Parenting: Understanding Emotional Incest

What is Emotional Incest, And How to Heal

Emotional incest (sometimes also called covert incest) is something that all parents should be aware of.

When emotional incest is present, the parent is seeking emotional support via their child… support that should be cultivated in an adult relationship. It’s not to be confused with physical incest, and the term doesn’t include sexual abuse. What does emotional incest look like, what are the impacts on children, and how can the entire family heal from emotional incest? We’re going to explore and answer these questions.

What does emotional incest look like?

Dr. Kenneth Adams perfectly described the feeling that many children get from emotional incest: “icky.” They might feel special at first, knowing mom or dad trusts them, but those feelings can quickly change.

Dr. Adams provides the example of a mom taking her son to the movies, where she tells him she has the handsomest date there. Another example is when one parent divulges their relationship problems with the other parent, with the child as their listening ear. Regardless of the exact circumstance, the child feels uncomfortable with the relationship dynamic.

How does emotional incest impact children?

It might feel harmless to the parent, but emotional incest can have a dramatic impact on a child’s later life and development.

Dr. Adams explains that the victim might take on a “surrogate partner” role, becoming the parent’s caretaker. This can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and bitter obligation. Emotional incest also affects the victim’s ability to enter healthy romantic relationships later in life. They might not feel fully free to be who they are, or they might avoid other relationships due to a sense of obligation they feel toward taking care of their parent. In an effort to avoid those feelings of being burdened, they might also completely avoid deep, intimate relationships.

How to heal from emotional incest

The traumas of emotional incest don’t go away when the child moves out of the house or the parent leaves. Healing from emotional incest, however, is entirely possible.

Working with an experienced therapist can help parents and children cope with the pain of emotional incest. Individual therapy can be hugely beneficial, because the past and its impact on the present can be explored in a safe, non-judgmental space. Learning more about emotional incest on your own is also recommended, regardless of whether you’re the parent or the child.

Journaling is helpful for coping with many stressors in life, and it can also be a useful tool for healing from emotional incest. Write about what you think, how you feel, and don’t “self-edit” when writing. Sometimes, simply getting our unfiltered issues onto a page can be incredibly healing.

Whether you are a victim of emotional incest or are in need of family counseling, Foundations can help. Contact us today!