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Too Close: Effects of Covert Incest



What happens when the natural bond between parent and child is exploited by one of their parents? Or when a parent is unable or unwilling to set appropriate boundaries with their child?

Survivors of childhood emotional abuse should know about the impacts of covert incest.

A balanced, secure, and healthy emotional bond between a parent and child should be close, supportive, and loving, with children able to rely on and trust their parents for emotional support. Yet, when the parent calls on the child to fulfill their emotional needs...that closeness can become suffocating. The lack of appropriate boundaries in covert incest creates an emotional burden that lasts into adulthood and can result in a plethora of problems with intimacy and relationships.

So...What does ‘Covert Incest’ Mean?

Covert incest is a specific type of emotional abuse in which a parent relies on a child for emotional support, affirmation, and care that should be provided by a spouse; it does not involve physical abuse but instead is non-physical sexual behavior and emotional intimacy between two relatives.


Covert incest includes behavior like:

  • Age-inappropriate sex talk from the parent to the child

  • Inappropriate nicknames for a child such as a best friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, lover, etc.

  • Constant demands from the parent for attention or emotional needs provided by the child

  • Commenting on a child’s developing body, particularly in a sexualized manner

With covert incest, the emotional boundaries between a parent and child are not blurred...but completely crossed. Children may feel “icky” and trapped as a parent consistently relies on them for the emotional support that should be given by an adult significant other. Given the child knows no different, they have no idea how abnormal such behavior actually is...until much later in life.

What Drives Covert Incest

Parents who display such abnormal behavior in their relationships with their children are clearly grappling with other issues. There are several factors that play into this damaging type of parentification of children, which include:

1. Breakdown or Absence of an Adult Relationship

Divorce, separation, or the lack of an emotional relationship with another adult may result in a parent inappropriately leaning on their child for emotional connection and affirmation.

2. Historical Issues with their Families

Adults who engage in covert incest may have experienced it themselves as children, and therefore expect such emotional entanglement as a “normal” part of a parent-child relationship; an adult who has had a distant, neglectful, or absent relationship with family may over-correct with their child, stepping on necessary boundaries and relying on that child to fill in gaps in their own life.

3. Underlying Personality Issues

Certain personality traits like narcissism can predispose an adult to engage in covert incest; which makes the adult feel as if it is perfectly acceptable to demand the complete emotional support and attention of their child. Additionally, individuals who are highly emotionally dependent or immature may also be prone to covert incest.

Effects of Childhood Covert Incest on Adults

Covert incest that occurs during childhood or adolescence can lead to intimacy disorders, sexual addiction, relationship problems, and emotional distancing. Trust and closeness issues can drive fear of intimacy, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and overly responsible even early on in a relationship. Some prefer fleeting or even anonymous sexual encounters to the perceived “baggage” of a relationship. Common feelings or issues among adult survivors of covert incest include:

  • Anger or shame

  • Guilt over leaving the parent

  • Persistent feelings of insecurity or inadequacy

  • Difficulty setting healthy boundaries

  • Difficulties in engaging inappropriate behavior with their own children


How to Heal

Healing from the effects of covert incest is absolutely possible, and is generally best done with professional support. An experienced therapist can help guide you through your past trauma, unravel its effects on your life and current relationships, and help you develop ways to break free from problematic thoughts or behaviors. With the right support, you can successfully rediscover yourself, learn how to set appropriate boundaries, and move forward in healthy, fulfilling relationships. A Highly Effective Holistic Treatment Approach

At Elemental Wellness & Counseling, we have designed a program to include both psychological and physical components for truly holistic healing. Key components of the program include:

  • Trauma-focused somatic therapy

  • Applied and Clinical Hypnosis

  • Mind-Body Integration exercises

  • Poetry Therapy


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