When made to emotionally fulfill the role of a spouse, children can develop a variety of psychological conditions. However, with treatment like therapy, the cycle of abuse can be broken.

Emotional incest, also called covert incest, describes an unhealthy family dynamic where a parent relies on their child for emotional and practical advice and support.

Despite the name, it doesn’t involve physical sexual abuse: “Incest” refers to inappropriate emotional closeness. Emotional incest can also happen unconsciously, unlike physical incest.

Often, parents who foster this dynamic don’t realize how their actions affect their child, and they also don’t intend to cause harm, explains Kathy Hardie-Williams, NCC, LPC, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Tigard, OR.

Yet this behavior can still cause significant pain, not to mention disrupt healthy development. In fact, some experts say that physical and emotional incest can have similar long-term effects on child development.

In a dynamic of emotional incest, your parent treats you not as their child, but more like a romantic partner. Instead of providing appropriate parental guidance and helping you get your emotional needs met, they might rely on you for:

  • comfort and company when they feel lonely or sad
  • help navigating financial concerns
  • advice on navigating conflict at work or in their personal relationships
  • loyalty to them, rather than the other parent

In the beginning, this dynamic might leave you with a heightened sense of maturity and shared closeness. If you recognize, on some level, that your parent tells you things adults generally don’t share with children, you could feel privileged, even special.

But by taking on the role of “partner,” where you support (or even parent) your parent, you effectively lose the role of “child.” As a result, your essential social and emotional needs may go unmet — something that can have major consequences for lifelong mental and emotional well-being.

While plenty of expert organizations and mental health professionals recognize emotional incest as a concern, research on the topic remains limited.

Currently, there’s no accepted set of criteria used to identify emotional incest.

Acknowledging this lack of research, Turkish researchers created the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) to help assess childhood experiences of emotional incest in adults.

This scale, published in a 2021 study, consists of 12 statements divided into two sections.

The first section, Surrogate Spouse, includes 6 statements along these lines:

  • When problems or challenges came up, you had to act with more maturity than your parent(s).
  • You found yourself giving advice to your parent(s) when they had romantic difficulties.
  • When your parents argued, you found yourself taking sides (or expected to take sides) and defending one of them.
  • When your parents argued, you had to step in and help them resolve things.
  • Your parent(s) turned to you, instead of their partner or another adult, to unburden any feelings of emotional distress they experienced.
  • After an argument or conflict with the other parent, your parent(s) turned to you for comfort and support.

The second section, Unsatisfactory Childhood, includes 6 statements along these lines:

  • To help maintain family harmony, you took on responsibilities in childhood that weren’t age-appropriate.
  • You recognize that you couldn’t fully enjoy your childhood.
  • The needs of your parent(s) took priority over your needs.
  • You envied the relationships your friends had with their parents.
  • You realize you had to mature, or “grow up,” sooner than your peers to better support your parent(s).
  • You had to consider, or even manage, household responsibilities for your parent(s).

To complete this self-report, you’d respond to each item on the scale with a number between 1 (never) and 5 (always).

The researchers developed this scale with input from experts and tested it by conducting studies with two different samples of university student participants (319 students and 415 students, respectively).

The study does have a few limitations, including the fact that it only involved samples of university students.

Still, it does offer the first research-backed method of measuring emotional incest — so it could play an important part in identifying this unhealthy dynamic and helping you find the right kind of support.

Emotional incest vs. enmeshment

Enmeshment, a similar dynamic, involves patterns of extreme closeness between family members.

On the surface, this closeness might seem positive, even beneficial. But it’s not the same as family cohesion, or healthy closeness, and it can become quite confining.

Like emotional incest, enmeshment involves few boundaries, or heavily blurred boundaries, within the family relationship. It often keeps family members from establishing their own identities and recognizing and meeting their own individual needs.

But while enmeshment can characterize the family relationship as a whole, emotional incest tends to show up more specifically in the relationship between a parent and one child.

Learn more about enmeshment.

