Emotional incest happens when a parent or caregiver depends on a child for the emotional needs that a romantic partner would otherwise offer. Another term for it is covert incest. It does not include sexual abuse.
The word “emotional” or “covert” means that this form of incest is not visible to others and harder to spot than incest related to sexual abuse.
This article describes emotional incest in more detail, provides examples of behavior that may indicate emotional incest, and looks at its impact on children and young people.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), emotional incest is a form of emotional abuse. It happens when a parent or caregiver uses the child for emotional needs that they should be obtaining from their adult romantic partner. This violates the boundaries between a parent and child. Psychologists sometimes call this covert incest or “enmeshment.”
In an emotionally incestuous relationship, the parent or caregiver depends on the child as an emotional security blanket. It means that the child has to put the wants and desires of the parent first to receive the parent’s approval.
In some cases, the adult treats the child as if they are a love-life partner. However, what makes emotional incest distinct from other types is that there is no sexual contact.
Emotional incest differs from a typical close relationship between a parent or caregiver and a child. In cases of emotional incest, the closeness results from the adult putting themselves first and, in the process, harming the child’s well-being.
The APA defines enmeshment as a relationship between two or more people in which they become involved in each other’s activities and relationships too much, limiting each person’s independence and sense of self.
Emotional incest is a specific form of enmeshment that includes a parent or caregiver and a child.
According to the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome What To Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life by Dr. Patricia Love, the following are examples of emotional incest:
- Relying on the child for support: This may include talking with the child about their relationship problems, seeking the child to console or comfort them, or asking the child for inappropriate advice.
- Putting their needs before their child’s: The caregiver may want endless praise and love from the child or seek to be the most important person in the child’s life while at the same time hurting the child’s other relationships.
- Invading the child’s privacy: Examples include entering 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 awkward, such as ignoring the child’s wish for privacy when they are nude or being nude around the child.
- Using the child like a love-life partner: This could consist of taking the child on dates, discussing their sex life, or making explicit comments about the child’s body or appearance. The caregiver may also insist that the child call them names typically reserved for adult relationships. However, in cases of emotional incest, there is no sexual contact.
- Feeling jealous of the child’s relationships: When the child becomes an adult, the parent or caregiver may become envious of their romantic relationships. They may compete for attention, intrude on, or attempt to sabotage them.
A caregiver must not do all these things to engage in emotional incest. A relationship is emotionally 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 include sexual contact.
Health experts do not know how common emotional 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 emotional incest can cause:
- a love-hate relationship with the caregiver
- feelings of abandonment toward the other parent or caregiver who has left the household or allowed 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 or sex addiction
- 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 emotional incest has affected a person during their childhood.
According to the Journal of Counseling Psychology, high scores on the CEIS accurately predict increased anxiety and lower levels of life satisfaction.
Researchers do not understand all the causes of emotional incest. There are few studies on this subject.
However, anecdotal information from therapists suggests that emotional incest often happens when the other partner or spouse is not meeting the affected parent’s or caregiver’s emotional requirements. This may be due to:
- relationship dysfunction or breakdown
- domestic abuse
The parent or caregiver may turn to their child for comfort as an inappropriate way to cope. Parental mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, personality disorder, and substance use disorder may also contribute.
If the caregiver was exposed to emotional incest when they were young, they might 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 their parent or caregiver and have difficulty accepting that the relationship was not healthy.
However, acknowledging emotional incest is essential for recovery. Since 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 emotional incest include:
- Seeking 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 healthy relationships.
- 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 reduce their parent or caregiver’s influence over them.
- Establishing boundaries: If an adult-child is still in contact with their parent or caregiver, they may need to set healthier boundaries. Individuals may also need to practice setting boundaries with others, such as romantic partners, friends, or their own children.
- Taking medication: If a person who has experienced emotional incest has depression or anxiety, medication may help manage the symptoms.
For anyone who believes they may have been exposed to emotional incest, seeking mental health treatment may be especially beneficial for those with depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder.
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 emotional incest specifically, it is a good idea to look for a therapist with experience in this area.
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 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
The following are answers to a few common questions on emotional incest.
How can a person be sure they have problems from emotional incest?
A person may have problems from emotional incest if they, as a child, usually acted like the adult in the relationship. They may also feel guilty about a parent’s problems, take responsibility for the parent’s feelings, and have poor relationships with the other parent and siblings.
Will emotional incest affect my sex life?
Many people who have experienced emotional incest develop sex addiction or find it difficult to engage in or enjoy sex. A person should speak with a medical or psychological professional to help them resolve these types of symptoms.
Will the after-effects of emotional incest go away by themselves?
Depending on the situation, the severity of the emotional incest may interfere with a person developing healthy romantic relationships or other friendships, cause them to create perfectionistic tendencies, or set up mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorders. These problems usually do not resolve on their own and require professional help.
How can a person break the cycle of emotional incest?
An excellent first step is recognizing the problem and seeking professional help. A person can also begin to set boundaries by determining what is essential for self-well-being, such as deciding not to listen to information about the parent or caregiver’s sex life. It is important to keep in mind that healing is a process that will take time and effort. Each step a person takes is a step forward.
Emotional incest, or covert incest, happens when a parent or caregiver relies on a child for emotional needs that an adult relationship would usually provide. They may behave like the child is a love-life partner.
Emotional incest is not the same as physical incest because it does not include sexual abuse. However, according to some psychologists, emotional incest and physical incest have similar effects and prevent children from learning how to form healthy relationship boundaries.
A therapist with knowledge of emotional incest or enmeshment may be able to help someone understand the caregiver’s behavior, its effects, and how to begin to move forward.