Mother-Son Attachment and Emotional Incest

When a parent or caregiver relies on a child to meet emotional needs that would otherwise be met by a romantic partner, this is referred to as “emotional incest.” Another term for it is covert incest. Sexual abuse is not covered. Keep reading to learn more about mother-son attachment and emotional incest.

Mother-Son Attachment and Emotional Incest

Incest, which is not visible to others and is more difficult to detect than sexual abuse, is known as “emotional” or “covert.”

This article delves deeper into emotional incest, provides examples of behavior that may indicate emotional incest, and investigates its impact on children and adolescents.

What Exactly is Emotional Incest?

Emotional incest is a type of emotional abuse, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

It occurs when a parent or caregiver uses their child to meet emotional needs that should be met by their adult romantic partner.

This is an infringement on the relationship between a parent and a child. Psychologists refer to this as “enmeshment” or “covert incest.”

In an emotionally incestuous relationship, the parent or caregiver looks to the child for emotional support. It means that the child must prioritize the parent’s wants and desires to gain the parent’s approval.

In some cases, the adult treats the child like a romantic partner. The absence of sexual contact, however, distinguishes emotional incest from other types.

A close relationship between a parent or caregiver and a child is not the same as emotional incest. In cases of emotional incest, the closeness results from the adult prioritizing themselves over the child’s well-being.

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What is the Difference Between Emotional Incest and Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is defined by the American Psychological Association as a relationship between two or more people in which they become overly involved in each other’s activities and relationships, limiting each person’s independence and sense of self.

Emotional incest is a type of enmeshment that involves both a parent or caregiver and a child.

What are the Symptoms of Emotional Incest?

The following are examples of emotional incest, according to Dr. Patricia Love’s book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life:

Relying on the Child for Support

This could include talking about their relationship issues with the child, seeking the child’s console or comfort, or seeking inappropriate advice from the child.

Putting their Own Needs  Ahead of their Child’s

The caregiver may seek unending praise and love from the child, or he or she may seek to be the most important person in the child’s life while harming the child’s other relationships.

Invading the Child’s Privacy

Examples include frequently entering the child’s personal space or preventing the child from having their own space. The caregiver may also do things that make the child feel uncomfortable, such as ignoring the child’s request for privacy while naked or being naked in front of the child.

Using the Child as a Love Partner

This could include going on dates with the child, discussing their sex life, or making explicit comments about the child’s body or appearance.

The caregiver may also insist on the child using names reserved for adult relationships. Sexual contact is not permitted in cases of emotional incest.

Feeling Envious of the Child’s Romantic Relationships

As the child grows older, the parent or caregiver may become jealous of their romantic relationships. They may compete for their attention, intrude on them, or try to sabotage them.

To engage in emotional incest, a caregiver must not do all of these things. If there is a consistent lack of parent-child boundaries, the relationship is emotionally incestuous.

Caregivers who engage in this behavior may be unaware that their actions are harmful. The child may believe that the relationship is simply unique or that it cannot be abusive because there is no sexual contact.

What Are the Effects of Emotional Incest?

Experts are unsure how common emotional incest is, and there is little research on its effects. However, psychologists working in this field claim that the effect on their clients is comparable to physical incest.

According to psychologist Kenneth M. Adams in his book Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, emotional incest can lead to:

  • an ambivalent relationship with the caregiver
  • feelings of abandonment toward the other parent or caregiver who has abandoned the household or allowed the behavior to persist
  • Because the person is accustomed to caring for others, he or she has difficulty identifying and meeting personal needs.
  • feeling insufficient and unworthy
  • sex addiction or sexual dysfunction
  • addiction or compulsive behavior

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What Are the Causes of Emotional Incest? 

Researchers are baffled as to what causes emotional incest. There have been very few studies on this subject.

However, therapists’ anecdotal evidence suggests that emotional incest occurs frequently when the other partner or spouse is not meeting the emotional needs of the affected parent or caregiver. This could be due to:

  • relationship dysfunction or breakdown
  • infidelity
  • divorce
  • abandonment
  • bereavement
  • domestic abuse

As an inappropriate coping strategy, the parent or caregiver may seek comfort from their child. Anxiety, depression, personality disorder, and substance use disorder may also play a role in the parents.

If the caregiver was a child who experienced emotional incest, they may repeat the same pattern of behavior, believing it to be normal.

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