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The examples below can help illustrate how it might show up in everyday life.

Seeking reassurance

Your parents got divorced 2 years ago, when you were 8 years old. Your mom frequently complains about your dad’s rudeness and lack of consideration when it comes to his weekends with you.

“He’s never on time to pick you up or bring you back. I don’t know why he thinks I have all day to wait around. But it’s rude to you, too. It’s like he doesn’t even care about you,” she says.

After venting, she usually turns to you and asks things like, “It makes you happy when I show up on time, right? You know I love you and care about you the most. I’m a great mom to you, right? Do you tell him what a good parent I am?”

You feel a little uncomfortable because you love both your parents and don’t really mind when your dad’s a little late. You know he’ll get there eventually. But you always tell your mom she’s the best because you know it makes her feel better.

Requesting advice

It’s just you and your parent at home, and they rarely spend time with friends. In fact, they really don’t go anywhere else besides work. They often tell you, “I have you, so I don’t need anyone else. You’re my whole world.”

Now that you’re old enough to use the stove, your nightly routine involves making dinner as they sit at the table with a cup of tea and tell you what happened at work that day.

They often call their job “demanding” and “stressful,” and their co-workers don’t seem very nice, either. They sometimes say, “I just don’t know what to do anymore. What do you think?” You don’t know exactly what to say, but you try to offer suggestions based on your conversations with school friends.

You feel bad they have a job that makes them so unhappy. You also feel a little guilty, since you know they keep that job because it lets them come home to you at night.

So, you do everything you can to help them out, even though you wish you could do things like visit your friends after school, come home and talk about your day, or sit down and do your homework while they make dinner for you.

Blurred boundaries

You and your dad do everything together — he often calls you his “other half.”

Sometimes you miss school because he takes you on work trips and lets you hang out in the hotel during his conferences. You also get to go to parties with his friends, where you get to dress up and eat interesting food.

He offers you small glasses of alcohol from time to time, even though you’re only 16. You don’t love the taste but you take it anyway. It makes you feel grown-up, and you don’t want to lose his approval.

When it’s just you two, you have long talks about current events and the world. He gives you lots of details about his past relationships (some you don’t particularly want to know) and says he wants to know “everything” when you find someone special.

Your friends at school complain about their parents grounding them when they fail an exam and seem impressed that you don’t have a bedtime and can use your phone and computer whenever you want.

But you secretly want your dad to set some more rules. He doesn’t seem to care about your schoolwork at all. If you got in trouble at school, you suspect he’d probably just laugh and turn it into a story to tell his friends.

Sure, you do have a lot of fun together, but you also wish he’d act less like a friend and more like a parent.

Experts have identified three main potential causes of emotional incest.

A fractured family dynamic

Emotional incest most often happens when something disrupts or damages the parental relationship.

Any number of life or relationship stressors might play a role:

Parents who lack supportive adult relationships may feel lonely and unsure of where to turn when navigating overwhelming emotions and other day-to-day difficulties related to these challenges.

Instead of turning to romantic partners, friends, or loved ones to talk through these challenges and get their needs met, Hardie-Williams explains, a parent might end up seeking emotional support from their child. The child, in turn, may feel as if they need to help protect their parent.

Learned parenting styles

Intergenerational patterns can also factor into emotional incest.

Maybe your parent relied on you for emotional support and guidance and expected you to take on household responsibilities.

As a natural consequence, you might treat your own child the same way. After all, you never had the chance to learn anything different. You may not even know your own needs didn’t get met, if you never learned to identify those needs for yourself.

An unconscious awareness of those unmet needs can also fuel a pattern of emotional incest. If you didn’t get the emotional support you needed from your parents, you could try to make up for this lack in your relationship with your child — whether you realize what you’re doing or not.

Cultural and socioeconomic factors

The researchers who developed the CEIS noted that emotional incest may happen more commonly in certain cultures.

