“One of the most pervasive, traumatic, and damaging dynamics that occurs in families in this dysfunctional, emotionally dishonest society is emotional incest. It is rampant in our society but there is still very little written or discussed about it.”
Robert Burney M.A.
Impacts of Emotional Incest
A child in theseI first came across this topic 2.5 years ago when I was reading a book called “Healing your emotional self” by Beverly Engel. The concept was sure to grab my attention and curiosity, but also created a massive jaw dropping shock reaction as I dig a bit deeper. This has been an amazing discovery to understand how this can impact my life and others, especially those little ones that we have the privilege to teach, guide and shape into the beings that they are destined to be. I must tell you, this understanding not only helps me become more aware of my actions/behviours as a mum, but more importantly drives my desire to work on my underlying issues, my self-esteem and self worth so I can become the happiest person that I know.
What is the ‘Emotional Incest Syndrome’?
Emotional incest, also known as covert incest, is a dynamic that occurs in parenting where the parent seeks emotional support through their child that should be sought through an adult relationship.
Most often, emotional incest occurs when an adult marriage or relationship is fragile, a parent is lonely, or there is a broken family dynamic such as infidelity, mental health conditions, or addiction. One or both parent may engage the child in talks about adult issues and adult feelings to a child as if they were a peer. The child may be called upon to satisfy adult needs such as intimacy, companionship, romantic stimulation, advice, problem solving, ego fulfillment, and/or emotional release.
It is important to understand that most of the time parents are not consciously aware of their behaviours and the impacts that may have on the child.
Circumstances is deprived of healthy attachment bonds, stable emotional growth, and many other basics of childhood development. Instead, the child is taught that his or her worth is based not on who he or she is as a person, but on how much he or she can please, amuse, and/or bond with the caretaker. As a result, they may experience the following when they grow up:
- Addiction and compulsivity: Research has shown that people who experience emotional incest as a child may use addiction (substance abuse, compulsive gambling, sex addiction etc.) as a way of escape and disassociate from their stress, anxiety, emotional discomfort
- Difficulty developing and maintaining adult long-term intimacy: Many children who experience emotional incest develop an unhealthy attachment and relationship to caretaker, which lead them to have issues forming a healthy level of relationship and intimacy with another person later on in life.
- Codependency and Difficulties with self-care (emotional and physical) Children in these circumstances are taught to put others needs before their own and they are emotionally rewarded for doing so. Later in life, they do not feel that they deserve to be happy or to get their needs met in healthy ways. Some of the examples of inadequate self-care include: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, underemployment, seeking out and/or staying in abusive relationships, procrastination, not completing important work or school projects, etc.
- Shame and feelings of inadequacy: A deep sense of shame and unworthiness as they believe that they are the rooted problem. They also develop a love/hate relationship with their caretaker as a result and the pattern keeps perpetuate through other relationships (romantic, work, friends and even their own children)
What to do if you have experienced emotional incest in the past?
This topic may come as a shock to you but it’s more common than you think. So if you have experienced emotional incest in the past, the first step is to recognize the symptoms and start acknowledging what happened. Instead of feeling victimized, understand that your parents do the best they could with what they knew at the time and learn to forgive (not only your parents/caretakers but also yourself). Healing starts with your learning to let go of being ‘special’ and being the caretaker of everybody else. Learn to form healthy relationship boundaries with your parents and those around you. Recognise that you are not alone and there is plenty of help and support around if you need. Remember, what happened in the past does not have to dictate your life, you can reclaim your power and create the life that you desire to live.
Author, Speaker, Transformational Dating & Relationhip Coach, NLP Practitioner and Level 2 Meta Dynamics Consultant