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Understanding Covert Emotional Incest

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Most of the time, when people come in for therapy they aren’t quite sure how to name their experience. A lot of times they’ll identify symptoms such as angry outbursts, difficulty in relationships, or will say things like “I don’t understand why I’m feeling this way. I was the favorite, I had a good childhood.”

Commonly, when we think of abuse, we think of intentional harm such as verbal aggression, physical or sexual violence. But sometimes abuse can be tough to detect. It can also be hard to label as abuse because it can seem like closeness or a “special bond.”

Covert Emotional Incest (CEI) is a family dynamic in which a parent or caregiver treats a child like a an intimate adult support, a “best friend,” or romantic partner.

In Covert Emotional Incest, the child is inappropriately burdened with adult problems and adult emotions. The caregiver treats the child as a confidant and shares things that are developmentally inappropriate or that would only appropriate to seek support about from an adult. This forces the child to serve as a surrogate or substitute spouse. CEI may also include objectification of the child including intrusive comments about the child’s body, development, or invading on the child’s right to privacy when bathing, changing etc. Physical contact more appropriate within the context of an adult romantic relationship may be present (ex: hand holding, massaging, caressing, prolonged holding).

Covert Emotional Incest reverses the caregiving relationship from care & attunement moving FROM the parent TO the child, to the child being required to care for and attune to the parent’s needs. The adult creates a relationship in which the child meets needs that should only be met within adult relationships. For example, the caregiver may rely on the child for support navigating relationship, money, or career problems, ask for advice about adult issues such as sex or addiction, or ask the child to offer them reassurance. The parent may even treat the child like their own personal therapist.

As adults, children who have experienced CEI can experience the following:

  • Poor sense of self

  • Feelings of inadequacy

  • Shame

  • Perfectionism

  • Guilt over leaving the parent

  • Difficulty identifying their own needs

  • Difficulty setting boundaries

  • Difficulty being assertive

  • Difficulty engaging in self-care

  • Compulsive caretaking: life revolves around caretaking for others

  • Feeling more comfortable caring for others than being cared for

  • Attempting to control others’ behaviors through “perfect” behavior

  • Feeling that others’ needs are more important than their own or that their value lies in how “useful” they can be to others

  • “Codependency”

  • Underdeveloped relationship skills

  • Difficulty sustaining adult romantic relationships, placing unrealistic expectations on partners

  • Swinging between relationships feeling “too close” or “not close enough”

  • "Love/hate relationships"

  • Traversing between placing the parent on a pedestal ("best dad in the world") vs. acknowledging difficult feelings about the relationship

  • Poor self-regulation or coping skills

  • Anxiety or discomfort around others’ “big” emotions.

  • Disrupted sexual development, guilt & shame about sex

  • Behaviors that feel out of control such as disordered eating, compulsive sexual behavior, pornography addiction, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, compulsive gambling/spending, or chronic overworking/over-scheduling (needing to be constantly “busy”)

As adults, children who have experienced CEI can experience the following behaviors from their parent/caregiver:

  • Ongoing age-inappropriate or intrusive behavior toward adult child (ex: wanting to help with bathing, entering home unannounced, disregarding boundaries for privacy).

  • Sensual or intimate touch that appears more appropriate for a romantic partner than a child

  • Inappropriate nicknames or commenting on how “handsome,”“attractive,” or “sexy” the adult child is

  • Trying to be physically closer to child than child’s romantic partner, interrupting physical contact with partner

  • Jealousy or backlash from the parent about the child developing their own relationships

  • Parent may continue to demand praise or admiration

  • Parent foster an ongoing sense of obligation

  • Parent may act out when the adult child comments on positive attributes of partner

  • Parent may attempts to sabotage or get in the way of adult child’s time with time with romantic partner

  • Parent may place unreasonable demands or entitlement over the adult child’s time

  • Parent may want to have “dates” with adult child

  • Parent may intrude on romantic occasions such as anniversaries or valentine’s day

  • Parent may express jealousy or engage in guilting the adult child about having time “taken away” from them when the adult child has plans with their partner

If you think you may have experienced emotional abuse, emotional neglect, enmeshment, or covert emotional incest, please know that healing and relief are possible. If you are located in Pennsylvania, please visit: to see if we are a good fit.

If you are looking for support outside of Pennsylvania, try searching for some of the following terms to locate a licensed therapist in your area:

“Covert Emotional Incest Therapy”

“Emotional Incest Therapy”

“Covert Incest Therapy”

“Emotional Sexual Abuse Therapy”

“Chosen Child Syndrome Therapy”

“Surragate Spouse Syndrome Therapy”

“Spousification Therapy”

“Enmeshment Therapy”

“Parental Enmeshment Therapy”

“Mother-Son Enmeshment Therapy”

“Father-Daughter Enmeshment Therapy”

“Emotional Abuse Therapy”

“Narcissistic Abuse Therapy”

“Codependency Therapy”

“Sex and Love Addiction Therapy”

“Compulsive Sexual Behavior Therapy”

“Pornography Addiction Therapy”


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