Emotional Incest: Learn about it, how to recognize the signs of this abuse in yourself or others, and steps to take to heal from it.

Though not sexual, emotional incest is as harmful and leaves just as many long-lasting, detrimental effects on the abused. Emotional incest occurs when unhealthy emotional interactions cause inappropriate and blurred boundaries between an adult and child in a psychologically inappropriate way. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it’s considered emotional or “covert” incest. 

Emotional incest creates a huge burden for a child, often making them feel guilty for leaving the parent to do things that normal kids do, like engaging in extracurricular school activities. A child suffering from emotional incest isn’t able to form happy or healthy relationships; they are too used to the emotional manipulation of being made to feel responsible for fixing the upset or sadness of the parent. 

How to recognize whether you’ve suffered from emotional incest

  • Does your parent share inappropriate feelings and experiences with you?
  • Are you able to have friends and do activities outside the home and away from your parent or are you made to feel guilty for wanting to be with and do things with your friends?
  • Do you feel responsible for your parent’s emotional well-being? Are you a ‘fix it’ person, putting more emphasis on what others need than your own? 
  • Do you feel odd or uncomfortable around your parent? Does what they do or say ‘creep’ you out and make you feel uncomfortable?

Common reactions to emotional incest are troubles with maintaining appropriate boundaries, eating disorders, self-harm, relationship dissatisfaction, sexual intimacy issues, and substance use disorders. A child who grew up in an emotionally incestuous environment may have left their childhood home, but all those original issues of dysfunction don’t just magically cease to exist. Most negative effects don’t begin to manifest until adulthood. Examples of emotional incest might include:

  • Sharing adult experiences and asking children for advice. Anything from marriage issues, sexual feelings, and worries about adult problems are all topics that should be discussed with adults, not children. Inviting children into the problems of adult relationships blurs normal parent/child boundaries. 
  • Egomania. When parents require constant praise for their efforts and personality. Whether in private or in public, the child’s adoration of the incestuous parent can take over, forcing the child’s needs to take a backseat to the parent’s esteem or narcissism.
  • Best friends. Boundaries are blurred when a parent and child are ‘best friends. When a child is used as their parents’ confidante, discipline, expectations, and personal responsibility are all impacted. A child is not capable or emotionally able to handle adult situations, which negatively impacts their social and psychological development and wellbeing.

Emotional incest occurs most often when a parent is lonely, newly divorced, or with new unfamiliar responsibilities and roles. Emotional incest is a difficult concept to articulate, and it often goes unreported. When a parent becomes a best friend, it may seem like the complete opposite of emotional dysfunction and the child might even enjoy some aspects of that ‘special’ relationship. Although the child likely knows they are being treated differently, the feeling of maturity can be exhilarating. Children can also have a sense of feeling helpful and even feel powerful since they are the ones guiding their parents along an adult journey. For all of these reasons, it is difficult for a child to ask for support.

Maybe it’s not you who has suffered from emotional incest but someone you are in a relationship with. Below are five obvious signs that can help you identify whether you are dating a victim of emotional incest.

  1. You feel like you don’t know exactly who they are, something is missing, there is inauthenticity, not being vulnerable, not putting all the cards on the table.
  2. Chameleons in aspects of their life, with no firm boundaries, couldn’t be who they truly were, changing themselves depending on the ever-changing 
  3. Enmeshment with the offending parent
  4. Significant other feels responsible for perpetrating parent feelings, has to fix it and make it all better. Had to focus on the needs of the parent of the child to survive
  5. Not able to set healthy boundaries with the perpetrating parent

Whether you have personally experienced emotional abuse or can see the signs in others, below are behaviors to heal from emotional incest

  • Create and communicate boundaries around things that make you feel uncomfortable
  • Get outside support independently of your emotionally incestuous parent- to remind you every day that you are not alone
  • See a therapist or join a support group to process any unresolved issues
  • If you still live with the incestuous parent, get out by saving your money so you can remove yourself from the situation
  • Understand that it is painful and hard, but healing will be worth it
  • Be aware that you were trained to be a people pleaser, focusing on other people’s needs as more important than your own
  • You probably have a desire to be invisible. You were trained from an early age to understand that no one wanted your opinion, you were better off blending in, and not standing out. You don’t know who you are, and you may freeze and freak out when forced into the spotlight.
  • You don’t like advocating for yourself, you much prefer others to take the lead. 
  • You don’t know when to stand up for yourself or create appropriate boundaries because you don’t know what is normal. You’ve likely lost your voice in terms of standing up for yourself 
  • You have difficulties in relationships. You most likely don’t understand what an honest, open, and vulnerable relationship looks like 
  • You’ve been placed in a little boy or girl role your entire life so you likely can’t relate to your own self
  • You may have a tough time being authentic, intimate, or vulnerable, instead, you present the version of yourself that is expected 
  • You are a people pleaser, so you probably have a challenging time saying no, instead you are more likely to go with the flow and not be disagreeable
  • You feel like you have no power in your life
  • You are judgmental of others because you and your incestuous parent judged you so harshly.
  • You have an unrealistic view of what normal ‘family life’ is all about  
  • You may feel anger or rage toward the inappropriate, emotionally incestuous parent
  • You likely can’t remember childhood as you survived through disassociation, numbness, blocked, and repressed feelings
  • You will likely have to learn how to regain your voice and stand up for yourself

If your journey has included emotional abuse, you are not alone. There is support for you out there. Contact Rachel Graham to hear how your journey can lead you to your life’s purpose, there can be positive life transformation born from something negative.  

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