5 Signs You May Have Suffered From Childhood Emotional Incest, According To Experts

A parent can be too close to their child.

Mother being daughters best friend elenavagengeim | Canva

Parents want to love and care for their children and provide the best in the world. Yet, a parent can get too close to their child emotionally. This is when the child becomes the emotional support system for their parent in a reversal of roles. This role reversal does long-term damage to the emotional development of the child.

Here are 5 signs you may have suffered childhood emotional incest, according to YourTango experts:

1. You have insecure attachment

One of the sad repercussions of emotional incest is insecure attachment style in the child's adult relationships. They may reveal too much or too little to a partner, too clingy, or, conversely, flee intimacy. Emotional incest in childhood often blunts the ability to set healthy boundaries on relationship equality. Victims may both crave and fear vulnerability because they were never allowed to be children and worry someone will take advantage of their vulnerability the way their parent(s) did.


Dr. Gloria Brame, Therapist and Author


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2. You are your parent's primary emotional confidant

When an adult child and parent develop a friendship, the line between healthy friendship and emotional incest is drawn by the presence of appropriate boundaries and mutual respect for each other's independence. In a healthy relationship, you need:

  • Mutual Support: The parent and adult child provide emotional support to each other without over-reliance or excessive emotional burden.
  • Boundaries: Each respects the other's need for privacy and personal space, and boundaries are clear and respected.
  • Independence: The adult child is encouraged and able to maintain their relationships and make independent decisions without feeling obligated to prioritize the parent's emotional needs.

In contrast, emotional incest occurs when the parent treats the adult child as a primary emotional confidant in a way that is overwhelming or inappropriate, hindering the adult child's ability to form mature relationships.

Erika Jordan, Dating Coach / NLP Practitioner


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3. You dissociate or self-blame

Object relations theorist Ronald Fairbairn explained how the attachment processes in severely abused children necessitate the use of dissociation to preserve the good deified parental object. This strategy is crucial to the abused child’s survival. The unbearable betrayal of abuse and rejection must be walled off and denied.

Consequently, the child blames themself to preserve the parent as good and humane. The child believes their badness is responsible for the caregiver’s cruelty. This offer false hope necessary for survival.


Rev. Sheri Heller, Therapist, and Author

4. You feel guilty for feeling good

Parents who treat their child as their major source of love and support and who chronically present themselves as helpless and fragile. They stunt their children, who grow up thinking it is not OK to take care of themselves and advocate for themselves in the world. The children often feel guilty if something good happens to them.

Aline Zoldbrod, Boston-based psychologist and author

Child emotionally supports parent Altanaka via Shutterstock


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5. You won't show any independence from family

I know one guy whose family calls the shots on him for everything. They tell him where to work, and what to eat, and make a point to tell him he's not allowed to live away from them. Sounds fine, until you hear that he's 40 years old and not 18. I'm convinced that this kind of "failure to launch" is a sign emotional abuse and emotional incest is happening.

Ossiana Tepfenhart, writer

Parents strive to the best of their ability to provide for their children, and many parents struggle to satisfy their children's needs. Parents can feel the drain of this struggle and need outside support. Some parents will turn to their children for that emotional support. When this becomes a habit, the child is parentified, and put in the position of a spouse, the effects will resonate throughout all the future relationships of the child.


The parent's emotional needs are important, but it is not the child's responsibility or ability to provide that type of support for their parent.

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Will Curtis is a writer and editor for YourTango. He's been featured on the Good Men Project and taught English abroad for ten years.