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The term covert incest (also known as emotional incest or psychic incest) is used by some mental health professionals to describe a relationship between parents and children that is sexualized and expects a child to fulfill adult emotional roles, though without actual incest. Proponents of the concept describe the relationships as harmful and one-sided, and similar to a relationship between adult sexual partners, but without the type of physical contact, that would be considered as child sexual abuse. 'Over and over again, a child is invited to take care of the parents' feelings...the incest may never be physically consummated, and yet the psychological implications for the child may be nearly as severe in later life'[1].

The concept has been criticized as an overly broad set of criteria that excessively expands the definition of child sexual abuse: 'this loosening of the term incest...exaggerated society's perception of victimization....[As] Kaminer (1992) stated, "When everything is child abuse, nothing is"'[2].

Covert incest: outline

Covert incest refers to a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact.[3][4] Substance abuse is thought to be associated with covert incest.[5] The effects of covert incest are thought to mimic actual incest though to a lesser degree,[6] and Kenneth Adams, who originated the concept, describes the victims having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy.[4]

Covert incest was defined in the 1980s[3] as an emotionally abusive[7] 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;[3][8][9] it has also been described as a parent responding to a child's love with adult sexuality.[10] 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 his/her child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent.[11] The abusing parent may also be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult.[7] Alcoholism and other substance addictions are also associated with the occurrence of covert incest.[5][12]

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.[7] The child's needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists solely to meet the needs of the parent[13] and the adult may not be aware of the issues created by their actions.[14] Family therapists point out that 'incest, whether technical or, a million times more commonly, the situation where a parent offers a child a closer emotional relationship than the other parent receives...stop[s] the child growing up'[15] - with special reference to 'the situation where the parents...are allowing their sexual feelings to be displaced on to the children, even though in very disguised and unconscious ways '[16]. A further twist may occur when 'through projective identification, the parent's dependency is not only alternatively exhibited and denied, but also attributed to the child, producing pathology of a different order'[17].

Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes psychic 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.[18] Woodman considers psychic 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.[19]

Role reversal and emotional incest

John Bowlby wrote of "inverted" attachment patterns: 'inverting the normal parent-child relationship - requiring the child to act as parent whilst she becomes the child...placing a heavy burden on her child'[20]. In such circumstances, 'more often than not the child is expected to be grateful for such care as [s]he receives and not to notice the demands being made', with much apparent attention and indulgence being 'really bribes to retain the child in a caregiving role'[21].

A distinction is sometimes drawn between such "role reversal" and emotional incest itself: ' Role reversal occurs when parents do not function as adults, and children become responsible for meeting their parents' little adults'[22], whereas ' Emotional incest occurs when parents share adult secrets with children...tangle their children in an emotional web that prevents growth'[23].

In practice, however, both elements may be readily intertwined: 'My mother usually assumed that I was mentally far beyond my age, and she would talk to me as to a grown-up. It was plain that she was telling me everything she could not say to my father, for she early made me her confidant' - with the result that 'I fell into the role of the superior arbitrator who willy-nilly had to judge his parents'[24]. Such a situation can produce 'rage against his father for rejecting his mother and against his mother for burdening him with such exciting but intrusive intimacy'[25], as well as 'a certain inflatedness...unstable self-assurance'[26] in the child itself.


Critics of the term "covert incest" have claimed that the concept dramatically loosens the definition of incest, making child abuse seem more prevalent than it actually is[13][27][28]; and certainly its proponents would admit that 'one reason we use the powerful term emotional incest is to get attention...identify that this is something very serious'[29].

Virginia Satir for her part wrote more neutrally of 'role-discrepancy function...where the son gets into a head-of-the-family role...[or]where a daughter gets into the mother role'[30]. She stresses however that 'the child in this position usually ends up with all the responsibilities and none of the privileges of the new role...a very lonely and unsure place to be'[31]. Eric Berne coolly posed the question, 'Under what conditions is it deleterious for parents and children to have a symmetrical relationship...(P-P) in families where the oldest child replaces an absent parent' - raising at least the possibility that 'in a given case, "something is wrong"'[32].

Whether the dispassionate or the emotive treament of the subject is the more helpful for those affected in their own lives may be irresolvable.


  1. Brenda Schaeffer, Is it Love Or is it Addiction? (2009) p. 20
  2. David F. Bjorklund, False Memory Creation in Children and Adults (2000) p. 15-16
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Jacobson M (2001). "Child sexual abuse and the multidisciplinary team approach: contradictions in practice". Childhood 8 (2): 231. doi:10.1177/0907568201008002006.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Adams K (1991). Silently Seduced : When Parents Make their Children Partners - Understanding Covert Incest. HCI. ISBN 1558741313. Retrieved 2008-04-14.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Potter-Efron, RT; Potter-Efron PS (1990). Aggression, Family Violence, and Chemical Dependency. Haworth Press. pp. 133–135. ISBN 0866569642. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Potter2" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Herman, JL; Hirschman L (2000). Father-daughter incest. Harvard University Press. p. 125. ISBN 0674002709.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Friel DL & Friel JC (1988). Adult children: the secrets of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications. ISBN 0932194532.
  8. Love PG (1991). The Emotional Incest Syndrome : What to do When a Parent's Love Rules Your Life. London: Bantam. ISBN 055335275X.
  9. Woititz, JG (1993). The Intimacy Struggle. HCI. pp. 61. ISBN 1558742778.
  10. Helfaer PM (1998). Sex and self-respect: the quest for personal fulfillment. New York: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-96185-0.
  11. Morgan A & Adams K (2007). When He's Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment. New York: Fireside. ISBN 0-7432-9138-7.
  12. Barnard, CP (1990). Families With an Alcoholic Member: The Invisible Patient. Human Sciences Press. pp. 139. ISBN 0898854792.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Pendergrast, Mark (1996). Victims of memory: sex abuse accusations and shattered lives. Hinesburg, Vt: Upper Access. ISBN 0-942679-18-0. Retrieved 2008-04-17.
  14. Gartner RB (1999). Betrayed as boys: psychodynamic treatment of sexually abused men. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-644-0. Retrieved 2008-04-17.
  15. Robin Skinner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1994) p. 270
  16. Skinner/Cleese, p. 270
  17. Robin Skinner, One Flesh: Separate Persons (London 1976) p. 417
  18. Woodman, Marion (1993). Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Inner City Books. p. 139. ISBN 0919123597.
  19. Woodman, Marion (1992). Leaving My Father's House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity. Shambhala,. p. 207. ISBN 0877735786.
  20. John Bowlby, "Phobias", in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 616
  21. John Bowlby, A Secure Base (London 1988) p. 107 and p. 144
  22. Rokelle Lerner, Boundaries for Codependents (1988) p. 7
  23. Lerner, p. 8
  24. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 69 and p. 41
  25. Naomi R. Goldenberg, Resurrecting the Body (New York 1993) p. 138
  26. Jung, p. 41
  27. Bjorklund, David F. (2000). False-memory creation in children and adults: theory, research, and implications. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum. ISBN 0-8058-3169-X.
  28. Kaminer, Wendy (1993). I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional: the recovery movement and other self-help fashions. New York: Vintage Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-679-74585-8.
  29. Robert Hemfell et al, Love is a Choice (2003) p. 50
  30. Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (London 1983) p. 167
  31. Satir, p. 167
  32. Eric Berne, Sex in Human Loving (Penguin 1970) p. 249 and p. 253


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