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What Is Parent-Child Enmeshment and Covert Incest?

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

What is enmeshment?

  • Enmeshment is an umbrella term referring to a relationship dynamic where there is high emotional dependency and boundaries are blurred or non-existent. In parent-child enmeshed relationships, the parent typically exhibits a high degree of emotional dependency on the child, and the child feels obligated by guilt to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs.

What is covert incest?

  • Covert incest (also called emotional incest) is a kind of enmeshment that refers to situations where a parent treats their child as a surrogate husband or wife, asking them to meet emotional needs an adult partner should provide. Though there is no overt sexual touching between parent and child, the child feels trapped in a “too close for comfort” dynamic.

It’s common for children, especially during their teenage years, to want to “break free” from their parents and live independent lives. Teen characters in sitcoms encapsulate this normal developmental step by griping to their loving parents about feeling “smothered” or “held back” by them. Because these teens come from healthy family situations, they have the freedom to imagine — and eventually, explore — who they are outside of their family of origin.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for children who grew up in enmeshed or covertly incestuous relationships with one of their parents. For these folks, the word “smothered” isn’t just an angsty teen proclamation — it’s a frighteningly accurate description of what life is like on a day-to-day basis.

So what is enmeshment? And what is covert incest?

To answer these questions, we spoke to Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D., a certified sex addiction therapist who specializes in covert incest and enmeshment issues, and Margaret Rutherford, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who experienced enmeshment issues herself with her mother growing up.

Parent-child enmeshment refers to an unhealthy dynamic where a parent’s emotional needs for attention, security, a listening ear or “friendship” causes the parent to overstep appropriate parental boundaries. Adults who grew up in enmeshed relationships with their parents report high levels of loyalty to the parent, but also feel trapped by guilt and obligation to emotionally support their parent.

Dr. Adams told The Mighty in cases of covert incest, the enmeshment goes beyond blurred boundaries into a more violating dynamic that makes the child feel “icky.” Covert incest is when a parent treats their child as a surrogate romantic partner, expecting the child to meet deep emotional needs that should only be met by an adult significant other.

It’s important to note that unlike overt incest, covert incest does not involve sexual touching — although the resulting symptoms covert incest survivors display in adulthood are fairly similar to the ones overt incest survivors often display. With the help of Adams and Rutherford, we’ve broken down some of the “toxic” signs of parent-child covert incest.

Signs of Covert Incest

1. Taking a Child on “Dates”

Adams told The Mighty he’s had patients describe going on “dates” with their parent to see age-inappropriate movies or go to romantic dinners. Though it’s completely natural for a child to see a movie or go to dinner with a parent from time to time, these scenarios can cross into covert incest if, for example, a mother tells her son multiple times during dinner that she has the most handsome date there, or she insists on watching a romantic movie with adult content while holding her son’s hand the entire time.

2. Calling the Child Inappropriate Names

In covert incest, a parent might call their child inappropriate names typically only used when referring to an adult romantic partner. After a difficult divorce, a covertly incestuous father might tell his daughter something like, “Your mother left me, but you’ll always be loyal to me my sweet girlfriend, the love of my life.” Adams said other common inappropriate names may include, “boyfriend,” “husband,” “wife,” “sweet lover,” etc.

3. Engaging in Sexual Talk With a Child

A common feature in a lot of covert incest dynamics is the presence of age-inappropriate sexualized talk. For example, a covertly incestuous mother might talk to her child in great detail about her frustrating sex life with the child’s father. The child often feels unable to leave or stop the conversation due to the parent-child unequal power dynamic.

4. Commenting on a Child’s Physical Appearance or Developing Body

A covertly incestuous father might comment on his daughter’s developing body, making note of change in breast size or hips, for example. Though he doesn’t touch his daughter in a sexual way, making comments about how she has the “best body” of her friends, or that he would date her if he was her age can make the daughter feel uncomfortable and deeply insecure about her body.

What “Causes” Covert Incest?

If you read the above section wondering why a parent would engage in the behavior listed above, you’re not alone. Like many types of childhood emotional abuse, covert incest is complicated. Both Rutherford and Adams point to three primary “explanations” for why a parent might resort to covert incest to get their emotional needs met.

1. Disruption in the Marital Bond

Adams told The Mighty that one of the most common precursors to a parent’s covertly incestuous behavior is a breakdown in the marital bond — usually due to divorce or separation. He explained that when the marital bond is weak, a lonely parent might inappropriately exploit their child (who is often an endless source of adoration for the parent) for the emotional comfort they are no longer getting from their spouse.

2. Personality Issues

Personality issues like being highly emotionally dependent or “narcissistic” can contribute to covertly incestuous behavior, according to Adams.

When a parent is highly insecure, they may use the attention of their child to try to regulate their own inner emptiness or loneliness. “Narcissistic” parents may feel entitled to take what they need emotionally from their child, and may not view their actions as damaging at all. Rutherford said some parents view their child as an extension or reflection of themselves, so they may control how the child dresses, or what they say or do.

3. Generational Enmeshment or Covert Incest

A covertly incestuous parent may be replicating behavior they experienced in their own upbringing, or adopting behavior that has been passed down from generation to generation. Hearing a parent say something along the lines of, “You and I are going to be just as close as grandma and I were,” is a strong indicator of generational enmeshment.

