Covert incest

Covert incest (also known as emotional incest) is a style of parenting in which a parent looks to their child for the emotional support that would be normally provided by another adult.[1] The effects of covert incest on a child when they become adults are thought to mimic actual incest, although to a lesser degree.[2] This term describes interactions between a parent and child that are exclusive of sexual abuse.[1]


Covert incest was defined in the 1980s[3] as an emotionally abusive[4] relationship between a parent (or stepparent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse, though it involves similar interpersonal dynamics as a relationship between sexual partners.[3][5][6] Covert incest occurs when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship with another adult and forces the emotional role of a spouse onto their child instead.[4] The child's needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists solely to meet the needs of the parent[1][7] and the adult may not be aware of the issues created by their actions.[8]

Problems between parents often facilitate covert incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically and emotionally, one parent may begin focusing on their child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent.[9]

The effects of covert incest are thought to mimic actual incest though to a lesser degree,[2] and Kenneth Adams, who originated the concept, describes the victims as having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy.[10]

Emotional incest from either parent is devastating to the child's ability to be able to set boundaries and take care of getting their own needs met when they become an adult. This type of abuse, when inflicted by the opposite sex parent, can have a devastating effect on the adult/child's relationship with his/her own sexuality and gender, and their ability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult.[1]

Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes covert incest as "unboundaried bonding" in which the parent or parents use the child as a mirror to support their needs, rather than mirroring the child in support of the child's emotional development.[11] Woodman considers emotional incest to damage the internal experience of the "parental complexes," described in Jungian analysis as a combination of actual interaction with the parents and the innate mother and father archetypes; according to Woodman, when these are damaged due to covert incest, an affected individual can experience distress in their personal relationships and sexual relationships in particular.[12]

Contributing factors

Emotional incest is more prevalent in households with substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness.

An abusing parent may be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult.[4]

Alcoholism and other substance addictions are also associated with the occurrence of covert incest.[13][14]


Critics of the concept of covert incest have claimed that the concept dramatically loosens the definition of incest, making child abuse seem more prevalent than it actually is.[7][15][16]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Johnson, R. Skip. "Was Part of Your Childhood Deprived by Emotional Incest?". Retrieved June 10, 2014.
  2. 1 2 Herman, JL; Hirschman L (2000). Father-daughter incest. Harvard University Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-674-00270-9.
  3. 1 2 Jacobson M (2001). "Child sexual abuse and the multidisciplinary team approach: contradictions in practice". Childhood. 8 (2): 231. doi:10.1177/0907568201008002006.
  4. 1 2 3 Friel DL & Friel JC (1988). Adult children: the secrets of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications. ISBN 0-932194-53-2.
  5. Love PG (1991). The Emotional Incest Syndrome : What to do When a Parent's Love Rules Your Life. London: Bantam. ISBN 0-553-35275-X.
  6. Woititz, JG (1993). The Intimacy Struggle. HCI. p. 61. ISBN 1-55874-277-8.
  7. 1 2 Pendergrast, Mark (1996). Victims of memory: sex abuse accusations and shattered lives. Hinesburg, Vt: Upper Access. ISBN 0-942679-18-0. Retrieved 2008-04-17.
  8. Gartner RB (1999). Betrayed as boys: psychodynamic treatment of sexually abused men. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-644-0. Retrieved 2008-04-17.
  9. Morgan A & Adams K (2007). When He's Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment. New York: Fireside. ISBN 0-7432-9138-7.
  10. Adams K (1991). Silently Seduced : When Parents Make their Children Partners - Understanding Covert Incest. HCI. ISBN 1-55874-131-3. Retrieved 2008-04-14.
  11. Woodman, Marion (1993). Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Inner City Books. p. 139. ISBN 0-919123-59-7.
  12. Woodman, Marion (1992). Leaving My Father's House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity. Shambhala,. p. 207. ISBN 0-87773-578-6.
  13. Potter-Efron, RT; Potter-Efron PS (1990). Aggression, Family Violence, and Chemical Dependency. Haworth Press. pp. 133–135. ISBN 0-86656-964-2.
  14. Barnard, CP (1990). Families With an Alcoholic Member: The Invisible Patient. Human Sciences Press. p. 139. ISBN 0-89885-479-2.
  15. Bjorklund, David F. (2000). False-memory creation in children and adults: theory, research, and implications. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum. ISBN 0-8058-3169-X.
  16. Kaminer, Wendy (1993). I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional: the recovery movement and other self-help fashions. New York: Vintage Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-679-74585-8.
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