They offer the example of Turkish culture, where parents often:

  • consider it fairly typical to discuss day-to-day concerns and difficulties with children
  • favor traits like dependence and loyalty over initiative and independence
  • think of their children as both extensions of themselves and their future caregivers

But the dynamic could happen more frequently in any culture that emphasizes these values, or prioritizes a high level of parental involvement and control over a child’s life.

This dynamic can also develop more easily in certain family settings.

Maybe you only had one parent. They worked long hours and expected you, as the oldest child, to come home directly from school and do chores, prepare a meal for the family, and take care of your siblings.

This is called parentification, and it’s not entirely the same as emotional incest. But maybe they also sought comfort and guidance for their worries and distress, including their:

  • difficulty making ends meet
  • loneliness
  • guilt for not providing a better life for you and your siblings
  • anxiety about not being a better parent

In short, you ended up taking on adult tasks while also providing the emotional support they don’t get from anyone else.

Emotional incest can have consequences for everyone involved.

For one, parents who turn to their children to get their needs met risk permanently damaging their relationship with their child.

But they also miss out on the benefits of satisfying, healthy romantic relationships and friendships. Children simply can’t provide the guidance and support other adults can, no matter how mature they are. They also can’t fully understand adult relationships and challenges.

That said, emotional incest typically has far more serious consequences for the children who experience it.

“Although hard to hear or read,” Hardie-Williams says, “emotional incest is child abuse.”

Even when this dynamic happens unintentionally, it’s still harmful, particularly because it can lead to neglect.

Researchers have noted a number of possible outcomes of childhood emotional incest, including:

  • difficulty individuating, or establishing a sense of self and personal identity
  • trouble establishing friendships with peers
  • difficulty forming lasting, healthy attachments in adult romantic relationships
  • difficulty setting or enforcing boundaries with others
  • perfectionistic tendencies
  • a sense of superiority
  • loneliness and isolation
  • feelings of guilt and shame
  • low self-esteem or a sense of personal inadequacy
  • mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders

Do some of the signs of emotional incest resonate with you?

It’s worth keeping in mind that parents do occasionally rely on their children more than they should, especially in times of stress. If these behaviors happened only rarely in your childhood, that may not necessarily translate to a long-standing dynamic of emotional incest.

But maybe you went down the scale and rated several items “5,” or “always.” That could suggest some cause for concern, so a good next step might involve connecting with a therapist who specializes in working with survivors of child abuse or neglect.

Therapy provides the opportunity for psychoeducation, which can lead to healing, according to Hardie-Williams. “Knowledge is power, and having an understanding of what happened can facilitate the healing process,” she says.

She also recommends journaling, explaining that writing your story and getting your thoughts down can create an opportunity for catharsis, or emotional release.

Along with group or individual therapy, support groups can provide the opportunity for both parent and child to connect with others with similar experiences.

Support for parents

If you recognize some of these behaviors from your own approach to parenting, you might feel stunned, perhaps even ashamed or afraid. You had no idea your actions and shared confidences could harm your child — much less count as abuse.

It can help to remember that emotional incest and other excessive parental involvement generally don’t stem from any harmful intentions. Rather, they might come from love, along with a desire to protect and be protected.

Of course, the intent doesn’t change the impact. That’s what makes it so important to get support as soon as you notice the signs.

A therapist can help you:

  • acknowledge the dynamic and its potential effects
  • identify underlying contributing factors, like experiences from your own childhood or unmet needs in your adult relationships
  • practice establishing (and respecting) healthy boundaries in your relationship with your child
  • explore ways to create a support system of adult friends or romantic partners
  • take steps toward healing any harm you experienced in childhood

Regardless of the reasons driving it, emotional incest can have long-term consequences. It can keep you from fully experiencing your childhood, and it can also leave you feeling trapped and uncertain when you reach adulthood.

These effects may not end with you, either. This dynamic can also echo across generations, shaping your parenting style if you eventually have children.

You can’t change the past, whether you experienced emotional incest as a child or unknowingly created the dynamic as a parent. But you can work to heal the impact and break the pattern, with help from a supportive, compassionate therapist.

Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.