What is Emotional Incest Syndrome?

Forcing children to fill a role that is not appropriate for them is what many experts call the “emotional incest” syndrome.


Sometimes pressure is exerted on the figure of the children so that they meet the expectations and the unmet needs of the parents.. This is what some experts call the “emotional incest syndrome”. Let’s see what it is and why such a thing is harmful.

Know what emotional incest syndrome is

In most psychological theories, this phenomenon which bears the name of “emotional incest” is related to the blurring of boundaries between family members and changes in roles and functions. Here, many scholars warn that the word “incest” may be inappropriate. Indeed, very logically, the first idea that comes to mind when you hear this word concerns abuse or sexual relations between family members. However, in the syndrome which interests us, it is not linked to any of these situations.

However, it is important to note that the power is used in an asymmetrical bond and that the child concerned is obliged to “take sides”.

Some Features of Emotional Incest Syndrome

Parents hope to be able to benefit from the complicity of their child and put him in an uncomfortable position, having to choose between one or the other parent.

The error committed by one of the parents – or both – is related to seeking support from the children, inappropriately, which can give rise to different situations such as:

  • We expect a complicity from the children: in this way, the little ones are left between “a rock and a hard place” having to choose – even if indirectly – between one parent or another. Under the figure of confidants or best friends, the role of victims of these children is in reality concealed.
  • Parents socialize with them on topics that are irrelevant: there are some issues where intervention by children is not appropriate, either because of their age or because of their role. For example, it happens that intimate problems are revealed, whereas they should concern only the couple.
  • It is a form of child manipulation: in effect, they are used as messengers or spokespersons for a conversation which, in reality, should take place in the adult world. It also happens that children have only one version of the facts and may have the wrong or erroneous idea of ​​the other parent.
  • Children are often instrumentalized: they are given the responsibility of meeting the expectations and needs of the adult in question. So what appears to be a bond of interest, care and attention actually has another purpose.
  • The children live between the ambivalence and the frustration that nothing is enough”: it happens because, as logic suggests in these situations, they don’t get the results they expect.
  • We end up parentifying the children: it means that they are expected to play certain roles and take on certain responsibilities that are not appropriate for their age.

Circumstances favoring emotional incest

Very often, emotional incest can be facilitated or favored by certain circumstances such as:

  • Health problems in one of the spouses.
  • Difficulties in the couple, such as infidelities or communication failures.
  • mistreatment
  • A separation or a divorce.

Consequences of emotional incest

Any relationship where there are no clear boundaries compromises the well-being of those involved, and the home environment is no exception. Let’s see some of them:

It affects children’s ability to say no

It goes against their self-esteem, because they are caught in what they experience as a trap. Children often would like to set a limit but don’t know how to do it for he who asks for help is a significant figure. They feel a lot of guilt and turn against themselves by ignoring their own wants and needs. Even when they manage to impose themselves, the parent takes this as a betrayal and reports it to himwhich further increases the guilt.

When the child does not meet the expectations of the parent, the latter takes it as a betrayal and lets him know, which generates a feeling of guilt in the child.

Difficulties understanding and containing the situation

Very often, children do not have the necessary maturity and emotional development, not only to contain the situation but even to understand it.

Difficulties bonding with other people

In the future, this difficulty could also lead to barriers to bonding with other people. On the other hand, since these children learn that their needs are relegated to the background, they often tend to behave complacently. They are sometimes so disconnected from their own desires that they are unable to make decisions or think for themselves. This happens because they have always lived for someone else: their function is to make their father or mother happy.

The whole, more than the parts

Finally, beyond putting the magnifying glass on a particular relationship, we must avoid falling into a reductionist reading. Besides the people directly involved, this type of relationship is detrimental to the whole family.

For example, if, in this preferential bond, a child receives more attention than the rest of his brothers and sisters, this will generate conflicts between them. Thereby, the situation will bring up a whole range of emotions and feelings such as jealousy, hostility or hurt self-esteem from those who do not receive this attention, among others. Consequently, the “couple subsystem”, the “sibling subsystem” and the “parent-child system” are affected. In other words, a cascading effect occurs that alters and permeates all relationships.

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