Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.
Trouble maintaining appropriate boundaries, eating disorders, self-harm, relationship dissatisfaction, sexual intimacy issues, and substance abuse are all common reactions to emotional incest. Just because a child from this type of environment may grow up, leave their childhood home, and become an adult, does not mean the original issues of dysfunction cease to exist. In fact, some of the repercussions described above only begin to manifest in adulthood.
Examples of emotional incest include:
- Asking the child for advice on adult issues. Spousal difficulties, sexual feelings, worries about problems that do not directly involve the child, are all topics more suitable to discuss with adults. Inviting children into the problems of adult relationships can blur boundaries. A parent should not have to rely on their child to guide them through romantic or social turmoil. By asking advice on adult issues, the child is subtly positioned in a place of responsibility. The roles are reversed.
- Ego hunger. Sometimes parents will encourage or lead their child to consistently praise their effort or even personality. This can be done in the privacy of one’s own home or in public where other adults can see the child’s apparent adoration of the parent. The need to feel important can take over, forcing the child’s visibility to take a backseat to the parent’s esteem or narcissism.
- Best friend syndrome. When a parent is best friends with their child, boundary issues often occur. Discipline, expectations, and personal responsibility are all impacted by this behavior. Having a confidante who is not capable or ready to handle adult relationships is forcing the child to set aside their social and psychological world for the sake of their parent’s.
- 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. Later in life the child may feel most comfortable taking care of someone else’s emotional needs rather than their own. In some cases, it may be difficult for an adult child to have a stable romantic relationship since the need for crisis overrules the need for solidity.
Emotional incest is most likely to occur when a parent is lonely. Newly divorced parents may feel the absence of their partner intensely. They may have new responsibilities and new roles as both parents and adults. With aspects of their children reminding them of their spouse, the occurrence of emotional incest may be heightened.
There are many reasons a child may not report emotional incest. It’s a difficult concept to pinpoint. There is no physical abuse and it’s not sexual. When a parent becomes a best friend, it may seem like the complete opposite of emotional dysfunction.
In addition to the difficulties of pinpointing what’s wrong, a child may enjoy some of the feelings that come from emotional incest. They may feel important or special because they are their parent’s chosen confidante. Although they most likely know they are being treated differently than children around them, the feeling of maturity can be exhilarating. Children can also have a sense of feeling helpful or even powerful since they are the ones guiding their parent along an adult journey. For all of these reasons, it is difficult for a child to ask for support.
If you were involved in an emotionally incestuous relationship with a parent, you were most likely neglected. You may not have experienced discipline, structure, or guidance as a child. As an adult, these skills are imperative to function in society. Patricia Love, author of The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life, says: “My only regret is that no one told me at the beginning of my journey what I’m telling you now: there will be an end to your pain. And once you’ve released all those pent-up emotions, you will experience a lightness and buoyancy you haven’t felt since you were a very young child.”