What Is Emotional Incest?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 07, 2022
5 min read

Do you know someone who claims that their parent is their best friend, but the parent's teasing and joking makes them uncomfortable? Or maybe you’ve dated someone who drops everything to run to their parent’s side when the parent needs emotional support. This type of too-close parent-child relationship is common. On the one hand, if a parent and child are close and feel comfortable sharing life experiences and feelings with each other, this is usually a good thing. 

On the other extreme end of this spectrum, the parent might depend on the child as a surrogate partner. This is called emotional incest. The child's other parent might be emotionally or physically absent, abusive, or deceased. 

Emotional incest can cause long-term damage throughout a child’s life. Learn how to spot the signs of dysfunction before it's too late to change this unhealthy pattern.

According to Bowlby’s attachment theory in psychology, the mother, or the parental figure most closely raising the child, is responsible for providing the child with a secure attachment within the first three years of their life. When the child doesn’t form any healthy attachment, they might struggle with relationships as an adult. When the parent-child bond is too anxious, or too close, it can also cause problems for the child. It might result in enmeshment.

Enmeshment means there are few or no boundaries between the people in a relationship. Your problems become their problems, their hurts become your hurts, and so on. Parent-child duos locked in an emotionally incestuous relationship struggle with boundaries. The child grows up thinking that this lack of boundaries equates to love.

Enmeshment in families can affect a child’s self-esteem, as they're unable to develop an identity outside of their too-close family. Emotional incest might begin with innocent intentions, like when a spouse dies and the remaining parent can't cope with their grief and loneliness. This parent then turns to the child for comfort. This creates a cycle of the parent leaning on the child for support when it should be the other way around.

Signs of emotional or covert incest between a parent and a child may cause the following situations:

  • The child feels like they have to care for the parent’s emotional needs.
  • The child seems overly mature for their age due to parentification (the parent treating the child as their parent instead of the other way around).
  • The parent panics or seems jealous when the child has a romantic partner or close friendship that doesn't involve the parent. In extreme cases, the child doesn’t develop any other close relationships.
  • The child struggles with emotional neglect despite the seeming “closeness” of their bond with their parent. Childhood emotional neglect can have disastrous consequences, including problems in school and an increased risk of depression later in life.
  • The child claims that the parent is their best friend but also seems to hate the parent at times and feel obligated to be there for them.

Unfortunately, enmeshment and emotional incest can cause damage in the short term and in the long term. A child might grow up feeling the burden of their parent’s feelings and responsibilities while neglecting their own. The parent is not able to let their child grow and develop at a healthy pace in this type of dysfunctional relationship.

The short-term effects of emotional incest include:

  • Ignored emotional needs. The parent ignores the child’s emotional development because they’re focused on their own feelings and problems.
  • Role confusion. The child doesn’t know what their role is in the family. They might feel like an important confidante, a best friend, or their parent’s therapist.
  • A divided family. It’s possible that one child in the family serves as the parent’s confidante while the others are treated as children. The other spouse, if they’re present, could be pushed out of the enmeshed child’s life as well. These scenarios create an uneven family dynamic and can cause tension between siblings.

The long-term effects of emotional incest include:

  • Difficult relationships. The child may grow up to be unsure of what healthy, normal boundaries are between children and adults or between adults.
  • Continued covert incest. An adult child of an emotionally incestuous parent might continue this unhealthy relationship with the parent well into adulthood and feel obligated to please the parent at all times. This misplaced loyalty can cause extreme tension between an adult, their spouse, and the rest of the adult child’s family.
  • People-pleasing. Because of their role in providing emotional support and closeness to their parent, these adult children might end up in similar relationships where they provide the same unreciprocated support to romantic partners and friends.
  • Ignoring their own feelings. Children in this type of relationship learn that it’s the parent’s feelings — not their own — that matter.

No. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with a parent, when the parent sets appropriate boundaries, is not emotional incest. As children grow up, healthy parents will share more as appropriate, and older parents might even speak to adult children as peers. The difference is that covert incest creates a parent’s unhealthy emotional dependence upon the child.

Unlike with other types of child abuse, parents who engage in emotional incest might not understand that they're doing something wrong. It might even seem, to both the parent and child, that they have an extremely close, loving, and understanding relationship. But this is not the case. This unhealthy bond doesn't allow these children the space to create healthy relationships of their own. 

It can be. It's important to make the distinction between emotional incest and sexual abuse. Emotional incest, despite the use of the term "incest," can happen without a sexual or physical component. This unbalanced relationship often happens unknowingly on the parent’s part, like when a parent becomes emotionally dependent upon a child after their spouse dies. It’s unhealthy for both the parent and the child. 

Children should be allowed to grow and develop emotionally without carrying their parents’ emotional burdens. It’s not appropriate for an adult to turn to a child or teenager (even if they seem very mature for their young age) to talk about problems in their own life. Kids should also not be the target of sexual comments, even if these comments are jokes. 

It can be difficult to know when to step in if you suspect that you know a family dealing with emotional incest. If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone else, get help to protect the child or teen involved. If you're coming to terms with unhealthy relationships between yourself and your parents, seek out counseling from a professional who has experience helping people in this situation.