What is Emotional Incest? The Causes, Signs, Effects & 4 Tips to Help You Recover

By Tatenda


Last Updated: December 19, 2022

When we hear the word ‘incest,’ one of the first things that could come to mind is related to sexual immorality and abuse.

However, emotional incest does not involve the former, but it surely is a form of abuse. 


What is Emotional Incest?

Emotional or covert incest refers to a relationship between a parent/primary caregiver and a child where the child is expected to take on the role of the parent’s partner. Due to being emotionally needy, the parent expects this gap to be filled by their child.   

This inappropriate emotional closeness results in the parent treating the child like a romantic partner and might rely on the child for:

  • Emotional support and comfort
  • Advice relating to personal issues 
  • Having intimate discussions

In some cases, the adult in this situation does not even realize that they are forcing the child into the role of their partner, nor do they realize the effects of this behavior. 

Most children who grow up in these situations do not realize until much later in life. 

Emotional incest also closely overlaps with enmeshment and emotional parentification. 

Enmeshment: This is where personal boundaries in family relationships (between two or more people) are nonexistent, unclear and permeable. There will be extreme closeness which can hinder one from recognizing and upholding their individual needs. 

Emotional parentification: This is where a child is forced to take on the emotional burden that should otherwise be taken by the parent. 



Causes of Emotional Incest

The main cause is because the parent is lacking emotional support from their romantic partner or spouse. Unfortunately, the child being in close proximity to the lacking parent, becomes the emotional outlet. 

Also, some parents were victims of emotional incest themselves when they were younger, so they fail to see that there is something wrong with the pattern. 

The parent’s need for emotional support might be due to:

  • Divorce
  • Separation
  • Infidelity
  • Emotional unavailability of the other parent
  • Domestic violence
  • Experience of trauma
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Personality disorder



Signs of Emotional Incest

Just like with all forms of abuse, there isn’t any one correct way of outlining the symptoms.

They differ for each person but some of the common signs include the parent: 

  • Talking in detail about their intimate or sexual experiences to the child
  • Being jealous whenever the child forms a strong emotional connection with someone else
  • Expecting the child to make important decisions regarding finances and other essential aspects
  • Constantly venting to the child
  • Invading the child’s privacy
  • Making sexually inappropriate comments to/about the child

On the other hand, a child who is a victim of emotional incest might:

  • Feel responsible for the parent’s emotional well being
  • Spend more time with the parent rather than friends and peers
  • Ignore their needs while prioritizing those of the parent 
  • Have love/hate feelings towards with that parent



Effects of Emotional Incest

It goes without doubt that emotional incest can be damaging especially to the child who is offering emotional support to the parent.

Again, different people can be affected by the same experience differently. However, some of the common effects include: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • People pleasing
  • Addiction or compulsive behaviors
  • Difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships
  • Difficulties establishing and maintaining personal identity separate from the parent

All these effects are rooted in the fact that the child becomes so used to being an emotional anchor and they feel like that is their sole responsibility. When those around them are not in a good emotional state, they take on the responsibility to improve those people’s emotional intimacy. 



4 Ways to Recover From Emotional Incest

Often people who have been victims of emotional incest do not realize what happened to them.

However, for some, when they become adults and start working towards improving themselves, they might realize that some of the issues they are facing are rooted in emotional incest they experienced growing up. 

Thankfully, there are some interventions one can adopt to heal. These include: 

1. Talk therapy.

This is typically the first step for most people, as it is how they learn of how their childhood experiences might have influenced the people they grew up to become. It can also help one get a better understanding of what happened in their past so that it doesn’t negatively impact them as much. 

2. Practice setting boundaries.

Because when you were younger, your boundaries were constantly ignored, you might grow up to be someone who can’t say ‘no’. Learning to set boundaries slowly will help you take charge of your life and decisions. 

3. Interact with people who had similar experiences.

It might not be easy to find such people, but if possible, it can be highly beneficial.

Hearing about other people’s experiences will remind you that you’re not alone, and it will also help you get more tips on how others have been recovering from such an experience. 

4. Journaling.

This will help you keep track of your thoughts and feelings. It is a great way to observe any changes that you might be experiencing regarding how you interact with other people. 

However, these tips aren’t a magic wand that will completely erase everything that has happened in someone’s past. With consistency, they can help one experience less of the above-mentioned negative effects. 



If You Have Suffered From Emotional Incest, it is Not Your Fault

Should you have experienced emotional incest, you might find yourself taking the blame and wishing you could have done things differently. The truth is that those experiences were beyond your control, and you were just a child. 

You can’t go back and change things that have happened in your past, but you surely can change how those past events impact your future.

Photo by Dijanynni Kiratza


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