[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I feel the need to preface this blog with a disclaimer: emotional incest (also called covert incest) does not involve sexual behavior or abuse. I should also note that I did not experience this firsthand, but like you, I know people who have.
Emotional incest occurs when unhealthy emotional interaction blur the boundaries between a parent and a child in a way that is psychologically damaging and inappropriate. The most common version of this is when a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child.
The term "emotional incest" was coined by Kenneth Adams, Ph.D. to label the state of cross-generational bonding within a family, whereby a child (normally of the opposite sex) becomes a surrogate spouse for their mother or father. "Emotional Enmeshment" is another term often used. And the term "emotional parentification" describes a similar concept; the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In an emotionally incestuous relationship, instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child, the child is meeting the needs of the parent.
Emotional incest typically occurs when a marriage unravels or when there is a broken family dynamic (ie substance abuse, infidelity, mental illness). One or both parents may engage the child in talks about adult issues and adult feelings to a child as if the child were a peer. Sometimes both parents will engage with a child in a way that puts the child in the middle of disagreements between the parents. While it may seem like this dynamic could bring a child closer to their parent, it often results in a child feeling emotionally abandoned, or results in the child losing his or her childhood.
Some examples of emotional incest include:
1. Asking the child for advice on adult issues.
A parent might talk to their child about spousal difficulties, sexual feelings, worries about problems that do not directly involve the child, or issues that push the child's personal boundaries. A parent who relies on their child to guide them through romantic or social turmoil teaches their child unhealthy boundaries and places the child in an unwarranted position of responsibility.
2. Ego hunger.
This occurs when a parent will lead their child into praising their work, efforts, looks, or personality. This is done in the privacy of one’s own home as well as in public where other adults can see the child’s apparent adoration of the parent. The parent's narcissism and need for attention thus overshadows the needs of the child.
3. Best friend syndrome.
Remember the enviable relationship between Rory and Lorelai Gilmore? Turns out, a best friend parent-child relationship is terrible for the child. Not only do boundary issues ensue, but the child is unprepared to handle the pressures of an adult relationship, forcing the child to set aside their social and psychological world for the sake of their parent.
4. The therapist role.
Putting a child in the driver’s seat of an emotional crisis or adult relationship robs them of their own relationships and the ability to learn age appropriate socialization. Often, a child who is put in this situation will negate their own needs in favor of their parents and will have trouble engaging in a stable romantic relationship later in life.
What are the effects of a emotional incest?
According to Dr. Adams, emotional incest hurts both the parent and the child, “[Parents] miss an opportunity to continue their own personal development by entrapping their sons or daughters. They stop growing in their own adulthood. It’s not the kid’s responsibility to fulfill their parents' loneliness, it’s their job to move into the world themselves and to find their own connections.”
Children who are subjected to emotional incest may grow up to have one or more of the following difficulties:
1. Guilt about practicing self care or an unrealistic sense of obligation to their parent.
2. Difficulties related to sexual identity or gender.
3. Feelings of inadequacy.
4. Love/hate relationship with offending parent.
5. Difficulty in maintaining relationships due to an idealization of others and inappropriate expectations placed on partners.
6. Compulsivity that can include sex, substances, alcohol, work, or food.
7. Patterns of excessive triangulation (indirect communication) in work, family, or romantic relationships.
8. Issues related to sex addiction/avoidance or love addiction/avoidance.
If you or someone you know has experienced emotional incest, you can heal. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), trauma reduction therapy (TRT), trauma release exercises (TRE), and eye movement desensitization and preprocessing (EMDR) have all been shown to help. If you need an affordable therapist, you can locate one here.
P.S. Watch Kati Morton explain emotional incest here, watch Brad Shore break down five signs you might be dating a victim of emotional incest here, or read Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner.