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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

Is It Possible to Be "Too Close" to Your Parent or Child?

The understanding and healing of Covert Emotional Incest.

“Your mother does not understand me the way you do.” “You are such a good listener.” “I cannot talk to your father this way.” "Come here and give me a big hug." "You sure are developing well, aren't you?"

  • Did you grow up feeling responsible to meet your parent(s) needs?
  • Did your parent(s) hug too tight or for too long?
  • Have you ever felt you had to choose between your parent and your spouse or significant other?
  • Did your parent(s) comment about your body too much?

If you said YES to any of the above, you may be a victim of Covert Emotional Incest (CEI).

What Is Covert Emotional Incest?

CEI is an elusive form of sexual abuse that occurs in the family system without there necessarily being direct genital contact. It is incestuous due to the undercurrent of sexual energy between a parent/caregiver and a child. It is characterized by the following: (a) triangulation; (b) breach of the intergenerational boundary; (c) surrogate, substitute spouse or confidant role; (d) objectification.

The Family Is a System

The family operates as a system, with each person playing an interactive role and impacting one another. Systems strive to reach and maintain a state of balance. Marital problems, addictions, chronic medical/mental health issues, and being a single parent, are stressors that can throw the system off balance. CEI often occurs when, instead of reaching out for help, the family relies on itself in adapting to these stressors. In this state, its balance is precarious.

  1. Triangulation occurs when the major caregivers, not possessing the skills necessary to negotiate with each other directly, use their child as an intermediary and/or confidant.
  2. The Intergenerational boundary is the flexible, invisible structure or energy field that defines the power differential between the parent/caregiver and child. It dictates the natural and logical consequences of behaviors and determines the appropriate interaction with the child on both spoken and unspoken levels. When there is a breach of this boundary, the child ends up meeting the needs of the parent/caregiver instead of the parent/caregiver meeting the needs of the child.
  3. The surrogate, substitute spouse, or confidant role is the inappropriate role where the child is expected to, and attempts to, meet the parent/caregiver’s emotional and/or romantic needs. This is a sexual role, communicating sexual energy, whether there is physical sex happening or not.
  4. Objectification is when a child is used, not having his/her feelings or needs considered. It may also include the child being an instrument of the parent/caregiver’s sexual pleasure. (sexual objectification)

Client example
Ann Marie, a 36-year-old woman seeking treatment for difficulties in healthy romantic relationships, shares the story of how, at seven years of age, her mother placed her in the substitute spouse role. “Often, when I was sleeping, my mother would enter my bed after a fight with my father. My mother would cry to me about the argument, complaining that my father did not want to have sex with her. She asked me for help in solving these problems as well as her loneliness.” This highly sexualized emotional and verbal material burdened Ann Marie while at the same lead her to feel special and chosen for an important job. The conflict between feeling special, chosen and burdened is so often the case for survivors of Covert Emotional Incest.

How do you heal from CEI?

The five key elements of healing are:

  1. Awareness and asking for help: Acknowledge that CEI is real and hurtful. If you are the parent, this awareness hopefully moves you toward accountability, examining and changing your behaviors to benefit yourself and your child. No matter what role you are in, I strongly recommend asking for help from a mental health professional who knows about CEI. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. You have a right to get this kind of help!
  2. Boundaries: Setting and enforcing limits proclaims your territory, allowing you the space to be you and to feel safe enough so your body is calm.
  3. Spirituality: Cultivating your spiritual life relieves you of the core emptiness caused by the surrogate spouse role. Sharon Wegsheider Cruse defines spirituality as “a zest for life.” When and where do you feel a zest for life? If you aren’t sure, go find out. If you already know, make sure you are in that time and place as much as humanly possible. By this definition, even an atheist can have a spiritual life!
  4. Sensuality and Sexuality: Sensuality is the perception of sensations resulting from something that happens to or comes in contact with our body. Experiment with different non-sexual, non-genital sensations, finding out what you like and don’t like while staying present in your body. Once you have mastered that, you may want to tackle the sexual or genital sensations. Of course, doing this in a safe environment is key.
  5. Forgiveness is a process of feeling, understanding, and letting go that is a gift to one’s self. This process requires you to:
  • Identify, label and express your feelings in a safe and effective manner.
  • Acknowledge the feelings, breathe deeply and slowly, ride their wave and let them pass.
  • Decide somewhere in the process to let go of unrealistic expectations and not languish in the feelings when they come up, because they will. It is natural.


Adams, K. (2011, 1st edition 1991). Silently seduced: When parents make children their partners. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.

Lees, Bank A. (2012) The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide. Tucson, Az. Createspace.

Wegscheider-Cruse, S. (1987). Choice-Making: For co-dependents, adult children, and spirituality seekers. Deerfield Beach, FL.: Health Communications Inc.

About the Author
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, is a counselor, speaker, author, and consultant, providing fresh perspective on traumatic stress, addiction treatment and recovery.