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Covert emotional incest happens when a parent turns to their children for the emotional intimacy or attachment that a love relationship should supply. The emotional incest syndrome, often known as emotional or covert incest, does not entail physical sexual abuse. However, some individuals who have undergone emotional incest observe similar results.

Covert incest also refers to emotional incest. It relates closely to the principles of:

Enmeshment. Enmeshment entails relationships with unclear or nonexistent boundaries, typically within a family.

Parentification. Emotional incest most closely resembles the form of parentification referred to as emotional parentification, in which a kid is compelled to bear the emotional weight that a caregiver or parent would usually carry.

While these principles are similar, emotional incest varies in that it refers only to the bond between a child and their primary caregiver or parent and excludes extended family or siblings. And instead of assuming the emotional role of a parent, children assume that of a spouse.

It is yet unknown how prevalent emotional incest is. It is also possible to grow up without even knowing it. However, emotional incest can affect mental health in ways that persist into adulthood, and mental health care can aid in recovery.

Covert incest, also referred to as emotional incest, is a form of child abuse in which a parent seeks emotional support from their child that would typically be offered by another adult. It is believed that the consequences of covert incest on children as adults resemble those of actual incest but to a lower extent. This term refers to interactions between a child and a parent that do not involve sexual abuse.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision, does not include it as a diagnostic (DSM-5-TR). In the 1980s, psychologist Kenneth M. Adams identified and named the phenomena of covert incest.

Adams utilizes instances in his book “Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners – Understanding Covert Incest” to illustrate how emotional incest can have lasting effects on emotional well-being and adult relationships comparable to sexual abuse and referred to as “covert sexual abuse”.

Researchers have devised the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) to assist individuals in determining whether or not they have experienced it.

Based on the CEIS, emotional incest is associated with both neglect and emotional abuse in childhood. The CEIS has two crucial elements: a surrogate spouse and an unhappy childhood.

In other words, having emotional incest indicates that you felt compelled to perform the emotional role of a partner to your parent; as a consequence, you may have missed out on important aspects of childhood, such as forming friendships with peers.

Those who encounter emotional incest as children, adolescents, or adults may suffer emotionally and in their relationships with others. Survivors of emotional incest believe that their primary responsibility is to serve their parent’s needs. This toxic dynamic may influence their expectations and conduct in future relationships.

Signs of covert emotional incest in children and adolescents include the following:

  • Feelings of shame or inadequacy
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling fully responsible for the sentiments of a parent
  • Having trouble forming and maintaining friendships
  • Isolation away from others
  • Disputes or tensions with siblings and/or the other parent
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Perfectionism

Additional indicators of emotional incest in maturity include:

  • Having a pleasing demeanor
  • Lack of personal identity
  • Aversion to rejection
  • Establishing healthy relationships is difficult.
  • Reluctance to become close to others
  • Putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own
  • A great determination to succeed
  • Finding a partner who resembles one’s parent
  • Eating disorders
  • Alcohol or drug addiction
  • Problematic sexual behavior

Usually, covert incest happens between a parent and a child, but it can be with any other adult caregiver, such as a toxic grandmother, foster parent, or stepparent. Additionally, emotional incest can arise from close interactions with teachers, coaches, or other adults. The emotional lives of children are infiltrated by emotional incest when adults expect children to cater to their needs instead of the other way around.

Some instances of emotional incest among parents and children are demonstrated below.

A Parent Seeks The Emotional Support Of A Child.

In emotional incest relationships, the parent views the child as compared to how they would see a close friend, spouse, or their own parent. They may disclose personal issues to the child and seek counsel, solace, and support. They want their children to answer as an adult would, despite the fact that this is beyond the child’s level of development. Children may be coerced into assuming this position and will do anything to satisfy and please their parents.

Healthy parent-child interactions are characterized by proper limits. It is understood that parents provide emotional support to their children while seeking emotional support from other sources, such as a partner, friend, or therapist. Parents are aware of and respectful of their children’s limitations and do not subject them to unreasonable demands. They treat them as children rather than grownups.

Parent Expects Child To Prioritize Parental Needs.

Emotional incest is characterized by parental demands that a child fulfills their desires. Whether it be affection, love, or attention, these children are expected to drop whatever they are doing and assist in meeting these requirements of their parents. For instance, a parent may expect their child to console them when they are depressed, even if it meant losing out on a sporting event or a playdate.

In healthy relationships, parents prioritize their children’s needs and go to other adults for guidance and solace. Healthy parents do not subject their children to unsuitable expectations or expect them to fulfill their demands. They acknowledge that the child has his own life and desire to devote time and attention to the things that are significant to them, such as friends, school, and hobbies.

The parent Does Not Support and Respect Child’s Boundaries

Parents who engage in emotional incest do not appreciate the growing independence, autonomy, and privacy demands of their children. They might cross the line by spying on their child’s phone or room without a valid reason. In addition, they may forbid playdates and sleepovers to keep their children from forming bonds with others. The emotionally incestuous parent’s sense of security is threatened by the child’s maturity and independence, and they would do whatever to prevent this from occurring.

As children mature, they require more independence, privacy, and autonomy, as do their parents. Even though it may be tough to release the restraints, healthy parents do so in a manner consistent with the child’s age and level of maturity. Children are slowly given more independence and are encouraged to “fly the coop” when they are mature enough to do so.

Parent Is Inappropriately Romantic With the Child

Some parents who engage in emotional incest approach their children as if they were romantic partners. They may communicate with their child unwanted information about their sexual encounters or romantic life. In addition, they may take their children on dates or engage in other behaviors that should be kept for a love relationship. If a parent engages in sexually inappropriate behavior with their child, this constitutes physical incest and sexual abuse, not emotional incest.

In healthy families, parents and children have clearly defined and appropriate roles. Children are not exposed to unsuitable information by their parents. Roles are clear, and children are regarded as children and not as love partners.

Three primary reasons for emotional incest have been recognized by experts.

A Broken Family Structure

Most typically, emotional incest occurs when something breaks or harms the parental bond.

There may be a role for any variety of life or relationship stressors:

  • Conflict stemming from infidelity, financial troubles, or work-related issues
  • A contentious or bitter divorce
  • The passing of the other parent

Concerns with mental or physical health, such as chronic sickness, anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders

Physical Or Emotional Isolation

Parents who lack adult support systems may feel isolated and unclear about where to turn while facing powerful emotions and other day-to-day issues associated with these obstacles.

Hardie-Williams argues that rather than going to romantic partners, acquaintances, or loved ones to discuss these difficulties and fulfill their needs, a parent may seek help and support from their child. The child may feel the need to assist in protecting their parent.

Adaptive Parenting Methods

Emotional incest can also be affected by intergenerational trends.

Perhaps your parent depended on you for emotional guidance and help and expected you to shoulder domestic duties.

As a natural result, you may treat your child similarly. You never had the opportunity to learn anything different. If you have never learned to define your own wants and needs, you may be unaware that they were not addressed.

A practice of emotional incest might be fueled by a subconscious knowledge of these unmet demands. If you did not have the emotional support you required from your parents, you may attempt to compensate for this in your bond with your child, whether or not you are aware of what you are doing.

Societal And Cultural Variables

The researchers that created the CEIS observed that emotional incest may be more prevalent in some cultures.

They use the example of Turkish culture, in which parents frequently:

  • Consider it very common to share day-to-day worries and challenges with children.
  • Prefer qualities such as reliance and loyalty over innovation and autonomy
  • Parents view their children as extensions of themselves and as future carers.

However, this dynamic may be more prevalent in cultures that promote these values or place an emphasis on parental participation and control over a child’s life.

This tendency can also arise more readily in some familial contexts.

Perhaps you had only one parent. They wanted you, as the eldest child, to come home straight from school and perform chores, cook supper for the family, and care for your siblings.

This is known as parentification, and it is not identical to emotional incest. But perhaps they also sought solace and counsel for their anxieties and distress, including:

  • Problem making ends meet
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt for not giving you and your siblings a better life.
  • Fear of failing to be a better parent

In summary, you ended up assuming adult responsibilities and providing emotional support that they do not receive from anybody else.

Emotional incest can have repercussions for all parties involved. 

First, covert emotional abuse parents who rely on their children to fulfill their needs run the risk of irreparably harming their relationship with the child. However, they also miss out on the advantages of positive romantic and platonic relationships. Regardless of how old and mature they are, children just cannot provide the advice and support that other adults can. 

Additionally, they cannot fully comprehend adult relationships and difficulties. However, the ramifications of emotional incest are often significantly more severe for the kids who encounter it.

Although difficult to hear or read, emotional incest is child abuse, according to Hardie-Williams. Even when it occurs unintentionally, this dynamic is nevertheless damaging, especially when it can escalate to neglect.

Researchers have identified a number of potential repercussions of emotional incest in childhood, including:

  • Individualization difficulties; trouble building a sense of one’s self or self-identity
  • Difficulty forming friendships with peers
  • Difficulties building healthy, durable attachments in love relationships as an adult
  • Having trouble setting or enforcing limits with others
  • Having perfectionist inclinations
  • A feeling of being superior
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Sentiments of guilt and humiliation
  • A poor sense of self-worth or personal insufficiency
  • Concerns relating to mental health, such as depression, personality disorders, and anxiety. 

  1. What is covert incest? causes, effects, and recovery. Medical News Today. MediLexicon International. Available at:
  2. Emotional incest: Signs, examples, causes, and more, Healthline. Healthline Media. Available at:
  3. Emotional incest: Definition, signs, & effects in adulthood, Choosing Therapy. Available at:
  4. Emotional incest: Signs, causes, effects, and healing. Psych Central. Available at:


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