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The term covert incest (also known as emotional incest or psychic incest) is used by some mental health professionals to describe a relationship between parents and children that is sexualized and expects a child to fulfill adult emotional roles, though without actual incest. Proponents of the concept describe the relationships as harmful and one-sided, and similar to a relationship between adult sexual partners, but without the type of physical contact that would be considered child sexual abuse. Its effects are described as similar to, though less severe than, that of actual incest. The concept has been criticized as an overly broad set of criteria that excessively expands the definition of child sexual abuse.
Covert incest refers to a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact. Substance abuse is thought to be associated with covert incest. The effects of covert incest are thought to mimic actual incest though to a lesser degree, and Kenneth Adams, who originated the concept, describes the victims having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy.
Covert incest was defined in the 1980s as an emotionally abusive relationship between a parent (or stepparent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse, though it involves similar interpersonal dynamics as a relationship between sexual partners; it has also been described as a parent responding to a child's love with adult sexuality. Problems between parents often facilitate covert incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically and emotionally, one parent may begin focusing on his/her child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent. The abusing parent may also be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult. Alcoholism and other substance addictions are also associated with the occurrence of covert incest.
Covert incest occurs when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship with another adult and forces the emotional role of a spouse onto their child instead. The child's needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists solely to meet the needs of the parent and the adult may not be aware of the issues created by their actions.
Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes psychic incest as "unboundaried bonding" in which the parent or parents use the child as a mirror to support their needs, rather than mirroring the child in support of the child's emotional development. Woodman considers psychic incest to damage the internal experience of the "parental complexes," described in Jungian analysis as a combination of actual interaction with the parents and the innate mother and father archetypes; according to Woodman, when these are damaged due to covert incest, an affected individual can experience distress in their personal relationships and sexual relationships in particular.
Critics of covert incest have claimed that the concept dramatically loosens the definition of incest, making child abuse seem more prevalent than it actually is. The notion of covert incest also gives rise to an overly pure normative conception of parent-child relations in which the absence of such dynamics is held (perhaps inaccurately) to be the norm.