More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Emotional Incest: When Is Close Too Close?
by Rebecca Lee, World of Psychology
January 11, 2018

Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or ?covert? incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results ? on a lesser scale ? as sexual incest.

Trouble maintaining appropriate boundaries, eating disorders, self-harm, relationship dissatisfaction, sexual intimacy issues, and substance abuse are all common reactions to emotional incest. Just because a child from this type of environment may grow up, leave their childhood home, and become an adult, does not mean the original issues of dysfunction cease to exist. In fact, some of the repercussions described above only begin to manifest in adulthood.

Examples of emotional incest include:

  • Asking the child for advice on adult issues. Spousal difficulties, sexual feelings, worries about problems that do not directly involve the child, are all topics more suitable to discuss with adults. Inviting children into the problems of adult relationships can blur boundaries. A parent should not have to rely on their child to guide them through romantic or social turmoil. By asking advice on adult issues, the child is subtly positioned in a place of responsibility. The roles are reversed.
  • Ego hunger. Sometimes parents will encourage or lead their child to consistently praise their effort or even personality. This can be done in the privacy of one?s own home or in public where other adults can see the child?s apparent adoration of the parent. The need to feel important can take over, forcing the child?s visibility to take a backseat to the parent?s esteem or narcissism.
  • Best friend syndrome. When a parent is best friends with their child, boundary issues often occur. Discipline, expectations, and personal responsibility are all impacted by this behavior. Having a confidante who is not capable or ready to handle adult relationships is forcing the child to set aside their social and psychological world for the sake of their parent?s.
  • The therapist role. Putting a child in the driver?s seat of an emotional crisis or adult relationship robs them of their own relationships and the ability to learn age appropriate socialization. Later in life the child may feel most comfortable taking care of someone else?s emotional needs rather than their own. In some cases, it may be difficult for an adult child to have a stable romantic relationship since the need for crisis overrules the need for solidity.

Emotional incest is most likely to occur when a parent is lonely. Newly divorced parents may feel the absence of their partner intensely. They may have new responsibilities and new roles as both parents and adults. With aspects of their children reminding them of their spouse, the occurrence of emotional incest may be heightened.

There are many reasons a child may not report emotional incest. It?s a difficult concept to pinpoint. There is no physical abuse and it?s not sexual. When a parent becomes a best friend, it may seem like the complete opposite of emotional dysfunction.

In addition to the difficulties of pinpointing what?s wrong, a child may enjoy some of the feelings that come from emotional incest. They may feel important or special because they are their parent?s chosen confidante. Although they most likely know they are being treated differently than children around them, the feeling of maturity can be exhilarating. Children can also have a sense of feeling helpful or even powerful since they are the ones guiding their parent along an adult journey. For all of these reasons, it is difficult for a child to ask for support.

If you were involved in an emotionally incestuous relationship with a parent, you were most likely neglected. You may not have experienced discipline, structure, or guidance as a child. As an adult, these skills are imperative to function in society. Patricia Love, author of The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent?s Love Rules Your Life, says: ?My only regret is that no one told me at the beginning of my journey what I?m telling you now: there will be an end to your pain. And once you?ve released all those pent-up emotions, you will experience a lightness and buoyancy you haven?t felt since you were a very young child.?


Emotional Incest | Childhood Trauma Recovery


I take objection to the term emotional incest.
Incest is the actual act of sexual intercourse between 2 people too close to marry by law. even grown adults.
The terms people keep coming up with is getting insane.

I do agree with the unhealthy lack of boundaries of these parent child relationships, but draw the line that is in any way shape or form incestuous.

Just my personal opinion (2 cents Canadian. 1.6 cents U.S.)


The terms people keep coming up with is getting insane.


I see your point and with regard to this article, I'm puzzled by it for a different reason.

Presumably the author is referring to younger children, which is not clear to me in this article, because I can see child(ren) becoming a major source of support for a parent in adulthood. I helped, cared for, and provided support for my aging Mother for decades after my Father died at a premature young age.

