Covert or emotional incest is a form of emotional abuse in which parents rely on their child to meet their emotional needs, the way they would an adult partner. The term was coined by Kenneth M Adams in the 1980s and is closely related to enmeshment, an area of Adams’ expertise.
In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report Adams explains the difference between enmeshment and covert incest, with enmeshment manifesting in the family system, where there is excessive dependency and lack of boundaries. The family unit is prioritized over the self, so separating one’s identity from the family is seen as disloyalty.
In contrast, covert incest is a specific instance of the enmeshed family systems, where the natural love between parent and child is exploited. With covert incest, the parent struggles to let go of their position as the child’s first love and make the child a surrogate partner. This is reflected in inappropriate demands, remarks, boundary crossing, and feelings from the parent. The impact of the dynamic can be traumatic and cause commitment and intimacy difficulties for the child, later in life.
However, there is a notable lack of empirical research on the topic. It was only in 2021 that the first research study was released on the development, reliability, and validity of a scale to measure covert incest in childhood. Based in the earlier work of Adams and Love, this scale, The Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS) was developed by researchers Elif Çimşir and Ramazan Akdoğan at Anadolu University in Turkey.
Adams points to practical difficulties in conducting research on the topic. There is a lack of agreement among psychologists on criteria for covert incest, especially when considered cross culturally. Also, it is hard to find participants in any study of the topic as many feel shame and are reluctant to discuss their experiences. Also, ethical challenges in the field make research hard, including mandatory reporting requirements in many jurisdictions.
Similarly, Çimşir explains that negative connotations around the word ‘incest’ may lead potential study participants to experience strong emotional reactions. Further, they may confuse covert incest with overt incest, with the former not involving explicit sexual contact. And scholars may assume that scales measuring familiar concepts such as child neglect, parentification, and adultification, are sufficient to capture covert incest.
Çimşir and Akdoğan found that covert incest was much more common than expected. They discovered, in a sample of Turkish college students, that 30% were subjected to moderate levels, and 10% severe levels of covert incest in childhood.
They also found that many of the participants had never come across such questions before and were appreciative of the efforts to develop the scale. Despite the study concealing the name of the phenomenon, the questions sparked interest and curiosity among participants.
Still, research so far is limited and there are areas that can be explored, for example, the application of the Childhood Emotional Incest Scale across cultures to see how replicable the findings of Çimşir and Akdoğan are.
Over 30 years after the term covert incest was coined, perhaps research can now take a closer look.
-Autumn Bakhsh-Livingston, Contributing Writer