Emotional Incest - an overview - Part 1

Sobriety Navigator: Emotional Incest – an overview – Part 1

People generally think of incest as being only sexual. It never occurs to most people that violating the emotional boundaries of children is just as toxic to their well-being. Allow me to explain. This violation impedes the natural developmental process of creating autonomy. In most cases this violation will evoke discomfort and contempt for their parents, even though they are unsure why. All they know is that it feels “yucky”. Time and time again, you can hear adults talk about how they were ruled by their parent’s fears, doubts, values, prejudices and anger. Quite often the realization of the emotional enmeshment will not surface and become clear until they, themselves are confronted with an emotional crisis. This crisis can take the form of substance abuse, relationship problems, depression or uncontrollable acts of rage

A great responsibility is placed on parents when they bring a child into this world. Not only must they provide food, shelter, clothing, education and opportunity, but they are also responsibly for raising reasonably healthy, independent, well balanced children. No one gets a perfect life, but for parents who have not fully developed themselves (and suffer from arrested development) this responsibility can be overwhelming. Narcissistic parents often objectify their children and see them only as objects, pawns or tools to use and abuse.  These self-centered adults may even see themselves as victims who are imposed upon by this “needy thing”.  They resent what they perceive as violations of their time, energy, thoughts and resources. The narcissist parent values a child only by how they can best be of service and use. Children placed in these no win situations will develop a pattern of placing themselves in similar situations throughout their lives.    

Another problem parent will place their child in the role of confidant, and share inappropriate thoughts and feelings with the child.   This is also a form of emotional incest. These adults are displaying their inability to create and maintain intimacy with their peers. Parents know that they have power over the child and can easily exploit the relationship.  This behavior can even create a role reversal, where the child and parent essentially switch emotional positions. 

Children are a convenient captive audience. Just as a child would reach out for a security blanket or teddy bear for comfort, an exploitive adult may reach out for the child in a similar fashion. An example of this dynamic of role reversal was described by a woman in recovery who shared her personal story.  Every day at the same time her mother would seek her out, place her on her lap, and begin to rock back and forth.  She was trying to calm herself because her abusive husband would soon return home. This woman, as a child, was objectified and used by her mother for comfort and safety. When placed in that position, she would become overwhelmed and engulfed in fear and anger. The only defense mechanism she had was to disassociate or “tune out”. Now middle aged and after a life of pain, disappointment, and confusion, she made a conscience decision to reclaim her life. Her main objective at this particular time in her recovery was to uncover her childhood memories and objectively deal with the emotional trauma her parents had created. 

Another woman described how her mother prided herself on being able to walk into a room and cause dissension. This incestuous mother was also a crisis junkie.  When she needed her fix, she would intentionally agitate and badger her alcoholic husband until she triggered his rage. Instinctively knowing when she had pushed him over the threshold, she would seek out her daughter and begin to hold and rock her, bracing herself for the rage and violence that she had guaranteed was coming. After the violence had erupted and the environment had become still, this emotionally incestuous mother would sit and cry like a child and throw herself around, proclaiming her victimhood. There were four innocent children in the house who had to endure the dissention she had created and now were forced to nurture and comfort her and agree with her that she was a victim.  Once again, role reversal caused emotional confusion and pain.

By Cynthia Peterson                                                                                     



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