General Topics

What Is Emotional Incest?

by Dr. Shanthi Thomas

Emotional incest, also called covert incest, is a type of abuse in which a parent depends on their child, instead of an adult, for emotional support. It is a fairly new concept that refers to the emotionally abusive relationship between a parental figure and a child. There is no explicit touching or physical relationship between the parent and the child, but the child feels trapped in a ‘too close for comfort’ situation. In the words of Kennet Adams who pioneered the concept, the child feels ‘icky’ about the relationship, but is unable to do anything about it because of the unequal power dynamics.

Signs of emotional incest

  • Asking advice from the child regarding adult issues such as how to deal with an abusive partner. By asking advice to a child, the latter is placed in a position of responsibility, and roles are reversed.
  • Encouraging and expecting a child to praise the parent for their efforts or personality.
  • Making the child the best friend and confidante of the parent. This leads to the child abandoning his/her own social and psychological world.
  • Admiring and complimenting the physical development of the child.
  • Taking a child on ‘dates’ to watch age-inappropriate movies or go to romantic dinners.
  • Calling the child inappropriate names such as ‘sweet lover’, ‘girl friend’ etc
  • Engaging in sexualized talk with a child.
  • The child feeling an unreasonable sense of obligation to the parent.
  • Love/hate relationship with a parent
  • Expecting the child to fulfil the role of a therapist. The parent may look towards the child for psychological support and counselling, depriving the child of his/her own relationships and age-appropriate socialization.

Causes of emotional incest

  1. Marital discord

A breakdown in the marital bond of the parents, typically due to divorce or separation is a common cause. When the marital bond breaks down, the parent might exploit the child for the emotional comfort that they are not getting from their estranged spouse.

  • Personality issues

A parent who is highly emotionally dependent or is ‘narcissistic’ can engage in behaviour that can be characterised as emotional incest. A parent is emotionally dependent on children if he/she turns to the child for emotional fulfilment. A ‘narcissistic’ parent, on the other hand, feels entitled to be adored by the child, view the child as an extension of themselves and controls the child in how they dress, what they say and do.

  • Generational enmeshment

In some families, there may be a sense that the covertly incestuous behaviour has been passed down from generation to generation. A parent who has experienced it in his or her own upbringing might view it as normal and pass it down to the children. Such a parent might say something along the lines of ‘You and I are as close as grandpa and I were’.

  • Parents with a neglected childhood

Some parents who have had a neglectful or emotionally deprived childhood may look for a different kind of relationship with their children, but may not be able to keep it within healthy boundaries because of their own need for being loved and attended to.

  • Loneliness

When the parent is lonely as a result of divorce or separation, or incompatibility with his/her partners, there is a heightened chance of emotional incest to occur. With no one to fulfil their psychological needs, the parent might turn to the child for fulfilment. Certain aspects in the personality of the child might remind the parent of their missing partner, and this might pave way for emotional incest. In some cases, the child may have qualities that the partner does not have, and are admired by the parent.

Impact of Emotional or Covert Incest

Childhood emotional incest is enormously damaging to a child’s development, because it occurs in the most primary relationship, between that of the parent and the child. Adults who have been subjected to emotional incest as children report inability to commit to romantic relationships, feelings of guilt and shame and identity struggles. The victim might have problems with self-esteem, sexual and emotional intimacy as well as addiction. In a situation where one of the children is subjected to emotional incest, the child may feel guilty at being treated special, but at the same time feel powerless to change the situation because of feelings of obligation and helplessness. They feel obligated, burdened and overly responsible for others’ emotional well-being.

Treatment for emotional incest victims

Emotional incest is a complex concept, and its effects may be often camouflaged as other physical or psychological illnesses. However, therapy in a safe environment for a considerable length of time has been proved to be beneficial in revealing the core issue and coming to terms with it.

As is often said, prevention is better than cure. Positive parenting tips should be known and understood by each and every potential parent, so that their children grow up as healthy, fulfilled adults.

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