There is currently an utter destructive dynamic that is occurring within many families that little is written about, yet, it is thought to be almost as emotionally crippling as physical incest itself. Covert or psychic incest (also known as emotional incest) is a very real and rampant dynamic that exists today and can be transferred through the generational lines.
Crossing boundaries and role reversal
Emotional incest occurs when a parent attempts to have their emotional needs met through their children and the child ends up feeling responsible for the parent’s emotional well-being. For example, I know of one mother who was so deeply insecure that one day she asked her eight-year-old son, “Would you have married me?” The son was startled by his mother’s question in that he realized at that very moment his mother was a deeply hurting woman. Yet, while feeling immensely inadequate, the boy felt a heightened sense of responsibility to comfort his mother and make her feel valued and loved since there seemed to be nobody doing that.
Even though this mother had no idea that she was subtly placing an enormous amount of “emotional weight” upon her child, it still constitutes as emotional incest because the relationship has taken on the interpersonal dynamics that typically goes on between sexual partners. Covert or emotional incest usually occurs when a parent is unable to or is no longer willing to seek out their emotional needs through other adults (especially through their spouse) and instead, presume upon their children to take on an emotional role that should be relegated to an adult.
Emotional incest also can occur when a parent talks about adult issues and feelings to a child as if they were their peer. When parents cannot settle a dispute or an argument between themselves and turn to their child as a mediator by placing the child in the middle of the disagreement by complaining about each other, this too, is a form of emotional incest.
Similarity to “Parentification”
Emotional incest is very similar to the “parentification” of a child. According to Dr. Susan Litton, a “parentified” child is one where:
A parent is unable to care for themselves emotionally and/or physically and instead of
getting help from a spouse or other peers, they do a kind of role reversal with one or
more of their children.
This often occurs when a parent is on drugs, taking on more than one job or is absent and the child is asked to or voluntarily assumes typical parenting chores such as preparing all the meals, watching their siblings more than they should and performing household tasks at a level that is beyond what should be asked of a child.
I remember watching an episode of a show called Nanny 911 where the daughter, who was about 10-year’s-old, was expected to watch her younger sibling all day long while the mother was at work. When the mother came home briefly to check on her kids, she left shortly thereafter to go to the gym and workout, all the while expecting her daughter to take care her sibling again-an expectation that is far beyond the realm of reasonableness for a child. I remember vividly the sadness, tears and depression expressed by the little girl to the nanny over her life and the conveying of her feelings of tiredness, emptiness and frustration that she had inside.
Unfortunately, children that are forced to grow up prematurely and become adults before their time end up reverting back and acting like children when they finally do reach adulthood. Emotional incest takes its final toll on these people when as adults their aftermath can be measured in untold divorces, a perpetual generational cycle of continued emotional incest upon their own children and even taking on a whole quagmire of additional mental disorders.
One of the reasons for the damaging aftermath as adult survivors of emotional incest is due to the irresponsible state that develops withing them in adulthood. It is almost as if the burden of premature responsibilities reaches its threshold and they no longer want to be responsible, so instead, they become totally irresponsible as adults in an attempt to “act out” the phase of childhood they missed out on.
Many of these children also grow up as adults and become too responsible for the problems of other people because of the learned boundary problems. It’s as if they have to maintain more responsibilities than they are able to handle throughout their lives. They learned it as children and so it remains familiar and comfortable as adults even though they are secretly worn out, tired and miserable inside.
Oftentimes, children of emotional incest have difficulty in relating with their peers because they often feel led to assume a “parental” role or a position of authority over their peers and can come across as quite “bossy.” They become deficient in their social skills and experience a condition of arrested development in their social development.
Since emotional incest tends to teach a child to deny their own needs and feelings (much of their energy has be focused on the needs of their parent), a critical first step for these children is to help them get in touch with who they are, and know that it is perfectly healthy to express their own feelings and needs.
A second healthy step is to be healed from the wounds that occurred as a result of the emotional incest. The key to this step is to forgive their parents as well as forgive themselves (since children often blame themselves for their inability to “fix” their parent or for the problems that cause tension in the home). One of the outflows of unforgiveness of self or of others is a condemning or judgmental spirit. One way that can help them to forgive is to understand the powerlessness that their own parents had due to the lack of knowledge and very real probability of the generational dynamic at work up in their own lives cause from their parents.
If forgiveness is not attained, this cycle of abuse has a way of continuing on through succeeding generations. Somehow, when bitterness is allowed to remain, it manifests itself upon their children in some form or avenue and makes their own children bitter towards them in an unfortunate trend. It’s the law of Karma or reaping what we sow. Disrespect breeds disrespect.
Remember, before you judge the person beside you at work, contemplate that there could be a whole myriad of explanations as to why that person is the way they are.