How A Parent’s Inappropriate Emotional Behavior Could Be Hurting You

If you have a relationship with your parent that feels uncomfortable some of the time, causes you frustration, or is causing problems for you with your partner and children, you may be a victim of emotional incest. This article is about how to recognize and distinguish it from a normal relationship along with acknowledging the effects it may have had on you, and how to get help to cope with this situation.

Inappropriate Parental Behavior

Emotional incest is a dysfunctional emotional intimacy between a parent and their offspring. Another term for it is "surrogate spouse syndrome."

Unnatural intimacy would include:

  • Confiding in a child about relationship problems they are having with a spouse or partner.
  • Talking about emotional problems, or their sex life, or other adult subjects with a child.
  • Turning a daughter into a surrogate wife and mother when becoming a single parent.
  • Turning a son into a surrogate husband and father or "man of the house" when becoming a single parent.
  • Leaning too heavily on an adult child when they have other options.
  • Avoiding other relationships with other adults who are peers while treating child like a peer.

This is not to say that a child should not take on additional responsibilities when times are difficult. Children can sense when parents are struggling, and it can improve their self esteem and self reliance to help their families when there is a need.

However, the child should still feel secure in the knowledge that their parent is looking out for them protectively, and does not expect them to fix everything. A parent should not make a child into their special confidant on things they are not equipped to handle, or on things so personal that it makes the child or even an adult child feel uncomfortable.

The Effects on Children

A child may feel some pride to fill an adult role for a time, but continual pressure to do this can eventually cause you to feel as though you were robbed of childhood. Also, it is a form of abandonment, because while you are acting in an unnatural role, you aren't getting your own needs met. Since the boundaries have been crossed in your family of origin, you will have trouble setting meaningful and appropriate boundaries as adult.

You may:

  • Feel guilty about expressing your own needs or taking care of yourself.
  • Feel inadequate.
  • Have problems with substance abuse, issues with food, sex addiction.
  • Have avoidant traits.
  • Have problems with ever feeling truly relaxed.
  • Be either a workaholic or a chronic underachiever.

You could also have a problem with being somewhat passive-aggressive. You don't seem to know how to say no to requests, but then you don't carry things through to completion, you forget things, you are late to meetings or social events, or you don't put your heart into doing a requested task. These behaviors would naturally annoy and frustrate your spouse, children, coworkers, or friends.

Help To Overcome These Issues and Heal

A therapist, such as Headwaters Counseling, can help you to unravel the issues and tangled emotions you have. They can help you learn to set healthy boundaries with the parent and with others. You can learn to recognize your feelings of abandonment and how they impact your life as an adult. Finally, you can work towards learning to re-parent yourself and overcome codependence.