A child’s love for their parents is strong – but what happens when this natural bond is exploited by a parent unable or unwilling to set appropriate boundaries? Survivors of childhood emotional abuse should know about the impacts of covert incest.
A healthy emotional bond between a parent and child should be close and loving, with children able to rely on and trust their parents for emotional support. However, when the parent relies on the child to fulfill their emotional needs, then that closeness can become suffocating. The lack of appropriate boundaries in covert incest creates an emotional burden that lasts into adulthood, and can result in a variety of problems with intimacy and relationships.
What does ‘Covert Incest’ Mean?
Covert incest is a specific type of emotional abuse in which a parent relies on a child for emotional support, affirmation, and care that should be provided by a spouse. Unlike overt incest, covert incest does not involve physical touching, but instead is as non-physical sexual behaviour between two relatives. Covert incest can include behaviours like:
- Age-inappropriate sex talk from the parent to the child
- Inappropriate nicknames for a child such as boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, lover, etc.
- Constant demands from the parent for attention, security or emotional needs to be provided by the child
- Commenting on a child’s developing body, particularly in a sexualised manner
- Lack of privacy boundaries, such as engaging in sexual behaviour in front of a child or watching a child undress
With covert incest, the emotional boundaries between a parent and child are not blurred, but completely crossed. Children may feel “icky” and trapped as a parent consistently relies on them for the emotional support that should be given by an adult significant other.
In Her Own Words: A Survivor of Covert Incest
In a candid post published on The Mighty, contributor Monika Sudakov described her experience with covert incest:
“In my personal case, my parents were divorced by the time I was 3. My father was completely out of the picture and what emerged was a very unhealthy enmeshed relationship between my mother and I… Aside from feeling afraid to have any needs because I didn’t want to overwhelm my mother who was prone to fits of self-harming behavior and panic attacks, I squelched all of my negative emotions because I was always told, ‘don’t be mad at me’ or ‘don’t be sad because it makes me sad’…
“However, the worst aspect of this unhealthy relationship exhibited was that I was exposed to sex talk from a very young age. I knew all about sex by the age of 5 and was aware of every man my mom slept with, how the sex was and details thereof. As I got older, this boundary became even more blurred when it came to privacy. I was often told that she was entitled to look at me naked because I came out of her body, as if that ascribed some kind of ownership of my body to her… ”
What are Drivers of Covert Incest?
Parents who display such abnormal behaviour in their relationships with their children are clearly grappling with other issues. There are several factors that play into this damaging type of parentification of children, which include:
Breakdown or Absence of an Adult Relationship
Divorce, separation, or the lack of an emotional relationship with another adult may result in a parent inappropriately leaning on their child for emotional connection and affirmation. Often those who have experienced covert incest report this as being a precursor for emotional abuse.
Historical Issues with their Families
Adults who engage in covert incest may have experienced it themselves as children, and therefore expect such emotional entanglement as a “normal” part of a parent-child relationship. This is also known as “generational enmeshment.” Conversely, an adult who has had a distant, neglectful, or absent relationship with family may over-correct with their child, stepping over necessary boundaries and relying on that child to fill in gaps in their own life.
Underlying Personality Issues
Certain personality disorders, particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can predispose an adult to engaging in covert incest. This is due to the strong sense of personal entitlement that is part of NPD, making the adult feel as if it is perfectly acceptable to demand the complete emotional support and attention of their child. Additionally, individuals who are highly emotionally dependent may also be prone to covert incest.
All Grown Up, But Still Stuck: The Aftermath of Covert Incest
As children grow into adults, there may be less of an “icky” or “weird” feeling about the parent’s behaviour, and more of a feeling of being overburdened by it – this is where the sexual inappropriateness of covert incest transitions into more of a general enmeshment.
You might feel frustrated, over-involved, and totally obligated in your relationship with your parent. While distance, estrangement, or death may offer temporary relief on some level, the long-term impacts of covert incest on intimate adult relationships are significant.
Effects of Childhood Covert Incest on Adults
Covert incest that occurs during childhood or adolescence can lead to intimacy disorders, sexual addiction, relationship problems and emotional distancing. Trust and closeness issues can drive a fear of intimacy, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and overly responsible even early on in a relationship. Some prefer fleeting or even anonymous sexual encounters to the perceived “baggage” of a relationship.
Common feelings or issues among adult survivors of covert incest include:
- Anger or shame
- Guilt over leaving the parent
- Persistent feelings of insecurity or inadequacy
- Difficulty setting healthy boundaries
- Difficulties in engaging in appropriate behaviour with their own children
- Sexual dysfunction
Breaking Free: How to Heal
Healing from the effects of covert incest is absolutely possible, and is generally best done with professional support. An experienced therapist can help guide you through your past trauma, unravel its effects on your life and current relationships, and help you develop ways to break free from problematic thoughts or behaviours. With the right support, you can successfully rediscover yourself, learn how to set appropriate boundaries, and move forward in healthy, fulfilling relationships.
Healing Trauma and Learning to Thrive at The Dawn
At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand, we offer a specialised and extremely effective Trauma & PTSD Retreat Treatment Programme for individuals struggling with traumatic experiences, including the lasting effects of childhood trauma such as covert incest. We have a fully informed team of trauma specialists, led by internationally renowned addiction and trauma specialist David Smallwood.
A Highly Effective Holistic Treatment Approach
At The Dawn, we have designed our programme to include both psychological and physical components for truly holistic healing. Some key components of our programme include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT)
- Trauma reduction therapy (TRT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Trauma release exercises (TRE)
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
A Safe Haven: Trauma & PTSD Retreat in Thailand
Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai along the banks of the Ping River, The Dawn is an oasis of peace surrounded by picturesque rice fields and traditional Thai villages. Just an hour’s flight from the capital city of Bangkok, The Dawn is a world away from the stressors that contribute to your condition.
You’ll immediately feel comfortable and safe at The Dawn, which in turn enables you to focus completely on your recovery. Call us today to learn more about how we can help you heal and reclaim your life at The Dawn.