Patricia Love, Ed.D., past president of the International Association for Marriage and Family Counseling, 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 defacto 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.
Emotionally incestuous parents often slip into an “invasive” role without any intention to harm their children.
It’s important to remember that there are different levels of severity in emotional incest. Sometimes emotional incest is extremely severe and debilitating, and other times it’s more moderate and can almost go unnoticed.
The impact is nonetheless harmful.