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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Dimitrion, LCSW, CST

Unpacking Emotional Incest: Long-Term Impact on Adult Children

Updated: May 6





Mom's confidante. Daddy's little girl. The child who picked up the pieces when mom was sobbing in bed with the blinds shut, while dad went off to work like nothing was wrong. Many children have been victims of emotional incest without even realizing that what they went through blurred the lines between what would be considered a healthy parent-child relationship.


What is Emotional Incest?


Emotional incest, often an overlooked form of psychological boundary crossing within families, can have profound and lasting effects on the adult child. This phenomenon occurs when a parent relies on their child for emotional support and intimacy in ways that are more typical of a spousal relationship. Emotional incest does not consist of sexual acts, however children still experience a violation of personal boundaries. The blurred lines of parent-child roles can lead to significant emotional turmoil for the child, shaping their relationships and self-perception well into adulthood.


Examples of emotional incest as a child...


  • Often soothing your mother while she sobbed after a fight with your father.

  • Frequently attending "daddy daughter dates" because mom was too depressed to go out to dinner and dad couldn't rely on mom for company.

  • Being your mother's designated driver and social companion during her weekly intoxicating nights at the local pub.

  • Frequently sleeping in the same bed with your parent past age-appropriateness, and often times with little to no pushback from the parent.


One of the most notable long-term outcomes of emotional incest is the impact on the individual's ability to form healthy relationships. Growing up as a surrogate partner to a parent can distort one's understanding of boundaries, intimacy, and trust. Adult children of emotional incest may struggle to establish healthy emotional connections, either becoming overly enmeshed or completely avoiding intimacy altogether. This pattern can repeat in romantic relationships, leading to difficulties in maintaining healthy partnerships and often perpetuating cycles of emotional instability.


Furthermore, the psychological consequences of emotional incest can manifest in various aspects of the individual's life. Adult children may grapple with feelings of guilt, anxiety, or shame, stemming from the burden of carrying a parent's emotional needs from a young age. These unresolved emotions can contribute to low self-esteem, a persistent sense of inadequacy, and challenges in asserting one's needs and desires. The internal conflict between loyalty to the parent and the need for independence can create a deep-seated emotional struggle that impacts decision-making and overall well-being.


Examples of emotional incest as an adult survivor...


  • Feeling the urge to answer your parent's phone call, regardless of the number of times they have already called that week.

  • Feeling obligated to place your parent's needs before your own.

  • Feelings of shame and guilt when setting a personal boundary or placing your needs first.

  • Sacrificing relationships, career opportunities, or social engagements to appease your parent.

  • Conflicting feelings of anger and love toward your parent.


In seeking healing from emotional incest, therapy and self-awareness play crucial roles. Breaking free from the cycle of emotional enmeshment often requires unraveling years of ingrained patterns and beliefs. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore these complex emotions, reframe distorted perceptions of relationships, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Through this process, adult children of emotional incest can work towards reclaiming their sense of self, establishing firm boundaries, and fostering relationships built on mutual respect and genuine connection.


So what can you do to change the dynamics?


  • Begin by re-examining your personal boundaries with that parent. What is the appropriate level of closeness, contact, and support that you as their child feel comfortable with providing? Pay close attention to your instinctual gut reactions when trying out new boundaries.

  • Try having a conversation with your parent, letting them know of the boundary/boundaries you are going to set. All boundaries don't have to be set at once. It's better to set one and stay firm in that one, than to set eight and experience difficulties maintaining all of them.

  • Be mindful of the new boundaries that you wish to set. It can be tough to keep boundaries in place when both you and your parent(s) are not used to them being there. There most likely will be pushback from your parent(s). There most likely will be parts of you who have trouble with boundaries set.

  • Intentionally take time to care for yourself throughout this adjustment. Self-care and healthy supports are necessary ways to keep you grounded through a new change.

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