Was Part of Your Childhood Deprived by Emotional Incest?

R. Skip Johnson

Patricia Love, Ed.D., past president of the International Association for Marriage and Family Counseling, defines emotional incest as "a style of parenting in which parents turn to their children, not to their partners, for emotional support."  According to Love, emotionally incestuous parents may appear loving and devoted and they may spend a great deal of time with their children and lavish them with praise and material gifts - but in the final analysis, their love is not a nurturing love, it's a means to satisfy their own needs.

The term "emotional incest" was coined by Kenneth Adams, Ph.D. to label the state of cross-generational bonding within a family, whereby a child (normally of the opposite sex) becomes a surrogate spouse for their mother or father. "Emotional Enmeshment" is another term often used. And the term "emotional parentification" describes a similar concept - it describes the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent.

Many parents and children are close. Closeness is healthy and desirable. The difference between a healthy close relationship and an incestuous one is that in a healthy close relationship a parent takes care of a child's needs in an age-appropriate way without making the child feel responsible the emotional needs of the parents needs. In an emotionally incestuous relationship, instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child, the child is meeting the needs of the parent.

Emotional incest happens when the natural boundary between parental caregiver, nurturer, and protector is crossed and the child becomes the defacto caregiver, nurturer and protector of the parent. This typically occurs when a the marriage unravels or when there is a broken family dynamic (e.g., substance abuse, infidelity, mental illness and the dependency upon a child increases.  One or both parent may engage the child in talks about adult issues and adult feelings to a child as if they were a peer. The child may be called upon to satisfy adult needs such as intimacy, companionship, romantic stimulation, advice, problem solving, ego fulfillment, and/or emotional release. Sometimes both parents will dump on a child in a way that puts the child in the middle of disagreements between the parents - with each complaining about the other. 

What ensues is a role that the child is not capable of fulfilling yet might feel special or privileged in so doing. Clearly in this dynamic the child is covertly, emotionally abandoned by the parent(s) and being robbed of her or his childhood.

Emotionally incestuous parents often slip into an "invasive" role without any intention to harm their children.

It’s important to remember that there are different levels of severity in emotional incest. Sometimes emotional incest is extremely severe and debilitating, and other times it’s more moderate and can almost go unnoticed.

The impact is nonetheless harmful.


What are the effects of a emotional incest on a child?

According to Dr. Love, "Being a parent's primary source of support is a heavy burden for young children as they are forced to suppress their own needs to satisfy the needs of the adults". Because of this role reversal, they are rarely given adequate protection, guidance, or discipline, and they are exposed to experiences well beyond their years.

Emotional incest from either parent is devastating to the child's ability to be able to set boundaries and take care of getting their own needs met when they become an adult. This type of abuse, when inflicted by the opposite sex parent, can have a devastating effect on the adult/child's relationship with his/her own sexuality and gender, and their ability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult. 

For practical reasons, elder children are generally chosen for the familial "parental" role - very often the first-born children who were put in the anomalous role. However, gender considerations mean that sometimes the eldest boy or eldest girl was selected, even if they are not the oldest child overall, for such reasons as the preference to match the sex of the missing parent.

In adolescence and adulthood, they are likely to be plagued by one or more of the following difficulties:

  1. Guilt about practicing self care especially - an unrealistic sense of obligation to that parent
  1. Difficulties related to sexual identity or gender
  1. Feelings of inadequacy
  1. Love/hate relationship with offending parent
  1. Difficulty in maintaining relationships due to abused individual’s idealization and devaluation of others and an inappropriate expectations placed on partners
  1. Compulsivity that can include sex, substances, alcohol, work, food
  1. Patterns of excessive triangulation (indirect communication) in work, family or romantic relationships
  1. Issues related to sex addiction/avoidance or love addiction/avoidance

What are the effects of a emotional incest on the family?

Emotional incest affects all members of a family.   Love identifies five models:

The Invasive Parent is enmeshed with a child in order to meet his/her needs that are not being met in an adult relationship

The Chosen Child is enmeshed with the invasive parent; often treated as "all good" and favored, but their own needs to develop as an individual, to make mistakes and learn, to receive structure and discipline, etc. are actually neglected. Chosen children can also be treated as scapegoats, used not just for emotional support but for the release of anger and tension.

The Left-Out Spouse spouse of invasive parent, is often shut out of exclusive parent-child bond; may turn to workaholism, alcohol, affairs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with an unhappy life at home

The Left-Out Child(ren) a non-favored child, may be neglected or receive less of the family's resources; may bond with the left out spouse

Spouse of the Chosen Child when the chosen child grows up and marries, his/her spouse may find him/herself engaged in a rather disturbing triangle with the chosen child and invasive parent


Emotional incest is deeply personal

It is difficult to let go of the wish for perfect parents. We cling to an idealized view of our caretakers because on some level we still view life through the eyes of a child and we still believe we are dependent on our parents for survival. When we see flaws in their characters our very existence can seem threatened. Deep down we may be saying "No one is taking care of me"

To cope with this anxiety, we often hold on to the dream that our parents' faults will magically disappear: this visit, our parents will be sensitive to our needs; this reunion will be smooth and uneventful; this phone call or this letter will repair old wounds and bring us closer together.

Not surprisingly, the character flaws we have the hardest time accepting are the ones that wounded us most during childhood. When our parents act in destructive and familiar ways, our present anguish is magnified by our early pain. Underneath our grown-up dismay is a little child crying out for more love and safety.


Recovering from Emotional Incest

An abused individual can attain emancipation and self empowerment with patience, perseverance, and self awareness.

According to Debra L. Kaplan, MA, LPC, an intensive out-patient counselor specializing in emotional incest recovery, the process of recovery is five-fold:

  1. Identify the family of origin and the particular family dynamics involved
  1. Recognize any patterns of emotional incest between caregivers and the abused individual
  1. Learn to set boundaries with that parent. In the case of a deceased caregiver work with a therapist who can help facilitate empty chair work or another experientially based modality for grief and loss
  1. Acknowledge any feelings of abandonment as a result of the emotional incest
  1. Work toward individuation and separation by learning to reparent the self (Inner child work)

Kaplan notes that journeying from wounded child to healthy adult does not occur in isolation. In addition to therapy, individuals should enlist the help of spouses in working through unresolved abuse.  Kaplan also says "much support can be gained by working with the issues as they arise while in relationship. Sharing of one’s experiences can be mutually healing within the context of a support group or among other healthy interactions."

Last modified: 
January 04, 2021