What Is Emotional Incest Syndrome?

Emotional incest syndrome has to do with an absence of boundaries and an alteration in the roles between parents and children. Learn more.
What Is Emotional Incest Syndrome?
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 17 November, 2022

Many times, pressure is placed on the children to meet their parents’ expectations and provide answers for their unsatisfied needs. This is what some experts call “emotional incest syndrome”. Let’s see what it is and why it’s harmful.

Emotional incest syndrome: What is it?

This phenomenon, which has been called emotional incest, according to most psychological theories, has to do with the confusion of boundaries between family members and changes in roles and functions. Hence, many specialists warn that the word “incest” may be inappropriate. Logically, the first idea that comes to mind has to do with abuse or sexual relations between family members. However, in this case, it’s not related to either of these situations.

However, it’s important to note that power is used in an asymmetrical bond and the child involved is made to “take sides”.

Some characteristics of emotional incest syndrome

A mother and her teenage son talking over coffee.
Parents expect their child’s complicity and put the child in an uncomfortable position of having to choose between one parent or the other.

The mistake made by one – or both – of the parents has to do with seeking support from their children in an inappropriate way, which can lead to different situations such as the following:

  • Complicity is expected from the children: Little ones are left between a “rock and a hard place”, having to choose – albeit indirectly – between one parent or the other. Under the guise of confidants or best friends, the children’s role as victims is actually concealed.
  • Socializing with them on issues that aren’t relevant: There are certain situations in which it’s not appropriate for children to intervene, either because of their age or their role. For example, many times, intimacy issues are revealed that should be reduced to the couple’s sphere.
  • It’s a form of manipulation of the children: This is because they’re used as messengers or spokespersons for a conversation that, in reality, should take place in the adult world. It also happens that the children have only one version of the facts and may get a wrong or mistaken idea of the other parent.
  • Children are often instrumentalized: That is, the responsibility is placed on them to meet the expectations and needs of the adult in question. So, what appears to be a bond of interest, care, and attention, in reality, has another objective.
  • Children live between ambivalence and frustration that“nothing is enough”: This happens because, as logic indicates in these situations, they don’t achieve the expected results.
  • The children end up becoming parentalized: This means that they’re expected to exercise certain roles and assume certain responsibilities that are inappropriate for their age.

Many times, emotional incest can be facilitated or propitiated by certain circumstances, such as the following:

  • Health problems of one of the spouses
  • Difficulties within the couple, such as infidelity or communication failures
  • Abuse
  • Separation or divorce

Consequences of emotional incest

Any relationship where there are no clear boundaries compromises the well-being of the people involved, and the family environment is no exception. Let’s look at some of them:

It affects children’s ability to say no

This goes against their self-respect, as they become involved in what they experience as a trap. Many times, children would like to set a certain limit, but they don’t know how to do it because the one who demands help is a significant figure in their life. They feel a lot of guilt and, then, they turn against themselves and overlook their own desires and needs. Even when they manage to assert themselves, the parent takes it as a betrayal and points it out, which further increases the guilt.

A father and his teenage son with their backs to one another, looking angry.
When the child doesn’t meet the parent’s expectations, the parent takes it as a betrayal and points it out, which produces a feeling of guilt in the child.

Difficulties to understand and contain the situation

Many times children don’t have the necessary maturity and emotional development, not only to contain the situation but even to understand it.

Problems bonding with other people

In the future, this difficulty could also lead to obstacles when bonding with other people. At the same time, as these children learn that their needs take a back seat, they often tend to behave in a complacent manner. Sometimes they’re so disconnected from their own desires that they’re unable to make decisions or think for themselves. This happens because they’ve always lived for someone else, so their role is to make their parent happy.

You may be interested in: Family Relationships After a Separation

The whole, more than the sum of its parts

Finally, besides focusing on a particular relationship, we must avoid falling into a reductionist perspective. In addition to the individuals directly involved, this type of relationship is detrimental to the whole family.

For example, if in this preferential bond, one child receives more attention than the rest of their siblings, this will generate conflicts between them. Consequently, the situation will give rise to a whole range of emotions and feelings that may be jealousy, hostility, or wounded self-esteem on the part of the one who doesn’t receive that attention, among others. Therefore, the “couple subsystem”, the “fraternal subsystem” and the “parent-child system” are affected. In other words, there’s a cascade effect that alters and permeates all relationships.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Momene, J., & Estevez, A. (2018). Los estilos de crianza parentales como predictores del apego adulto, de la dependencia emocional y del abuso psicológico en las relaciones de pareja adultas. Behavioral Psychology/Psicología Conductual26(2), 359-378.
  • Ramírez González, M. (2015). Maltrato emocional dentro del ámbito familiar y su relación en la autoestima de los niños.
  • Mertens, Y. L., Racioppi, A., Sheinbaum, T., Kwapil, T., & Barrantes-Vidal, N. (2021). Disociación y apego inseguro como mediadores de la relación entre abuso emocional infantil y rasgos paranoides en población no clínica. European Journal of Psychotraumatology12(1), 1888539.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.