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How Emotional Incest Affects Relationships

Emotional incest is a form of emotional abuse that occurs when a parent or primary caregiver treats their child as a partner, relying on them for emotional support in the same way they would a peer or romantic partner. This inappropriate dynamic robs a child of their innocence and often leads to anxiety and depression in both childhood and young adulthood. The child is exposed to an overwhelming amount of inappropriate information at a time when their brain isn't fully developed, resulting in an unhealthy bond between parent and child.


Young adults who are actively dating may not be aware that they experienced emotional abuse in their childhood, but their partners might notice signs during in-depth conversations about their past. If you observe any of the following signs, it's important to talk to your partner and explore their childhood experiences:

  • Oversharing: If your partner mentions that they were exposed to inappropriate issues as a child, this could be a red flag.

  • Emotional Dependency: Do your partner's parents rely on them for emotional support? Does your partner feel responsible for their parents’ mental health?

  • Monopolizing Behavior: Do your partner’s parents dominate their life? Does your partner describe their parents as their best friends or feel compelled to neglect their own friends due to parental manipulation or guilt?

  • Responsibility for Parents’ Well-being: Does your partner prioritize their parents' needs over their own?


Children of emotional incest often grow up with parents who vent to them at a very young, inappropriate age about their problems at work, their relationship with the other parent, or unresolved personal issues. These parents expect emotional support from their children, which is detrimental to the child’s emotional development.


Most parents strive to protect their child's emotional health, but parents involved in emotional incest fail to respect appropriate emotional boundaries. Several factors contribute to this behavior, including:

  • Lack of Emotional Support: Single parents or those who are divorced may seek comfort in their children when they lack adult friendships.

  • Lack of Trust: Parents who distrust others may turn to their children for emotional security and support.

  • Emotional Immaturity: Parents who grew up in abusive or chaotic environments may cling to their children for emotional safety.

  • Mental Health Disorders: Parents with poor mental health may not recognize inappropriate boundaries. Those struggling with depression or anxiety might overlook the impact of their actions on their children.


Dating someone who is a victim of emotional incest can be challenging. They may struggle with insecurity due to their parent's constant needs and insecurity. Emotional incest survivors often put their feelings second to their parents', leading to confusion about their own emotions. They may also struggle with independence and social anxiety. Growing up focused on calming a parent’s emotional needs can result in low self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction as an adult.


However, there is hope for survivors of emotional incest to have healthy relationships. Here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Talk with a Counselor: Therapy can help you understand how being a child of emotionally incestuous parents has impacted your life. You can learn to identify your feelings, cope with them, and explore who you are without the burden of your parents’ emotional needs.

  • Practice Setting Boundaries: Learning to prioritize yourself and establish firm boundaries can protect you from taking on others’ unresolved feelings. Enforcing these boundaries with your parents or caregivers may be challenging, as they might view your healthy actions as betrayal or disrespect.

  • Seek Group Therapy: Group therapy allows you to see appropriate and inappropriate parenting styles, helping you understand your experiences compared to others who may have had similar or healthier upbringings.


Growing up with parents who don't respect your boundaries or protect your childhood can be overwhelming, but it doesn't have to dictate your future. By confronting the issue directly and stopping the cycle of excuses for your parents' behavior, you can become a catalyst for family healing.


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