This is a discussion recorded on BlogTalkRadio in 2013 that discusses a largely ignored form of child abuse: emotional incest. “Parentification” and emotional incest is a common theme in many dysfunctional homes. It often begins when a mother, who is supposed to be the caretaker of her child, reverses the roles and makes the child responsible for her emotional needs. It is a subtle and often overlooked form of child abuse.
A women divorces after many years of marriage. Realizing she is now without another adult in the home, she turns to her 12 year old son and says, “You’re all I have now.”
In another scenario, a father prepares to go on a business trip. Just before hopping a cab to the airport, he looks at his 7-year old boy and says, “You’re the man of the house while I am away. Take care of your mother.”
In still another home, a 15-year old boy’s mother spends a lot of time telling him she is unhappy with his father; that she is always lonely and left to care for everything on her own. She is so thankful for her son, her “secret confidant.” He feels important does what he can to make her feel better. He also learns to hate his father.
Counseling with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
Want to Say Goodbye to Crazy? Buy it HERE.
Good show! Sorry I didn’t catch it live. Good insight into a subject that is of great concern to me. I don’t think my wife does it intentionally but my S7 has been groomed to be her perfect little man since he was born. I really want to resist the princess label for our young daughters but my wife does that to them too. Dressing up in princess clothes? What happened to the day when kids dressed as doctors, nurses, firefighters etc?
Very powerful show and I need to work very hard on not being complicit in this pathological behavior.
Very interesting program, thanks Dr. T. I have a question though. As kids get older and you have them shoulder more responsibility, where is the line between that and parentification?
Have been reading these posts for a couple years, come here to find a little strength when the BS gets especially bad. So my first comment needs to be – Thank you. After reading a piece and thinking that it could have been lifted out of my own life, it’s amazing and also comforting to then read the comments and see how many other men are feeling the same way.
I haven’t had opportunity to listen to the emotional incest show yet, but after reading the intro posting, I knew this was where I would join the conversation. Wife of 15 years is BPD (my diagnosis). The 15 years part is proof enough that I have my own problems – conflict-averse, appeaser… strong/healthy enough to take a lot of abuse before cracking, and weak/sick enough to take a lot of abuse before cracking. I spent the first ten years of our marriage in a state of shock and disbelief, trying to understand what what happening between us. Parenting two great kids (B12, G9), a thought-heavy job, and a naturally sunny disposition contributed to me missing or misunderstanding the patterns for a long time. I gradually came to the realization that this is an abusive relationship, and spent the next five years swinging between attempts to assert my humanity and dignity, and attempts to make her happy. Not much success to report on either front, although I am slowly building up the mental health that had been eroding unnoticed for years. The last couple of years have been a constant struggle with the looming reality that our marriage is poisonous to me, and that our relationship is doing emotional damage to the kids. Have given long thought to divorce, of course, and engaged a couple of lawyers briefly to understand my options. [True story: first one sent the bill to the house after my careful instructions not to – oy!] The truth is that I am so scared by the thought of losing contact with (or the love of) my kids that I haven’t been able to take any action. I know what I need to do, and I know that I share a lot of the blame for the damage that is being done, just for staying in the marriage – friend and family familiar with the situation all quietly advise getting out and fighting for as much custody as I can get. But the short post here on emotional incest may be the final straw. I see this emerging in her behavior towards both kids, and in their responses to her. She is getting all her needs for “intimacy” met through the kids – in quotes since I don’t think what I call intimacy is what she actually needs or is capable of getting from a child. She sleeps with them and cuddles them and baby talks to them (they “regress” to meet her in this, but it seems clear they do it more to make Mom happy than out of a sense of fun or having their own needs met). Meanwhile, we’ve not had sex for three years. Worse, she won’t extend any physical sign of affection toward me – a touch, a hug, a kiss. I can masturbate (oh boy) but I can’t give myself affection, and the lack of it is killing me. Seeing her use the kids to get her emotional needs met, while having my own needs ignored is the worst – I end up feeling jealous of them, and that feeling is awful in ways that I haven’t yet been able to express in words. I happened to see my wife reach out and pat our 12-yo boy on his bare butt and stroke his sides while he was getting out of the tub, and the mixture of anger and disgust that hit me almost made me puke. I don’t think this is sexual abuse in any usual sense, but “emotional incest” comes as close to the mark as anything I’ve ever thought or read.
I know the kids are smart and aware enough to sense the toxic feelings that are swirling around every day – and I don’t want to keep on feeding that brew. I picked my name here to reflect the path that I know I should be walking.
Great show, thanks Dr T. Could you plese recommend me a good book or article about infantilization?
Doug Hart says
Can I recommend a book on borderlines? “One entitled I hate you please don’t leave me.”
Thanks. Is it written for borderlines or their victims?