Emotional incest is a type of family dynamic that plays out when a caregiver depends upon a child to get their emotional needs met. Kenneth Adams first used this term to describe a form of family bonding where a child fulfills the role of partner for their parent. This phenomenon, which is also called covert incest, is similar to emotional enmeshment.
Understanding Emotional Incest
The term incest, as it is used in this context, refers to blurred relational boundaries and roles between parent and child. It does not refer to sexual incest or abuse, but it can have similar emotional implications with regard to the way a parent may use or manipulate the child.
From an outside perspective, it can be difficult to spot the difference between an emotionally healthy parent-child relationship and one that is affected by emotional incest or enmeshment. Most parents strive to develop a close and loving relationship with their child(ren), and every family has a slightly different set of norms regarding what that close and loving relationship might look like. But for the most part, a parent-child relationship where the caregiver maintains the adult role and seeks emotional support from appropriate sources is likely not characterized by emotional incest or enmeshment.
In cases of emotional incest, the parent and child may seem close and appear to care for one another in no more than a typical way, but because the caregiver is using the child to get their emotional (and sometimes romantic) needs met, the relationship is not wholly genuine. The parent’s loving behavior is at least partially used as a means of obtaining the connection they want and is not necessarily intended to meet the needs of the child or help the child feel loved.
Unmet Caregiver Needs and Emotional Incest
Caregivers who turn to their children for support may have a number of unmet needs they are unconsciously attempting to address, such as:
- Relationship needs, including intimacy issues, conflict, difficulty maintaining a relationship, lack of companionship, or lack of romantic interaction
- Advice or problem-solving needs, including lack of a confidant or difficulty dealing with problems or issues that arise in everyday life
- Emotional needs, including low self-esteem, difficulty regulating emotions, or the lack of a sense of comfort or safety.
Emotional incest may range in degrees from mild to severe, and many parents in these situations have no intention of harming their children or any idea that they are doing so. The role confusion likely to develop as a result of emotional incest may result in unwanted pressure for the child, especially when they become privy to information about their parent that, due to their age and level of development, may be too much for them to process or handle.
Factors Contributing to Emotional Incest
When the boundary between caregivers and children blurs or becomes otherwise unclear, an environment in which emotional incest can develop is often the result. Certain events, relational patterns, and mental health concerns may put a parent-child relationship at risk for emotional incest:
- Grief, loss, or bereavement
- Domestic violence
- A generational pattern of emotional incest
- Substance abuse
- Mental health concerns
Emotional incest most often, but not always, takes place when the parent is single or when the parent’s partner is emotionally unavailable. It might also occur between a child and an authority figure the child knows and trusts, but this pattern is less common.
How Does Emotional Incest Affect Development?
Emotional incest disrupts a child’s ability to develop at a natural pace, as it tends to force them into situations that are beyond their comprehension and beyond their years. This can, in some situations, lead a child to grow up too quickly. Though a child affected by emotional incest may feel special and privileged to be part of such an adult relationship, they may strive to live up to the impossible expectations of this relationship. This struggle and strain can impact the child’s development in various ways:
- A need to feel special: Children may come to believe that the best way to engage in close relationships is to ensure they are overachievers, in terms of their abilities, and that they are viewed as superior and special. Misconceptions about relationships can lead to perfectionism and low self-esteem, since the child is not equipped to withstand or understand the nature of adult issues. Emotional incest disrupts a child’s ability to develop at a natural pace, as it tends to force them into situations that are beyond their comprehension and beyond their years.
- Guilt complex: The pressure placed on a child who is experiencing emotional incest can lead to feelings of inadequacy, especially if the parent or caregiver is critical when the child is unable to satisfy their needs. This dynamic has the potential to negatively impact a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
- Relationship and boundary issues: Children who experience emotional enmeshment or incest may grow up with confused ideas about relationships and boundaries. They might view healthy boundaries as negative and therefore perceive the boundaries of others as rigid rejection. They may seek relationships that mimic the enmeshment from their childhood and repeat the cycle. There is also the risk of a skewed power differential in their adult relationships, since they may have learned to think that one person holds all the power over the other.
- Lack of assertiveness: When a child is tasked with meeting the needs of their adult parent, their own needs often go unmet. As they grow older, they are likely to have difficulty advocating for their own needs because they may not have had enough opportunities to practice assertiveness skills. Additionally, children affected by emotional incest may learn to associate assertiveness with selfishness or another similar trait.
Long-Term Effects of Emotional Incest
A pattern of emotional incest can make it difficult for children to develop their own sense of self and learn how to get their needs met. Because they spend much of their time focused on meeting the needs of their parent, they have less opportunity to develop the skills necessary to meet developmental milestones and to learn how to approach life’s challenges. They may, as a result, be more likely to experience conflict in relationships or experience feelings of being “stuck,” both in a relationship and in life.
Although it may not be as blatant as physical or sexual abuse, emotional incest can be a form of abuse, albeit unintentional and unrealized abuse. This pattern of invasive behavior can go on for years without outside intervention because it is disguised with an appearance of loving closeness and attentiveness. For some, this dysfunctional family dynamic can have damaging, long-term effects, both on the parent, who never receives help for the issues or conditions they are dealing with, and on the child.
Children may grow up having difficulty setting boundaries or developing healthy relationships, and they may display a lack of genuineness, passive aggression, or fall into patterns of triangulation. Their future relationships might be affected by intimacy issues, power struggles, or anger.
Parents who perpetuate emotional incest are likely to lack coping skills, and children may also fail to adequately develop them. Children affected by emotional incest may, later in life, be more likely to face addiction, substance use issues, or display compulsive behavior.
Addressing Emotional Incest in Therapy
Individuals affected by emotional incest may find the help of a mental health professional to be beneficial as they attempt to understand emotional incest and address its impact. The therapy environment can offer them a safe place free of judgment from which they can begin to heal; however, it can be difficult for many of those affected to reach out for help. Adults who dealt with emotional incest as a child may have intricate defense systems in place, formed out of necessity in order to maintain a relationship with their parent(s) throughout the years. This type of denial often makes it less likely a person will seek therapy.
Although emotional incest can be difficult to spot in others, let alone recognize in one’s own situation, people often go to therapy to address issues that developed as a result of emotional incest. Trained mental health professionals can help those in therapy identify the source of these issues and then provide a supportive environment to address the particular impact of the concern, whether that source is emotional incest or otherwise.
- Dunion, P. (2016, January 4). The quiet wound. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-dunion-edd-lpc/the-quiet-wound_b_8902958.html
- Johnson, R. S. (2014, July 28). Was part of your childhood deprived by emotional incest? BPD Family. Retrieved from https://bpdfamily.com/content/was-part-your-childhood-deprived-emotional-incest
- Kaplan, D. (2010, April 15). The seductive fantasy of being special. Retrieved from http://debrakaplancounseling.com/emotional-incest
Last Updated: 11-15-2016
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