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The Emotionally Incestuous Mother

Emotionally incestuous relationships may appear close, healthy or even loving on a superficial level.  The child and her parent are close, and she feels special.  Her parent says things like, "I can't talk to anyone else about this," or, "You make me so happy."  That may seem sweet, but it is actually the parent putting an unfair responsibility on her child- implying that the child is responsible for the parent's emotions.

Emotional incest (also known as covert incest, psychic incest, parentification or parentalizing) can happen between parents and children of the same or opposite sex, or between siblings, or between other relatives, such as an uncle and niece.  For convenience sake, however, we will be focusing on mother/daughter emotional incest, although most cases of emotional incest are very similar in their dynamic.

When parents have marital problems, often one or both parents turn to their child (or children) to fill their emotional needs that should be met by their partner.  This can have devastating effects on the child.  She may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms in childhood and adulthood:

As a child, she may try to be perfect, then suddenly turn rebellious.



Poor relationship skills



A false sense of responsibility for the well-being of others, into her adulthood

These symptoms can be devastating, but the good news is they can be changed.  You do not have to live with this pain any longer! Y ou may not feel strong enough to break this pattern, but you can.

Creating new boundaries may seem intimidating, like something you shouldn't do out of guilt or some false sense of being completely responsible for your mother.  I encourage you to press on today.. do it even though you are afraid!  Your mental health depends on this!

You need to learn some simple, respectful statements that will help you set boundaries with your mother.  Some examples of this are:

"Mom, let's talk about something else."
"I don't want you to call me after nine at night or before nine in the morning, unless it's an emergency.  I need some time to myself."
"Please don't call me at work- call me at home instead."
"It hurts me when you talk about Dad like that."

Hopefully, these statements will help your mother realize her behavior needs to change.  They may not, however, and you may need to distance yourself some from her.  I am not suggesting severing all ties- only you will know if that is the right step for you to take- but I am suggesting not spending as much time with her as you once did.  Also, don't be as available to her.  Stop answering her calls every time she calls.  Take your time about returning her calls.  Don't get together as often.

Another thing that may help is to be positive.  Give your mother genuine complements to encourage her good behavior, or extend lunch invitations (only when you are truly feeling up to spending time with her, however!).  Do not show her that her words or actions bother you.  Maintain a good, calm attitude around her.  If she is also critical or manipulative, this will upset her- her usual criticisms or antics no longer affect you, so they are not as much fun for her anymore.  Change the subject when you feel uncomfortable, such as when Mom starts complaining about her marriage or talking about another inappropriate subject.

As painful as this experience may be with your mother, it will be worth it when you are no longer subject to her awkward and painful conversations.  You can do this!

On the road to recovery, I personally found my relationship with God to be my greatest help. He helped me to heal, and to learn ways to deal with my dysfunctional mother. Prayer and meditating on His word, the Bible, helped so much. Learning who the Bible says I am as a child of God is not only inspiring and comforting, but helpful in the healing process. If you do not have a personal relationship with God, please read the page Salvation Through Jesus Christ for more information.


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