Until recently, I didn’t know that emotional incest was a thing. But once I discovered its existence and its meaning, I realized that it tainted a childhood friend’s life in more ways than one. Growing up, I was very close with my brother, even despite our 4-year age difference. We played power rangers and Xbox together, kept one another’s secrets, and conjured up diabolical plans to trick our parents. He was and still is my best friend. This means that all of the people in his life also played a significant role in mine. One girl in particular, Mia, was just a light in our lives. She was always smiling and laughing—until she wasn’t. And we were quick to find out the cause behind the sudden change. It was her mom. Her mom was always bringing home random strangers that turned into deadbeat boyfriends. And when the inevitable transition took place, her mom always ran to her daughter. She cried in Mia’s lap, relied on Mia’s minimum wage job to support them, and expected Mia to cater to both of their needs and emotions at once—at the ripe age of 15.

Mia and her mother ended up moving at least five different times in the span of only a couple years, in pursuit of the different guys that continuously tore her mother apart. The emotional support that she sought from Mia proved to be draining and still affects Mia in a multitude of ways today: she now pursues deadbeat boyfriends of her own, has problems with addiction, and is ultimately unhappy with her life.

The Verdict

Mia experienced emotional incest first-hand, where the parent seeks emotional support—which should be pursued and fulfilled in an adult relationship—from their child. In these cases, the parent essentially becomes the child. This dynamic typically results in the child’s own needs and feelings being ignored or overshadowed by the parent’s. It can consequently lead to harmful long-term effects and developmental consequences for the children involved, like it did for Mia, as they are emotionally abandoned. Emotional incest may take root for a couple of reasons:

  • A marriage or relationship is crumbling.
  • There is an otherwise broken family dynamic (e.g., infidelity).
  • A parent is simply lonely.
  • A parent has mental health conditions.
  • A parent is dealing with addiction.

Parents who adopt this kind of relationship with their children do not typically realize the impact their behavior may have on them. Still, the hurt and the harmful effects are heavily endured.

The Aftermath of the Storm

These harmful effects that occur as a result of the emotional incest can vary from person to person. For example, this long-lived dynamic may make it more difficult for the child to set boundaries in his or her own relationships in the future. Or it may instead hinder their ability to be intimate in future relationships. Or, it may do both. The following are other possible effects of emotional incest on the victims:

  • Substance abuse
  • Feelings of guilt in other relationships
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Compulsivity around work, sex, food
  • Feelings of obligation to the parent

Road to Recovery

If your childhood was tainted by emotional incest, know that you’re not alone or without the possibility of healing. The following are treatment options, which can effectively help you recover:

  • Therapy: There are counselors that specialize in child abuse or codependency that can absolutely help you deal with your traumatic childhood and subsequent troubling emotions or actions.
  • Self-help meetings: If you object to seeing a counselor or therapy just doesn’t work for you, consider attending self-help meetings. But first, you should come to terms with the fact that you did suffer from emotional incest and are still affected by it today. Once you do so, self-help meetings can be a valuable tool and paint a clear road to recovery.
  • Psychoeducation: The key to recovery may simply be a better understanding of what happened to you and its subsequent effects. So do some research and educate yourself on emotional incest.
  • Journaling: Writing things down has proven to relieve stress, whether you’re simply overwhelmed by the day’s events or you experienced emotional incest as a child. So try writing down your experience with it, as well as how it makes you feel or how it affects you today. It may just provide some comfort or some relief.

Mia didn’t fully understand the harmful dynamic that was her relationship with her mom, nor did she understand the harrowing effects it would have on her well into the future. Today, she’s utilizing a combination of these treatment methods and working on becoming that bright light that was dimmed by the emotional incest she experienced. And I know she will soon shine again.

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