4. The Parent Had a Distant Relationship With Their Own Family of Origin

Similar to generational enmeshment in the sense that a parent is responding to their own upbringing, a parent who had a neglectful or emotionally distant childhood may try to “overcorrect” by having a deeply intimate relationship with their own child.

“Maybe the parent had a terrible relationship with their own parent, causing them to yearn for a different kind of relationship with their child,” Rutherford told The Mighty. “[But] since they haven’t experienced what normal and healthy boundaries are, their own needs to be loved and attended to overwhelm the relationship.”

Impact of Covert Incest

Unsurprisingly, this type of childhood emotional abuse is enormously damaging to a child’s development. This is something Mighty contributor Monika Sudakov wrote about in her piece, “Covert Incest: The Type of Childhood Emotional Abuse We Don’t Talk About.” Her words may give you a better picture of what it really feels like to be trapped in covert incest as a child.

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… Even after I was married, my mother always asked about how our sex life was. Did we have “nookie nookie”? [She] seemed to live vicariously through me in an odd perverted way.

I’ve learned in therapy that all of this is not ‘normal.’ It’s not healthy. It’s destroyed my sense of self and has contributed along with my sexual abuse to my PTSD. What makes this type of abuse even harder to heal from is that it occurs within what should be the most sacred of relationships, that of parent and child. While there is still love there, there is also deep anger, regret, disgust and shame. 

Among feelings of anger and shame, common symptoms that can follow a survivor of covert incest into adulthood include:

  • Difficult or distant relationship with the other parent (i.e. the non-covertly incestuous parent)
  • Strong feelings of guilt for “leaving” or “abandoning” the covertly incestuous parent
  • Interpersonal difficulties, especially in romantic relationships
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Perpetual feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Difficulty with saying “no” and establishing healthy boundaries
  • Inappropriate behavior with their own children (generational enmeshment)
  • Identity struggles, becoming a person outside of the abusive parent

In addition to disrupting a child’s development, covert incest also disrupts a parent’s development. Rutherford told The Mighty parents who engage in this kind of emotionally abusive behavior often miss out on cultivating more appropriate, supportive relationships with peers, and working out conflicts with their co-parent, spouse or significant other. Adams echoed this sentiment as well. 

“[Parents] miss an opportunity to continue their own personal development by entrapping their sons or daughters,” Adams said. “They stop growing in their own adulthood. It’s not the kid’s responsibility to fulfill their loneliness, it’s their job to move into the world themselves and to find their own connections.”

In addition to disrupting their own identity development, a parent who depends so highly on their child for their emotional well-being will remain in a near-constant state of insecurity, fearing their child will abandon them (emotionally or geographically) at any moment. If the child does move away or focus on their growing their own identity, Rutherford said a parent may stay in a victimized place, not understanding how their child could view their “love” and “attention” as damaging. 

Adams has spoken with parents who feel entitled to their emotionally abusive behavior, and either don’t see or don’t care to see the damage they’re doing, as well as parents who want to change their behavior.

“I have parents who call me and say, ‘I’ve done this to my son or daughter, how do I stop?’” Adams told The Mighty. 

Adams has compassion for highly enmeshed parents who must come to terms with the grief that comes from “letting go” and allowing a child to grow up and become their own person.

“I think probably the biggest issue these parents face is the difficulty of letting go. The last job of parenting, in my opinion, before your child returns as a sort of peer, if you will, is to let go and grieve the loss,” Adams explained. “That’s the job of the parent. That’s not the job of the child to take care of the parent’s loss. And the parents need to be supported in their grieving and letting go.”

If you are reading this article recognizing behaviors you have engaged in with your child, don’t panic. Healing is possible for you and your child and there is help available. Adams offers workshops and free online resources for parents (as well as survivors). For more support, you can post on The Mighty with the hashtag, #CheckInWithMe to give and get support from an online community that cares.

Who Does Covert Incest Affect?

Covert incest can affect anyone, though Adams says that in his years of teaching workshops, the group he sees more frequently than any other is heterosexual men. He says this is because the women they are in relationships with are tired of being “second-fiddle” to their mothers and are the driving force behind a man seeking treatment.

Adams doesn’t believe heterosexual men are actually more affected by covert incest than other groups — but he does believe cultural expectations can keep women and homosexual men entrapped in covertly incestuous dynamics without even realizing it.

“The gay man is expected to take care of his mother culturally, and may be enmeshed with her,” Adams explained. “We see it with women and their mothers too. Women are expected to take care of their parents. They don’t always see it as a problem. So culturally those two groups can be reinforced more than the heterosexual man can.”

He said that while women don’t typically seek help for “covert incest” specifically, they can sneak in the proverbial treatment “backdoor” by seeking help for “caregiving burnout” or “codependency” issues — terms he says women tend to be more comfortable using.

If you have lived through parent-child enmeshment, covert incest or childhood abuse, you’re not alone. To give and get support 24/7 from people who really “get it,” post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. For more from The Mighty community, check out the following stories:

GettyImages photo via izumikobayashi

Originally published: July 1, 2019
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