Speaker • Trainer • Consultant


Covert emotional incest is not easy to identify, define, or even accept.

It occurs when one or both parents objectify and use their child as a surrogate or substitute spouse, which, in turn, inappropriately sexualizes the child. Aspects of  childhood are denied as he/she  is forced to meet the emotional and romantic needs of the caregiver or parent.  The consequences of feeling “special” and “adult-like” negatively impact the child’s emotional development and functioning throughout their life.

I have found this dynamic to be commonplace among addicted and single parent families, as well as families where parents lack direct communication skills.

Due to its insidious and subversive nature, cultural reinforcement, and lack of professional attention, covert incest often goes undetected or minimized, and the price the child pays often goes unnoticed.

Covert emotional incest survivors have many of the same signs and symptoms* as overt/physical incest survivors.

Because of the similarity of the symptoms, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that overt/physical incest has occurred. It is imperative to consider covert emotional incest when interviewing, treating a client, or listening to a friend’s story.

Unlike overt/physical incest – where there is direct physical sexual contact from a trusted adult or caregiver – covert emotional incest is intangible and insidious. This leads to deep-seated feelings of confusion about what is actually happening and the words or context to put it in.

You’ll find more information in the Resources section of my website, under Covert Emotional Incest, or if you choose you may contact me directly.

Covert emotional incest survivors have many of the same signs and symptoms* as overt/physical incest survivors:

  • Depression, including suicidal/homicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Anxiety and related disorders such as obsessive/compulsive disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Dissociation: the splitting off or compartmentalizing of feelings, memories and/or parts of self
  • Addictions and eating disorders
  • Deep feelings of shame and guilt, especially around practicing self-care
  • Ambivalent feelings toward the offending parent
  • Feeling “special” and “adult-like,” both of which lead to a sense of not belonging
  • Difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy intimacy (both physical and emotional)
  • Inability to receive from others (i.e., love, loving and caring behaviors, etc.)
  • Being stuck in roles such as caretaker, fixer, mediator, victim, and rescuer

* Please note that the above list includes some of the symptoms of covert emotional incest but not all. In addition, please be aware that different people experience different combinations of symptoms.