What Is Emotional Incest?

Many people struggle as adults because they grew up in an unhealthy environment. As children, the way our caregivers treat us - primarily the mother - impacts our development in profound ways. The way we bond or by contrast fail to bond or attach to our mothers, especially during the first 18 months of life is critical to how we develop as human beings, for example. 

Sometimes though, parents go through their own struggles such as a depression or a divorce, and they end up putting pressure on the child and cross the child's emotional boundaries. Parents may inadvertently put pressure on the child to take on certain responsibilities that the adult parent should be handling. This is especially true when it comes to emotional pressures.

Emotional Incest Syndrome, also referred to as Covert Incest and emotional incest, doesn't always include physical abuse. However, some who've experienced emotional incest state that it can feel very much that way. 

What is Emotional Incest Syndrome?

Emotional incest is quite similar to enmeshment which relates to relationships with family or otherwise which have weak or non-existent boundaries. 

Parentification is another commonality of emotional incest. In emotional parentification, a child may feel pressured or even forced to take on the role of the parent, carrying burdens typical for the parent or caregiver to shoulder. 

While emotional incest is similar to both concepts listed above, it differs in the respect that the abuse is exclusive to parent and child, versus being related to relationships with siblings or other members of the child's family or inner circle.

It's entirely possible to have grown up with emotional incest and not even be aware of it. Emotional incest and the abuse it causes to a child is solely due to the parent or primary caregiver's behavior with the child. There is a direct correlation between emotional incest, parentification of a child and narcissism. A narcissistic parent may commit emotional incest and lack the self-awareness to see the damage they're doing to the child. Or, they're often in denial of doing so.

Covert incest was a phenomenon that psychologist Kenneth M. Adams highlighted in his 1980s book titled Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners - Understanding Covert Incest. Researchers have further developed the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) to assist potential victims in understanding whether or not they have experienced such abuse.

According to the CEIS there are two specific key factors of consideration:

1. Being treated as a surrogate spouse for a parent.

2. The experience of an unhappy and unsatisfactory childhood.

Having experienced emotional incest as a child means that you felt pressured to play the role of an emotional support partner to your parent. As a result, you may feel as though you've missed out on key aspects of enjoying a happy, healthy childhood.

What Might The Causes of Emotional Incest Syndrome Be?

Typically, emotional incest occurs when a parent such as the primary caregiver loses their own emotional support partner such as when a spouse leaves or a divorce takes place. This causes the parent to feel isolated and lonely, and if the parent lacks a support network, they may begin assigning the emotional roles to their child. 

Emotional Incest aka Covert Incest most commonly transpires in situations such as:

  • Breakup, separation or divorce
  • Loss and grief
  • Lack of intimacy between parents
  • Emotional unavailability between parents
  • Cases of infidelity
  • Domestic violence
  • Parents with attachment trauma
  • Parents with fear of abandonment
  • Mental health conditions such as personality disorders
  • Parents who suffer from NPD
  • Parents who experienced emotional incest as children

Are There Any Signs or Symptoms To Look Out For?

In parents who are committing emotional incest against their children the signs may vary. While emotional incest rarely has anything so much to do with physical or sexual abuse, the child on the receiving end of emotional incest is in fact being abused just the same. The emotional abuse can be just as damaging to a child as any other type of abuse, including physical abuse. Here are a few examples of behaviors that indicate emotional abuse.

  • Being upset, sad or crying and expecting your child to offer comfort.
  • Treating the child as an emotional equal.
  • Sharing private matters such as secrets with your child.
  • Requiring time spent with just you and your child.
  • In any manner discouraging friendships with the child's peers.
  • Verbiage or behavior that implies jealousy.
  • Sharing adult information or decisions with your child (expenses, etc.)
  • Requiring your child share in adult household responsibility.
  • Expecting praise or compliments from your child.
  • Discussing your interpersonal relationships with your child.
  • Taking the child for one-on-one "dates" out.
  • Invade the child's privacy or by contrast, give the child too much freedom.
  • Allowing the child to have freedoms with a lack of rules or structure.
  • Not respecting your child's personal boundaries or having blurry boundaries.

You may show these signs as a result of receiving this type of abuse

  • Putting your own needs second compared to your parents' needs.
  • Missing out on age appropriate activities such as childhood hobbies, time with friends, etc.
  • Feeling responsible for the feelings or emotions of others.
  • People-pleasing behaviors, trouble saying "no," narcissism or other personality disorders.
  • Alternating positive and negative feelings toward your parents (splitting aka "my parent is all good versus all bad.")
  • Lacking feelings of safety.

Mental Health Impacts 

Growing up in an enmeshed relationship with your parent may feel isolating. You may experience negative metal health effects as a result. 

These may include:

  • Addictions including substance abuse
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Trouble with intimacy in adult relationships
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
  • Difficulty individuating or separating yourself from your parents as an adult
  • Codependency
  • Narcissism or other personality disorders
  • Trouble regulating your emotions
  • Difficulty establishing your own identity as an individual

Covert incest, otherwise known as emotional incest is when family boundaries cross the line and children are parentified. While it does not involve physical sexual abuse, the victims of covert incest have expressed that it feels quite the same. The two types of abuse share many common points so far as the long term effects on the victim.

Practicing setting strong, healthy boundaries and establishing a positive support network can be the first step toward healing. Because emotional incest often occurs in a parent > child > parent > child cycle, if you are a victim it's important that you take the valuable steps toward healing so that you can break toxic familial patterns of abuse.


Are you a victim of abuse?

Consider speaking with someone you trust. You can contact the national sexual abuse hotline at 1-800-656-4673. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The national suicide hotline is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Simply text SMS to 988. 


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published