Emotional incest, parentification, parentalization and covert incest are different names for the same type of behavior.  For simplicity sake, we will call this behavior emotional incest in this article.

Emotionally incestuous relationships may appear close, healthy or even loving on a superficial level. The child and parent are very close, and the child may feel special.  The 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 the child by implying that the child is responsible for the parent’s emotions.

Emotional incest 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.  Most cases are quite similar no matter what type of relationship it is. 

When parents have marital problems, sometimes 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.  The child may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms in childhood and adulthood:

 

  • The child may try to be perfect, then suddenly turn rebellious.
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor relationship skills
  • Addictions
  • Guilt
  • 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!  You may not feel strong enough to break this pattern, but you can.

Creating new boundaries may seem intimidating, like something you should not do out of guilt or some false sense of being completely responsible for your parent.  I understand, as I have been in that same position, but I encourage you to press on anyway!  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 parent.  Some examples of this are:

 

  • “Dad, let’s talk about something else.”
  • “Mom, 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/to spend with my family.”
  • “Please don’t call me at work – call me at home instead.”
  • “It hurts me when you talk about Mom/Dad like that.”

 

Hopefully, these statements will help your parent to realize that this behavior needs to change.  They may not, however, and you may need to distance yourself some from your parent.  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 your parent as you once did. 

Also, do not be as available.  Stop answering the phone every time your parent calls.  Take your time about returning  calls.  Do not get together as often.

Another thing that may help is to be positive.  Give your parent genuine complements to encourage the good behavior, or extend lunch invitations (only when you are truly feeling up to spending time with your parent, however!). 

Do not show that these words or actions bother you.  Maintain a good, calm attitude around your parent.  If she or he is also critical or manipulative, this will upset your parent.  When the usual criticisms or antics no longer affect you, they are not as much fun 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 it may be at first to make these changes, it will be worth it when you are no longer subject to awkward and painful conversations.  You can do this!

 

On the road to healing, I personally found my relationship with God to be my greatest help.  He helped me more than I can say. 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.