Signs of Covert Incest

1. Taking a Child on “Dates”

Adams told The Mighty he’s had patients describe going on “dates” with their parent to see age-inappropriate movies or go to romantic dinners. Though it’s completely natural for a child to see a movie or go to dinner with a parent from time to time, these scenarios can cross into covert incest if, for example, a mother tells her son multiple times during dinner that she has the most handsome date there, or she insists on watching a romantic movie with adult content while holding her son’s hand the entire time.

2. Calling the Child Inappropriate Names

In covert incest, a parent might call their child inappropriate names typically only used when referring to an adult romantic partner. After a difficult divorce, a covertly incestuous father might tell his daughter something like, “Your mother left me, but you’ll always be loyal to me my sweet girlfriend, the love of my life.” Adams said other common inappropriate names may include, “boyfriend,” “husband,” “wife,” “sweet lover,” etc.

3. Engaging in Sexual Talk With a Child

A common feature in a lot of covert incest dynamics is the presence of age-inappropriate sexualized talk. For example, a covertly incestuous mother might talk to her child in great detail about her frustrating sex life with the child’s father. The child often feels unable to leave or stop the conversation due to the parent-child unequal power dynamic.

4. Commenting on a Child’s Physical Appearance or Developing Body

A covertly incestuous father might comment on his daughter’s developing body, making note of change in breast size or hips, for example. Though he doesn’t touch his daughter in a sexual way, making comments about how she has the “best body” of her friends, or that he would date her if he was her age can make the daughter feel uncomfortable and deeply insecure about her body.

What “Causes” Covert Incest?

If you read the above section wondering why a parent would engage in the behavior listed above, you’re not alone. Like many types of childhood emotional abuse, covert incest is complicated. Both Rutherford and Adams point to three primary “explanations” for why a parent might resort to covert incest to get their emotional needs met.

1. Disruption in the Marital Bond

Adams told The Mighty that one of the most common precursors to a parent’s covertly incestuous behavior is a breakdown in the marital bond — usually due to divorce or separation. He explained that when the marital bond is weak, a lonely parent might inappropriately exploit their child (who is often an endless source of adoration for the parent) for the emotional comfort they are no longer getting from their spouse.

2. Personality Issues

Personality issues like being highly emotionally dependent or “narcissistic” can contribute to covertly incestuous behavior, according to Adams.

When a parent is highly insecure, they may use the attention of their child to try to regulate their own inner emptiness or loneliness. “Narcissistic” parents may feel entitled to take what they need emotionally from their child, and may not view their actions as damaging at all. Rutherford said some parents view their child as an extension or reflection of themselves, so they may control how the child dresses, or what they say or do.

3. Generational Enmeshment or Covert Incest

A covertly incestuous parent may be replicating behavior they experienced in their own upbringing, or adopting behavior that has been passed down from generation to generation. Hearing a parent say something along the lines of, “You and I are going to be just as close as grandma and I were,” is a strong indicator of generational enmeshment.

4. The Parent Had a Distant Relationship With Their Own Family of Origin

Similar to generational enmeshment in the sense that a parent is responding to their own upbringing, a parent who had a neglectful or emotionally distant childhood may try to “overcorrect” by having a deeply intimate relationship with their own child.

“Maybe the parent had a terrible relationship with their own parent, causing them to yearn for a different kind of relationship with their child,” Rutherford told The Mighty. “[But] since they haven’t experienced what normal and healthy boundaries are, their own needs to be loved and attended to overwhelm the relationship.”

Impact of Covert Incest

Unsurprisingly, this type of childhood emotional abuse is enormously damaging to a child’s development. This is something Mighty contributor Monika Sudakov wrote about in her piece, “Covert Incest: The Type of Childhood Emotional Abuse We Don’t Talk About.” Her words may give you a better picture of what it really feels like to be trapped in covert incest as a child.

I was exposed to sex talk from a very young age. I knew all about sex by the age of 5 and was aware of every man my mom slept with, how the sex was and details thereof. As I got older, this boundary became even more blurred when it came to privacy. I was often told that she was entitled to look at me naked because I came out of her body, as if that ascribed some kind of ownership of my body to her… Even after I was married, my mother always asked about how our sex life was. Did we have “nookie nookie”? [She] seemed to live vicariously through me in an odd perverted way.

I’ve learned in therapy that all of this is not ‘normal.’ It’s not healthy. It’s destroyed my sense of self and has contributed along with my sexual abuse to my PTSD. What makes this type of abuse even harder to heal from is that it occurs within what should be the most sacred of relationships, that of parent and child. While there is still love there, there is also deep anger, regret, disgust and shame. 

Among feelings of anger and shame, common symptoms that can follow a survivor of covert incest into adulthood include:

  • Difficult or distant relationship with the other parent (i.e. the non-covertly incestuous parent)
  • Strong feelings of guilt for “leaving” or “abandoning” the covertly incestuous parent
  • Interpersonal difficulties, especially in romantic relationships
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Perpetual feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Difficulty with saying “no” and establishing healthy boundaries
  • Inappropriate behavior with their own children (generational enmeshment)
  • Identity struggles, becoming a person outside of the abusive parent

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