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Coping With Emotional Incest Syndrome: A Survivor’s Guide


A young women crying, due to her experience with the Emotional Incest syndrome.

Love rules your life. But sometimes it’s not the right kind of love. That is the case for survivors of an emotional incest syndrome.

Many people think they had a good upbringing. But then issues arise.

They find themselves cheating on their partners, or they feel smothered. Survivors can’t express themselves romantically or sexually. They feel attached to their parents, even after their parents have passed away.

They may be suffering from emotional incest syndrome. Yet few people know what that is. You can learn the symptoms, so you can get help if you need it.

Here is a quick guide to coping with Emotional Incest Syndrome.

The Parent and Child Relationship

Children draw on their parents. Closeness to parents during the first three years of life determines many outcomes.

A major component of childhood development is taught in family dynamics. Children learn from their family, and what their culture expects of them. They learn the values of right and wrong. They learn to stand up for themselves and develop ties to the people around them.

Parent love should be real and strong. Parents and children should be close to each other. But there should be a little distance.

An adult should turn to other adults for adult issues. They should talk about their troubles with them. Issues that come up in adult relationships should stay within the adult relationships.

A basic need for all children is nurturing. They grow through time, and their parents should allow them to grow with time. If children are forced to adopt adult behaviors, an emotionally abusive relationship may be created.

The Basics of Emotional Incest Syndrome

Dr. Kenneth Adams coined the term, “emotional incest syndrome,” in the 1980s. Though this term is commonplace, others refer to emotional incest syndrome as “covert incest,” “covert incest syndrome,” or “enmeshment.” All of these terms refer to the same condition.

The emotional incest syndromes occur when a parent relies on a child for emotional support. The adult shares personal information with the child as if the child was their peer. The adult forces the child to satisfy their needs for intimacy and companionship.

The child feels like they are an adult. But the child is not capable of discussing adult issues. The adult-child relationship is violated, with the child forced to act beyond their capacity.

In a relationship with an emotional incest syndrome, overt sexual abuse is not often present. But sex can be a component of it. Adults may ask their children for massages or talk with their children about sex.

An emotional incest syndrome often occurs in an opposite-sex relationship with one parent. But it can occur in a same-sex relationship, or with both parents. Guardians and other caregivers can form emotionally incestuous relationships with children.

An emotionally incestuous relationship can accompany another type of abuse. But it can exist on its own. A person may grow up not realizing their parent was emotionally abusive.

Many people only realize they suffer from emotional incest syndrome late in life. They find they have a love addiction, cheating on their partners.

They may have a lack of intimacy in their adult relationships. Survivors may abuse drugs, alcohol, or food. If someone feels they have a problem, they should seek help.

Examples of Emotional Incest Syndrome

Every person’s experience with emotional incest syndrome is unique. But there are some common behaviors that fall under emotional incest.

The parent or caregiver may expect praise from the child. They may be unable to complete work without the child giving them praise.

The caregiver can become upset if the child is not paying attention to them. When the caregiver cries or becomes angry, the child has to comfort them.

Poor or nonexistent boundaries are common. A parent or caregiver may invade the child’s privacy. They may go into the child’s room, even when the child asks them to leave. They may be nude around the child, or around the child when they are nude.

A caregiver may treat the child like they are a romantic partner. This does not mean that the two have sex. But the caregiver may take the child on a date and comment on the child’s body.

The caregiver may become jealous of the child’s relationships. They may ruin playdates so the child spends time with them. The caregiver may sabotage the child’s romantic relationships as an adult, and position them as a surrogate spouse.

Dr. Patricia Love summarizes emotional incest syndrome by noting, “A healthy family system has clear separation between adults and children.” When there is no separation, an emotionally toxic relationship forms.

Getting Help

You can get a clear picture of emotional incest syndrome from a psychiatrist or therapist. They will begin to work with you on a treatment plan.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan for emotional incest syndrome. But there are a number of options that anyone can take.

Thousands of counselors specialize in childhood abuse. They can offer one-on-one sessions, working with you to address problems and propose solutions. They can also offer group therapy, allowing you to make connections with others.

Many self-help meetings use a 12-step model. The model allows you to address your emotional and physical conditions through time.

Journaling serves as catharsis. You can write your own story, or you can draw on your experiences to write new stories. Journaling or jotting down your thoughts, can record your growth through time.

You can buy books and find more information online. Gaining knowledge about emotional incest syndrome lets you develop an understanding of your past.

Go to the Experts

Emotional incest syndrome is difficult. But you can recognize its signs, and you can get help.

Parents should nurture their children and remain close to them. But parents should deal with their problems within adult relationships. When the boundaries between parent and child are violated, emotional incest syndrome develops.

A parent becomes reliant on a child for affection and approval. A parent forces a child to carry significant emotional weight. The child becomes unable to care for themselves.

If you have emotional incest syndrome, you can go to the experts and get help. Modern Intimacy offers a plethora of therapy services for you. Book a free 30-minute consultation today, or call at 310-299-2040.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist (CA, FL, IL + NY), Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, and PACT III trained Couples Therapist. She is the Founder of Modern Intimacy. Follow her on TikTok and IG @drkatebalestrieri and the Modern Intimacy team on IG @themodernintimacy.



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1 Comment

  1. Steven

    Wow! Just came to the realization that this is me, and it explains my behaviors. Thank you.


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