Covert incest (also known as emotional incest) is a style of parenting in which a parent looks to their child for the emotional support that would be normally provided by another adult. The effects of covert incest on a child when they become adults are thought to mimic actual incest, although to a lesser degree. This term describes interactions between a parent and child that are exclusive of sexual abuse.
Covert incest was defined in the 1980s as an emotionally abusive relationship between a parent (or stepparent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse, though it involves similar interpersonal dynamics as a relationship between sexual partners. Covert incest occurs when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship with another adult and forces the emotional role of a spouse onto their child instead. The child's needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists solely to meet the needs of the parent and the adult may not be aware of the issues created by their actions.
Problems between parents often facilitate covert incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically and emotionally, one parent may begin focusing on their child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent.
The effects of covert incest are thought to mimic actual incest though to a lesser degree, and Kenneth Adams, who originated the concept, describes the victims as having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy.
Emotional incest from either parent is devastating to the child's ability to be able to set boundaries and take care of getting their own needs met when they become an adult. This type of abuse, when inflicted by the opposite sex parent, can have a devastating effect on the adult/child's relationship with his/her own sexuality and gender, and their ability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult.
Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes covert incest as "unboundaried bonding" in which the parent or parents use the child as a mirror to support their needs, rather than mirroring the child in support of the child's emotional development. Woodman considers emotional incest to damage the internal experience of the "parental complexes," described in Jungian analysis as a combination of actual interaction with the parents and the innate mother and father archetypes; according to Woodman, when these are damaged due to covert incest, an affected individual can experience distress in their personal relationships and sexual relationships in particular.
Emotional incest is more prevalent in households with substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness. It also can be prevalent in an immigrant family where the child is the conduit to their world.
An abusing parent may be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult.
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