Covert incest occurs when a parent or caregiver relies on a child for support that a romantic partner would typically give. Another name for it is “emotional incest.” It does not involve sexual abuse.
The word “covert” refers to the fact that this type of incest is often less noticeable and more difficult to identify than incest that involves sexual abuse.
In this article, we describe covert incest in more detail, provide examples of behavior that may indicate covert incest, and look at its impact on children and young people involved.
According to the American Psychological Association, covert incest is a type of emotional abuse. It occurs when a parent or caregiver consistently violates the normal boundaries between themselves and a child. Therapists sometimes call this emotional incest or “enmeshment.”
In an emotionally incestuous relationship, a caregiver depends on a child for support. This reverses the norms of parenthood and means that the child has to prioritize the needs of the adult.
In some cases, the adult treats the child as if they are a romantic partner. However, what makes covert incest distinct from other types is that no sexual contact is involved.
Emotional incest is also different from a parent or caregiver and child having a close relationship. In cases of covert incest, closeness results from the adult prioritizing their needs over those of the child, harming the child’s well-being.
The following examples come from anecdotal reports from people who have experienced covert incest. A parent or caregiver may be engaged in this behavior if they:
- Rely on a child for support: This may include confiding in them about their relationship problems, looking to them for comfort or reassurance, or asking the child for advice that is inappropriate for their age.
- Put their needs before the child’s: The caregiver may expect frequent praise and affection from the child or wish to feel that they are the most important thing in the child’s life, at the expense of the child’s other relationships.
- Invade the child’s privacy: This may involve invading the child’s personal space frequently or preventing the child from having a space of their own. The caregiver may also do things that make the child feel uncomfortable, such as ignoring the child’s wish for privacy when they are nude or being nude around the child.
- Treat the child like a romantic partner: This could involve the caregiver taking the child on dates, discussing their sexual experiences, or inappropriately commenting on the child’s body or appearance. The caregiver may also insist that the child call them names typically reserved for adult partners.
- Feel jealous of the child’s relationships: When the child becomes an adult, the parent or caregiver may become jealous of their romantic relationships. They may compete for attention, intrude, or attempt to sabotage them.
A caregiver does not have to do all of these things to engage in covert incest. A relationship is covertly incestuous if there is a consistent lack of parent-child boundaries.
Caregivers who engage in this behavior may not realize that it is harmful. The child involved may feel that the relationship is simply special or that it cannot be abusive because it does not involve sexual contact.
Health experts do not know how common covert incest is, and little research on its effects exists. However, psychologists in this field claim that the impact on their clients is similar to that of physical incest.
In his book Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, psychologist Kenneth M. Adams states that covert incest can cause:
- a love-hate relationship with the caregiver
- feelings of abandonment toward other parents or caregivers who have left the household or are allowing the behavior to continue
- difficulty identifying and fulfilling personal needs because the person is so used to caring for others
- feeling inadequate and unworthy
- sexual dysfunction
- compulsive behavior or addiction
- difficulty forming lasting intimate relationships
Since the publication of this book, researchers have developed the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS), which aims to measure how covert incest affected a person during their childhood.
Because there has been little research on covert or emotional incest, its causes are not well-understood.
However, anecdotal evidence from therapists suggests that covert incest often occurs when a parent’s or caregiver’s emotional needs are not being met by a partner or spouse. This may be due to:
- relationship dysfunction or breakdown
- domestic abuse
As a misguided attempt to cope, the caregiver may turn to their child for comfort. Mental health conditions and substance abuse may also contribute.
If the caregiver experienced covert incest when they were young, they may repeat the same pattern of behavior, believing it to be normal.
It may take a long time for someone to recognize the full impact of the caregiver’s behavior. A person may idealize the parent or caregiver involved and struggle to accept that the relationship was not healthy.
However, acknowledging covert incest is essential for recovery. This is especially true because people often blame themselves for their parent’s or caregiver’s behavior. It is important to recognize that no form of incest is ever the child’s fault.
Steps a person can take to begin healing from covert incest include:
- Having therapy: A qualified therapist can help someone understand what happened to them during childhood and provide a judgment-free space for them to talk about it. Therapists can also help people adjust their ideas about what healthy relationships look like.
- Joining a support group: Some people find it beneficial to communicate with others who have had similar experiences. Support groups can also help people recognize unhealthy patterns of behavior and so reduce the power that their parent or caregiver has over them.
- Establishing boundaries: If an adult child is still in contact with their parent or caregiver, they may need to establish healthier boundaries. An individual may also need to practice setting boundaries with other people, such as romantic partners, friends, or their own children.
- Taking medication: If a person who has experienced covert incest has depression or anxiety, medication may help manage the symptoms.
For anyone who believes that they may have experienced emotional incest, help is available.
An adult can seek support from a therapist in person or remotely, such as via phone or video call. If a person wants to discuss covert incest specifically, it is a good idea to look for a therapist with experience in this area.
Mental health treatment may be especially beneficial for people who also have depression, anxiety, or a substance abuse disorder.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Covert incest, or emotional incest, occurs when a parent or caregiver relies on a child for the support that an adult partner would usually provide. They may also treat the child like a romantic partner.
Covert incest is different from physical incest because it does not involve sexual abuse. But it, too, causes harm. According to some psychologists, covert incest and physical incest have similar effects and prevent children from learning how to form healthy boundaries.
A therapist with knowledge of covert incest or enmeshment may be able to help someone understand their caregiver’s behavior, its effects, and how to begin to move forward.