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Emotional incest: what is it and how to detect it

The word incest refers to the maintenance of sexual relations between people united by a close bond of kinship. Emotional incest, despite its name, does not involve sexual abuse. In this case, the use of the term incest refers to an inappropriate form of relationship, usually between parents and children. Unlike physical incest, emotional incest can occur without either party being fully aware of it.

Emotional incest is also known as covert incest. The word "covert" refers to the difficulty in perceiving and identifying this type of abuse compared to incest involving a sexual relationship.

Some children assume from an early age the obligation to be the emotional support of their parents. They need to listen to every problem and need their parents have, no matter how personal or intimate. This is a bad relationship dynamic, because children are assigned a role that an adult should fulfill, such as a partner.

In this article we will explore covert incest in detail, providing examples of behaviors that can help detect it and we examine its possible consequences on children and young victims of this type of abuses.

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What is emotional incest?

emotional incest It is a type of abuse, difficult to detect, in which a parent looks to his or her son or daughter for emotional support.. Emotional incest occurs when meeting the needs of parents becomes the responsibility of their sons or daughters.

Many people reach adulthood without being aware that they have been victims of emotional incest. This harmful relational dynamic does not involve a physical or sexual relationship, but instead makes the child the confidant of the mother or father. In emotional incest, the parent makes her child her main source of emotional support, assigning him a role and responsibilities that an adult should fulfill.

The responsible father or mother is not capable of maintaining an intimate relationship with another adult, and delegates the role of spouse to their son or daughter. In this type of relationship, the needs of the child are not attended to or are ignored, although normally none of the parties involved is aware of the damaging dynamics of the relationship and the problems it can cause in the little ones.

In the long term, it is believed that the consequences of emotional incest on the victims, although to a lesser degree, are very similar to those of real incest. Self-esteem issues, difficulties with sexual and emotional connection, feelings of anger or guilt towards parents and addictions occur frequently in people who have experienced incest emotional.

What is emotional incest

Roni Weisberg-Ross, a well-known psychotherapist, points out that the term incest may not really be useful as a diagnosis. In his view, emotional incest can encompass any potential problem in a parent-child relationship, making it a single diagnosis. He also points out that the term, when referring to the needs not met by a spouse, forgets other dynamics in which the sons or daughters they also satisfy other types of emotional needs and the limits of the relationship are diffuse, which can also cause future problems in the minors.

Alcoholism and other substance abuse are identified as risk factors in the development of covert incest. In this relationship, the son or daughter worries excessively about their sick father or mother, assuming an adult role that does not correspond to them.

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How is emotional incest manifested?

When emotional incest occurs, the parent ignores the needs of her son or daughter, treating him like an adult instead of a child. The parent does not care about the child's needs as a responsible caregiver would, but only about their own. Some examples of emotionally abusive behaviors include:

The child as a source of comfort

This type of behavior can occur frequently in cases of separation or divorce. One parent often talks about how rude and inconsiderate the other is. A person might ask their son or daughter questions, such as: Do you think it's a good thing that (your other parent) is on time? You care more about me, right? I'm a great mom/dad, don't you think? Do you tell him what a good mother/father I am?

In this case, the children take responsibility for making their mother or father feel better, even though it is not their responsibility.

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The child as counselor

In this case the parent does not spend much time with friends. And the only place he goes outside the home is work. They usually say things like: "I have you and I don't need anyone else because you are my whole world", referring to their children.

Sometimes they ask things like, What do you think I should do? For which a child does not have an exact answer, but they feel compelled to give suggestions.

Also guilt may appear in victims of emotional abuse. The parent has a job that they hate and it makes them feel sad; the son or daughter feels a little guilty because their parents have to stay in that job to support them.

These children do everything they can to support their parents, but what they should do is visit their friends after school, come home and talk about their day, or sit down to do their homework while someone prepares their Dinner. And not the other way around.

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The child as an adult

In this case, parents do everything with their children and they can use phrases like “my other half” to refer to them.

These parents may take their son or daughter on business trips or attend parties or conferences with other adults, dressing smartly. Sometimes, due to these commitments, children may even miss school. They can also, for example, offer small glasses of alcohol, even if the child is not of legal drinking age.

All of these behaviors make children feel older, but they often accept because they don't want to disappoint their parents.

In this type of relationship, the child is treated like an adult, also at home, and current issues that should be discussed with an adult are discussed or details are given about past relationships. Also the child is encouraged to talk about her personal issues even if she does not want to do so.

These children feel that their parents do not really care about them, they may even envy classmates whose parents punish them if they do not pass an exam. They feel that they need more rules and limits, and would like their parents to play this role and not that of a close friend.

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Other examples of inappropriate behavior

These are some examples where family boundaries are crossed in the context of emotional incest:

  • Put your child's needs before your child's: At the expense of the child's other connections, the caregiver needs receive a lot of praise and attention, or be considered more important than other people in the life of the little boy.
  • Invading the privacy of the child: These parents do not respect the personal space of the child. They can exhibit different types of behaviors, such as frequently invading their space or making them feel uncomfortable by ignoring their desire for privacy in different situations.
  • Treating the child as a partner: A parent with this type of behavior could take the child on dates or even refer to him by nicknames that are used for adult couples, also make inappropriate comments about the body or the physical appearance.
  • Feeling jealous of the child's relationships: As the child grows, the parent may become jealous of her other relationships. They might then try to intrude on them, vying for your attention or even deliberately trying to ruin them.

All the things that we have mentioned above are just examples and it is not necessary that all (or some) occur to find yourself in a situation that we can describe as emotional incest. There is covert or emotional incest when the boundaries of a relationship between a parent and his/her child are unhealthy.

However, it is a difficult situation to detect. Parents who engage in this type of behavior are most of the time not aware of their problems, the child, due to his or her On the other hand, you may think the relationship is special, or not identify it as abusive (even though you feel bad) because there is no sexual interaction involved.

What are the effects of covert incest?

There is not much research on covert incest and its effects on victims of this type of abuse. However, some experts point out that, although to a lesser degree, its effects are similar to those of physical incest.

Feeling of anger towards their parents, difficulty initiating and maintaining sexual or intimate relationships, self-esteem issues, and self-concept and substance abuse are frequent problems in people who have suffered this type of abuses.

The psychologist Kenneth M. Adams who proposed the use of the term, in his book "Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners" indicates that emotional incest can have different consequences such as:

  • Establishing a love-hate relationship with the caregiver
  • Appearance of feelings of abandonment towards the parent who has left the family home (for example, after a divorce) or allows the behavior to continue
  • Difficulty identifying and meeting one's own needs
  • self-concept problems
  • Development of compulsive behaviors or addictions
  • Difficulty creating and maintaining intimate relationships.
  • sexual dysfunction problems

Currently, the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) has been developed which makes it possible to measure the effects of covert incest on a person as a child.

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