Emotional [Covert] Incest occurs when a child is led to believe they are fulfilling an emotional need for one of their parents. Specifically, that child is doing for the parent’s emotions what the partner/spouse has failed to do. They are what psychologists have called “emotional lovers”.
A parent might create this burden of emotional referee very innocently. For example, a child sees that his mum looks sad. Then she looks up, gives him a little smile and says, “Give Mummy a hug, sweet boy.” When she gives him a big smile after the hug and he hears her say, “You make me so happy!”, he believes he has caused her to feel better. While that may be true to an extent, it’s leading the child to believe that he is the necessary component to her happiness and, whether immediately or later in life, he feels responsible to be sure she is never sad. If he cannot succeed in fulfilling her emotional needs, he will take the blame while it was never his role to begin with.
At the same time, it’s not always quite so innocent or accidental. Many parents are well aware of the demand for loyalty, fulfillment, and comfort they have inflected upon their child. Either way, the results are very dangerous to the emotional and mental well being of the child. A child finds security in the love and protection of an adult and covert incest destroys a healthy sense of security. Kids may well grow up believing that they are responsible for the emotional stability of all close relationships. Romantic relationships will be especially challenging because the now-grown child does not know how to give and take; he only knows how to “fulfill”. Relationships become debilitating and guilt-ridden.
Beyond the emotional scarring that occurs, there can be serious sexual side effects. Sometimes sexual abuse becomes an issue during childhood. Other times, the skewed parent-child relationship results in sexual addictions.
Parents ought to be affectionate toward their children but covert incest is a seriously misplaced affection. Here are a few suggestions to assist in avoiding this type of abusive behavior:
1. Don’t tell your child something you wouldn’t tell your spouse/partner. At the same time, your child doesn’t need to know something that you should ONLY be telling your spouse/partner.
2. Find someone other than your child to vent to. If your spouse is not an option, call a friend or close relative. So much raw emotion can spill out when you’re venting feelings like frustration or loneliness it will be easy for your child to confuse your venting about someone with you being displeased with them. A couple’s problems should never become a child’s burden.
3. Teach your children about relationship roles and boundaries. Help them understand how affection should work within a family unit. Let them know they don’t need to earn your love. It’s your job to care for them, not the other way around.
CovertIncest.org provides counseling and resources for survivors of emotional incest. Here you can find various articles, including specifics on mother-son and father-daughter relationships:
Dr. Kenneth M. Adams wrote a book entitled Silently Seduced. Most of what I have read on the topic has been drawn from this book. Here, you can find a brief introduction to the concept of Emotional Incest: