and never come out, but I don’t. Iknow better. I’m disabled, but I’m going to call someone tomorrow about getting back to volunteering. Can you help at all? When I plugged my location (Mountain Home, AR 72653) into your search box, it said that there is no therapist near me.

  • Libby

    Libby

    February 17th, 2020 at 5:48 PM

    You are NOT ALONE. I repeat, you are NOT ALONE! It must be so excruciating for you to have to feel these feelings of pain and to know that they are brought on by the people who are supposed to love you, the people closest to you that you should be able to trust most. I am so sorry this is happening to you. Please know that you are not alone and even though we’ve never met, I care about you. I know you are in pain and hurting and your feelings matter. YOU matter!!! I hope you find a therapist who can guide you through the tough emotions and help you get to a better place. Please don’t give up and try to hurt yourself again. You matter and you are not alone.

  • Carla

    Carla

    February 24th, 2020 at 4:53 PM

    Thank you. Usually, I have what I think of as eruptions of negative feelings. They always die down as they did this time. I have made an appointment with a local therapist that I’ve seen before. It’s so hard to trust myself to anyone.

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