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  • Paul White

Emotional Incest: 9 Signs and 5 Ways to Recover


While emotional incest is not sexual, it can result in many of the same symptoms. This type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between a parent and their child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest.


If you or someone you know has experienced this type of abuse, trouble maintaining appropriate boundaries, eating disorders, self-harm, relationship dissatisfaction, sexual intimacy issues, and substance abuse are all common responses to emotional incest. Just because a child from this type of environment may grow up, leave their childhood home, and become an adult, does not mean the original issues of dysfunction cease to exist. In fact, some of the repercussions described above only begin to manifest in adulthood.


Here are 9 Signs of Emotional/"Covert" Incest


  1. People pleaser - the child has been conditioned by the parent as a tool for being used

  2. A desire to be invisible - a child is trained to not be seen but ever-present for the parent

  3. An inability to advocate for themselves - the child was never allowed to have a voice as their primary role was to care for others

  4. Great difficultly in relationships - appropriate and healthy boundaries were never modeled for the child

  5. A hard time being themselves - the child is taught to only care for others, thereby never allowing room for the child to explore their independence

  6. Reduced sense of power - never having a voice creates a sense of being dissociated from feeling any power or self-governance

  7. Lack of unconditional love - all the shallow affection shown was based on strict conditions and the child would simply internalize the experience and place judgment towards themselves

  8. Attracted to narcissistic people - it is not unlikely that the parent may tend toward narcissism, which leads the child to seek the familiarity of the same dynamic either in a partner of close friends

  9. Intense anger or rage directed at the parent - whether the child realizes it or not, these intense emotions can be a clear sign of one who experienced emotional incest at the hand of a parent

5 Ways to Begin Recovery


  1. Boundaries set up and firm - it is very important to understand where yours are, communicate/establish them with the parent

  2. Build a support system away from the parent – the healthier the relationships around you are, the easier you will be able to identify how you want yours to look

  3. See therapist or join a support group - the validation of your experiences will go a long way in your healing journey

  4. Get out if you can - you are not responsible for that parent and if you can leave the situation safely, you may want to consider that option

  5. It will be painful and hard but it is worth the effort - your parent may never be able to recognize the pain they put you through, but you can and do deserve to find a stronger balance in your relationships moving forward


If you were involved in an emotionally incestuous relationship with a parent, you were most likely neglected. You may not have experienced discipline, structure, or guidance as a child. As an adult, these skills are imperative to function in society.


Please do not hesitate to reach out for professional help if you or someone you know has experienced emotional or "covert" incest. You are not alone and things can get better.


“My only regret is that no one told me at the beginning of my journey what I’m telling you now: there will be an end to your pain. And once you’ve released all those pent-up emotions, you will experience a lightness and buoyancy you haven’t felt since you were a very young child.”


Patricia Love "The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life"

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