I take offense at the support I provided for my Mother to be characterized as "emotional incest".

Maybe I read it wrong, but my initial reaction to this article is that its way off base and diminishes the role and I might even say obligation of children to become the caregivers and support network for their parents in time of need...even if the children happen to be younger, if they are sufficiently psychologically mature to assume that role.

Am I missing something??


Steve, I didn't see the article that way but maybe my filter is biased and maybe so is yours by personal experience. Who knows. but the sensationalist title literally tics me off and not in a Tourette way!

We should look after our parents if they are unable or just need a boost even when the responsibility, albeit not the healthiest for a child, falls on them. I totally agree with you on that aspect.

But, when a child is elevated to adult equal status by a single parent as seems to be referenced in this article it is unhealthy especially for the child. The adult is the parent and the child is not a spousal replacement or equal or a best friend. If you're best friends with your child you are definitely doing something wrong and that is NOT being a parent! A child, including a teenager needs to be a child and a parent needs to take the responsibility of being a parent. But as we know reality is a different thing altogether.

That's how I read the article...

EDIT: Looking forward to Dr. B's input since he's the OP

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The term emotional incest or covert incest - and the situation it describes - has been around for a long time, a couple of decades at least.

It's not referring to adults taking care of their aging parents. It's not actually talking about caretaking per se at all, nor is it talking about a healthy and loving relationship between child and parent, but rather a situation which is emotionally enmeshed, where the adult enlists the child for emotional support in a way normally reserved between two people in an adult relationship. It is similar to parentification of the child.

The term refers to the parentification of children in childhood and adolescence where the parent is seeking emotional support from the child that is normally provided by an adult partner. It can be destructive for the child.

Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant - Debra Kaplan, Psychotherapist

Covert sexual abuse or emotional incest involves the indirect yet sexualized, emotional abuse of a child or dependent. While no physical boundaries have been crossed and no direct sexual contact has been perpetrated, the parent or parents willingly enlist the emotional support of the child in healing his/her own unmet adult needs. In turn, the child becomes the confidant or emotional spouse of a same sex or opposite sex parent. Strong over-identification by a parent of the child in the way of adulation, over affection and special attention is a subtle twist on the dynamic and as we can begin to see, no less destructive.

Was Part of Your Childhood Deprived by Emotional Incest? | Borderline Personality Disorder

Patricia Love, Ed.D., ... 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 de facto 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.

Understanding Covert Incest: An Interview with Kenneth Adams

In the simplest terms, what is covert incest?
Covert incest describes a relationship between a parent and child in which the child feels more like a romantic partner. Typically the parent is motivated by the loneliness and emptiness of a troubled marriage, so she (or he) turns the child into a surrogate partner. There is not necessarily any kind of overt sexual touching, but the relationship feels too close for comfort to the child. The boundaries are such that there is an incestuous feeling. The child feels used and trapped, the same as with overt incest.

In Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, you use the word “icky” to describe how covert incest feels. When I first read that, may years ago, I said, “Oh my God, he totally gets this.”

Yes, it just feels like it’s too close. The child thinks, “I shouldn’t be sitting here watching soap operas with you, mom, while you tell me about your sexual frustration with dad,” and so forth. Or there is sexualized commenting on the child’s physical development. Or mom takes her son to the movies and tells him she has the handsomest date there. However it unfolds, it feels icky.

Later on, covert incest victims tend to continue functioning in the role of a surrogate partner where they’re overly enmeshed with the parent, over-involved as a caretaker, even though they may have long forgotten the icky part that was present early on – usually during adolescence. As adults, instead of feeling icky they might just feel frustrated, angry, obligated, and way too involved. This type of enmeshment is very common in terms of the adult-life characteristics. Basically, enmeshment describes the nature of the ongoing relationship; covert incest defines the earlier sexual inappropriateness.



David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Every field has it's own jargon. Most people in the mental health field would understand what this one means by now but I get how it would seem "wrong" to others.
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