Many adult children of narcissistic parents treat their children more like partners than their children. These parents expect their children to take care of all of their emotional needs, but some also add in their physical needs (such as cooking or doing housework well beyond what they should be doing at their age) & even sexual needs. This phenomenon is known as emotional incest, parentalizing or parentification. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call it emotional incest in this article.
Narcissists often turn to their children for support rather than their partner for various reasons. Narcissistic supply can be one reason. People see the narcissist’s relationship with her child as very close, not realizing it’s actually very sick, & praise this “wonderful relationship” which provides narcissistic supply. Or, maybe the narcissist is simply unhappy with her spouse or single status, & since the child is convenient, she turns to her child with matters that should be discussed with her spouse or a close friend.
No matter the reason, emotional incest has a devastating effect on a child. The child subjected to this abusive behavior feels a tremendous amount of responsibility for the parent’s emotional state, as well as possibly also the parent’s physical or sexual needs too. This child grows up with a tremendously overdeveloped sense of responsibility not only for the abusive parent, but everyone in her life. This can lead to codependency, depression, anger, anxiety & more.
The child who is abused also feels guilty for growing up, leaving home & wanting to have her own life. When I was 19, I moved out of my parents’ home & my mother was livid. She made her disapproval painfully obvious, & even told me I’d never survive on my own.
Emotional incest also can lead to a child having very unhealthy romantic relationships as an adult. The child is taught from an early age that the parent’s needs come first, no matter what. A person married to an adult child of an emotionally incestuous environment is going to be a lower priority to that adult child than that child’s parents. Whatever the parent wants will be more important than the spouse. If the parent wants holidays spent together, that is what will happen even if the spouse doesn’t want to be a part of them. If the parent has a need (either real or imagined) on their adult child’s wedding anniversary, the adult child will deal with it rather than the anniversary.
If you are in this dysfunctional situation, then you need to break free of it! It won’t be easy but it will be possible.
As always, the first step should be prayer. Ask God to show you what to do to help break the cycle. And, ask Him to help you to have the strength & courage to do it.
Also, start changing the subject with your narcissistic parent. Both of my parents indulged in emotionally incestuous behavior for my entire life, until I ended the relationship with them, & the best way I found to end it was simple subject changes. Asking them about something else related to themselves worked best. Since narcissists enjoy talking about themselves more than any other topic, it makes sense that is their favorite subject change.
Sometimes subject changes don’t work & the narcissistic parent keeps changing the subject back to the topic. If at all possible, end the conversation. If you’re in their home or they are in yours, it can be challenging. Try to have a friend on call, so to speak. Have the phone number of someone you can trust ready so you can dial the number quickly & discreetly or take your phone with you to the bathroom if need be. Tell that person ahead of time that if you call their number & it only rings a couple of times & you hang up, that means they need to call you & say they need you to come to them immediately. Or, if you’re on the phone with your parent & want to end the conversation, ring your doorbell or knock on your door. You can then say, “The doorbell rang.. I have to go.” If you have a dog who barks when they hear the doorbell, this is an added bonus- your parent will hear the dog & know that your doorbell rang. You also can use your cell to call your house phone or vice versa & then you can tell your parent that the call waiting beeped & you need to go. Sneaky? Yes, but not dishonest. Your doorbell rang, your call waiting beeped & you do need to go!
I also learned that saying, “It hurts me when you talk to me about Mom/Dad like that” was a recipe for disaster. Not only did it not stop their behavior, since they knew it hurt me, they did it even more. This is typical of narcissists, so learn from my mistake- DO NOT ADMIT IT HURTS YOU!!!
Always remember, the problems your parent is telling you about are NOT your responsibility. You have no obligation to fix them. Tune your parent’s words out if it helps you.
Lastly, limit your contact as much as possible with your narcissistic parent. If you aren’t so available, they may feel forced to find someone else to listen to their woes & you need the reprieve.
Emotional incest is a very painful thing to deal with, but you can handle it!