mental health counselling sussex

What is Emotional Incest?


Many of us experienced dysfunctional households growing up, where boundaries between parents and adults were blurred in unhealthy ways. Emotional incest is not sexual, but it does describe harmful and neglectful emotional interactions that are psychologically inappropriate and damaging.

These harmful interactions can look like parents treating their children as equal partners, relying on them for emotional support and care. Here are some examples of what this could look like:

An Adult Asking a Child for Advice

When a parent turns to their child for advice about issues that are not age-appropriate such as marital issues, sexual problems, financial worries, this type of sharing can create anxiety for the child that they should not be worried about.

Using a Child to Ego Boost the Adult

Parents with narcissistic tendencies often look to their children for a much-needed ego boost. Unfortunately, with a parent’s ego taking priority, the child’s emotional needs are neglected.

Child as Best Friend

It is not appropriate for a child to be best friends with a parent. Likewise, a child should never be a trusted confidante to their parent; this is a damaging and inappropriate burden for a child.


Parents who turn to their children for solace and comfort during an emotional crisis will rob their children of learning age-appropriate socialisation. These children will, most likely, grow into adults who do not understand the nature of healthy relationships, seeking approval from others in unhealthy ways.

Potential Long-Term Effects

This type of emotional abuse is covert because while it’s not sexual, the outcomes of this family dynamic are often similar. Coping mechanisms and difficulties can develop in adulthood as a result of this type of neglect, including:

Trouble setting healthy boundaries
Eating disorders
Low self-esteem
Sexual intimacy issues
Substance abuse/addiction
Obsessive/compulsive issues

Healing from Emotional Incest

When a child grows up and leaves an unhealthy environment and dynamic, there may be lasting repercussions.

The good news is, through counselling, emotional incest can be healed, and those who have experienced it can move on to live an emotionally satisfying life.

If you believe you or a loved one is suffering from lingering effects of emotional incest, please reach out to me. I am seeing my clients in my office in Hove and globally online.

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