What is emotional incest?
According to BPDFamily.com, emotional, or covert, incest is an overclose bond between a parent and a child without normal boundaries, but without sexual contact. Conversely, overt incest involves sexual contact.
Patricia Love, PhD defines emotional incest as “a style of parenting in which parents turn to their children, not to their partners, for emotional support. To the casual observer, the parents may appear loving and devoted. They may spend a great deal of time with their children and lavish them with praise and material gifts. But in the final analysis, their love is not a nurturing, giving love–it’s an unconscious ploy to satisfy their own unmet needs.”
The BPD factor: Parents with BPD tend to be emotionally immature, have poor boundaries, and think in black and white terms (child = good; spouse = bad). Non parents, faced with a spouse who through his or her disorder may not be functioning as an equal and satisfying partner, may also turn to a child for support. The resulting family situation is one that is at risk for emotional incest.
What are the characteristics of an emotionally incestuous parent-child bond?
- The parent is using the child extensively to satisfy needs that are beyond the child’s ability and role and that should be satisfied by other adults–intimacy, companionship, romantic stimulation, advice, problem solving, ego fulfillment, and/or emotional release.
- The parent is ignoring many of the child’s needs, e.g., for protection, nurturing, guidance, structure, affection, affirmation, or discipline. Instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child, the child is meeting the needs of the parent.
Many parents and children are close; closeness is often healthy and desirable. The key determinant of whether the parenting role has become invasive is that a healthy parent “takes care of a child’s needs [in an age-appropriate way] without making the child feel responsible for his/her needs.” Parents often slip into the “invasive” role without any intention to harm their children, but the impact is nonetheless harmful.
What are the effects of a parent’s reliance on a child?
According to Dr. Love, “Being a parent’s primary source of support is a heavy burden for young children. Forced to suppress their own needs, they struggle to satisfy the needs of the adults. Because of this role reversal, they are rarely given adequate protection, guidance, or discipline, and they are exposed to experiences well beyond their years. In adolescence and adulthood, they are likely to be plagued by one or more of the following difficulties: depression, chronic low-level anxiety, problems with self-esteem and love relationships, overly loose or rigid personal boundaries, some form of sexual dysfunction, eating disorders and drug or alcohol addiction.”
What about other family members?
Emotional incest affects all members of a family. Love provides a “role call”:
- The Invasive Parent–is enmeshed with a child in order to meet his/her needs that are not being met in an adult relationship
- The Chosen Child–is enmeshed with the invasive parent; often treated as “all good” and favored, but own needs to develop as an individual, to make mistakes and learn, to receive structure and discipline, etc. are actually neglected. Chosen children can also be treated as scapegoats, used “not just for emotional support but for the release of anger and tension.”
- The Left-Out Spouse–spouse of invasive parent, is often shut out of exclusive parent-child bond; may turn to workaholism, alcohol, affairs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with an unhappy life at home
- The Left-Out Child(ren)–a non-favored child, may be neglected or receive less of the family’s resources; may bond with the left out spouse
- Spouse of the Chosen Child–when the chosen child grows up and marries, his/her spouse may find him/herself engaged in a rather disturbing triangle with the chosen child and invasive parent
Where can I find out more?
See the Book Review for The Emotional Incest Syndrome, by Patricia Love, PhD on BPDFamily.com. Share your experiences by adding a comment.