The Signs and Effect of Emotional Incest


Emotional incest has been compared to actual incest because it similarly creates long-lasting effects on psychosocial development and into adulthood. Sometimes the targeted child is referred to as a “surrogate spouse,” due to parent-child enmeshment or a codependent parent-child relationship.

Non-sexual incest can happen with a same-sex or opposite-sex parent. Invasive parents have difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship with their spouse and appropriate boundaries with their child.

Dysfunctional Family Systems

Emotional incest can occur in dysfunctional families. An example is enmeshed families with blurred boundaries that affect the entire family unit. This inhibits children from establishing individual identities and recognizing and meeting their needs.

Emotional incest refers to a parent-child relationship where the parent has difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship with their spouse and appropriate boundaries with their child. Usually, there are problems between the parents, including when one parent is absent due to work, addiction, divorce, or death. Single-parent families, families with mental illness or addiction, or only-child families are at greater risk.

Invasive parents are missing companionship and support. They use a child for their emotional needs, such as intimacy, romance, ego rewards, advice, problem-solving, and being valued, heard, and seen. This reflects the parents’ loneliness or depression. They may not be aware of their unmet emotional needs and that they are using their child to meet them. They likely don’t realize the harm they’re doing and feel that they’re being loving or even sacrificing for their child.

Often their spouse is resentful of the the other parent’s alliance with the incested child. This spawns jealousy and competition with the child who is innocent and doesn’t understand the noninvasive parent’s rejection. The closer the child is to the invasive parent, the more resentful the noninvasive parent becomes. Children are unaware that the invasive parent plays a role or bears any responsibility for their negative feelings. There also may be excessive sibling rivalry in the family.

Some collective cultures hold social and cultural values, and parenting styles that make families more prone to emotional incest. Parents expect loyalty and dependence from their children, who they view as extensions of themselves and investments in their future. It’s often the norm that parents share their problems with their children. Parental control discourages independence and initiative by their children. Economic conditions may also predispose child parentification.

Effects of Childhood Emotional Incest

The Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) predicts decreased life satisfaction and increased anxiety when a parent uses a child to satisfy emotional or relational needs. Emotional incest correlates with childhood trauma and decreased warmth and safety.

Examples include when a child becomes a confidant or companion to one parent. To be so favored is emotionally seductive to the child. But like child parentification, it places children in an age-inappropriate role where they can’t express themselves authentically. They often become privy to secrets or information they’re not equipped to understand or handle.

This can happen in families with addiction where the non-addict parent is isolated and lonely or where the addict neglects adult responsibilities and uses the child as a surrogate mate. The child may have to worry about and take care of household tasks and provide emotional support for a parent, or their needs go unmet because of parental conflict or neglect. Parentified children become self-sufficient, over-functioning adults who neglect their emotional needs.

In other cases, both parents use a child to manage their dysfunctional relationship. Children are triangulated into parents’ disagreements and forced into the role of mediator or problem-solver.

Emotional incest takes one of two paths. Either the invasive parent abruptly or gradually withdraws from the child, usually at adolescence; or, the enmeshed relationship continues into adulthood. Neither is optimal. In the first case, the adolescent feels abandoned and may prematurely and/or obsessively look for romantic relationships to fill the void (and also that of the emotionally unavailable, jealous parent). A pattern of abandoning relationships may result, especially if the child also feels rejected by the noninvasive parent.

When the parent/child relationship continues into adulthood, it compromises the adult child’s ability to bond and be intimate with his or her partner. It can also cause emotional conflict of allegiance and prioritizing the needs and wants of their parent and their partner.

As a child matures, it’s natural in healthy family systems to gradually de-idealize our parents. But in dysfunctional families where there is a trauma, such as divorce, abuse, or death, often the child’s normal development is arrested and the idealized parent remains so. Due to splitting, similarly, the devalued, rejecting parent is seen as the “bad” parent. Idealization and/or devaluation are often then projected onto romantic partners. No potential mate is good enough to measure up to the idealized parent.

Signs and Effects of Emotional Incest

Targeted children often feel more mature and responsible than one or both parents. They may feel compelled to comfort or advise a lonely, depressed, or abused parent (and later mate). Their loyalties are conflicted or biased toward one parent. Did you experience any of these behavioral signs?

  • You were more mature than your parent(s) when problems arose.
  • You advised a parent about romantic difficulties.
  • You took sides in parental arguments.
  • You mediated disputes between your parents.
  • A parent expressed to you feelings of emotional distress.
  • A parent looked to you for comfort and support.
  • You had responsibilities inappropriate for your age.
  • You realize you couldn’t fully enjoy your childhood.
  • Your parent’s needs took priority over yours.
  • You wished you had your friends’ parents.
  • You had to “grow up” to support your parent(s).
  • You had to consider or manage household responsibilities for your parent(s).

They not only sacrifice a safe, carefree childhood, but they also lose adequate protection, nurturing, guidance, structure, discipline, affirmation (for their authentic self), and affection.

Emotional Incest takes a toll emotionally and psychologically on children. It causes anxiety and distorts their view of their parents and intimate relationships. Have you experienced:

  • Impaired self-esteem (either too high or too low)
  • Problems with peer relationships
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • A bias in favor of one parent
  • Denial of needs
  • Isolation
  • Fear of rejection
  • Idealization of the invasive parent so future partners aren’t good enough
  • Lack of romantic interest in peers
  • Self-image issues
  • Feelings of inferiority (shame)
  • Guilt
  • Fear of commitment
  • Attraction to self-centered partners
  • Sexual issues (either repression or acting out)
  • A compulsive need to achieve
  • Conflict with the noninvasive parent
  • Caretaking Behavior
  • Codependency

Family dysfunction causes codependency symptoms, including denial of needs and feelings, caretaking behavior, control, shame and low self-esteem, intimacy problems, and dysfunctional boundaries and communication. The relationship pattern established with the invasive parent often gets repeated in romantic relationships. The adult child learns to please, accommodate, and sacrifice their needs for their partner, who is usually under-functioning and dependent.


Every case is unique. Think about your childhood and relationship with both of your parents. Ask yourself:

  1. Have I experienced any of the above symptoms?
  2. How did I feel about being a peacemaker, problem-solver, or the close, favored child?
  3. How did I feel about myself?
  4. What did I lose in the process?
  5. How has it impacted my relationships with my other parent?
  6. How has it impacted my relationships with peers?
  7. What decisions and beliefs did I form as a result?
  8. How has it affected my adult romantic relationships?

If you relate to this article, start a codependency recovery program, such as CoDA, and get professional help. Do the exercises in my books, Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

© 2024 Darlene Lancer

Share with friends
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Recent Posts


To get your Free “14 Tips,” please provide your name and email to join my mailing list and monthly blog.

Check your spam folder, and email me if you don’t get an email confirmation. (See our Website and Privacy Policies)