The Trauma Recovery Institute

Covert Abuse and Emotional Incest Explained

The term Emotional Incest (also known as covert incest or psychic incest) describes a relationship between parents and children that is sexualized, without actual incest/sexual contact. The relationships are harmful and one-sided, and similar to a relationship between adult sexual partners but without the type of physical contact that would qualify it as child sexual abuse. The effects are similar to, though less severe, than that of actual incest. The definition of Emotional Incest has a broad set of criteria. Basically, Emotional Incest, is a covert incest, a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact. Often substance abuse, as seen through the alcoholic dependent needy dysfunctional parent for instance, is associated with covert incest. The effects of this covert incest somewhat mimic sexual incest but often to a lesser degree. The victims have been described as having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy
Emotional Incest started to be recognized about 25 or 30 years ago. It has primarily been defined by the few researchers and therapists who acknowledge it and work with it, as as an emotionally abusive relationship between a parent (or step-parent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse. It involves similar interpersonal dynamics much like the relationship between sexual partners. Particularly similar to ‘old time’ seasoned partners who have gotten comfortable with each other, marriages where sex is no longer the prime purpose in their lives, but the emotional support and bond is strong between the members of the relationship. Think of the couple that has been married for many years, sex has waned, or is non-existent, but they still rely on each other, and at times need each other, for support in their daily lives. An example, is that alcoholic mom who struggles with daily life and functioning, who is often put down by her spouse for being a drunk, so she pulls ‘jr’ aside, and talks to him, reminding him what a bastard dad is, but that only he (Jr) really understands her, and she can only go on living thanks to jr and jr being there for her! Now ‘jr’ is hooked, seduced emotionally into a power position without realizing it. Emotional Incest is a parent responding to a child’s love with adult sexuality and energy. Problems between parents often facilitate emotional incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically, sexually, and emotionally, one parent then begins focusing more and more 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. Alcohol and other substance addictions are often present in emotional incest
Emotional Incest rears up when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship, healthy or otherwise, 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 primarily to meet the needs of the parent. The adult usually is not aware of the issues and implications created by their actions, and justifies the relationship in a variety of ways. Emotional incest happens when parents fill their own inner emptiness by overly connecting with their child, bonding as equals and “buds”. A red flag is the parent who tells her daughter that they are like ‘sisters’ not like parent and child, they see this as a wonderful thing. Parents need to learn how to take responsibility for their own feelings so that their children do not feel this surreptitious maneuver. Mom’s hugs and attention to Jr. can be come weird after time. All young boys, reach a point where mom’s hug is ‘gross’ BUT that is normal child development. It’s when mom continues to hug and hug… and yup, hug some more with an odd energy that is felt by the kid, that starts to feel odd, but he can’t express what is wrong with it.
Early on, an affected individual can experience distress in their own personal friendships and relationships and later on, in sexual relationships. Mom’s often become jealous of the child’s friends, and makes the child feel guilty when he or she does not spend time with mom but goes off with the kids. Often, mom’s will have some very disparaging comments about the child’s friends, or make some comments after the friends are over, that makes it clear mom does not want the kids around. Then the choice is, “do I hang with my friends, or hurt my mom?” Tough call for many kids. And as pointed out later, there are perks staying with the parent, special privileges and rank in the family if there are other kids, that will occur by being loyal to mom. As my friend Valentin stated once, “support becomes a product”, i.e., “if you give me support, you will earn a tangible reward” which can range from use of the family car when older, to loans and outright dollar gifts. Covert power and control.
Emotional incest occurs when a parent sucks dry a child to fill their own inner emptiness that is really the parents responsibility to fill. The kid did not sign on as cruise directors AND therapist when they were born. Dad and Mom are supposed to give the kid energy. When a parent abandons himself or herself, gives up on the future in many ways, that parent latches on to the kid to fill the chasm that occurs from self-abandonment. While it might not be as traumatic as sexual incest, it occurs for the same reasons – a wounded parent using a child addictively to get love and avoid pain. Emotional incest parents often feel they are being good dads and moms when they spend time talking with their kids, they might follow them into their rooms at night and visit. But it becomes focused on the parent venting about their issues and the kid is getting nothing but tired! And drained.
A parent with a gaping inner hole that comes from inner abandonment cannot just stop the emotional incest without recognizing what is going on. They need help in finding healthy sources or resources to nurture and not put the weight of THEIR world onto the child’s little shoulders. Ironically, one of the perks for the kid, is that feeling that they are strong, they are powerful, they are good cuz they can and do hangle the problems of mom or dad. And dang, guess what? Many of them become … THERAPISTS, or social workers. They are the ones in the psych class who say they chose to become therapists and social workers, because they are good listeners and have been told how helpful they are by others. Certainly a parent can stop the overt actions, but to stop the energetic pull, they need to be doing their own inner work so they can learn to fill their own inner emptiness.
Covert Incest is a form of Trauma as the relationship with the parent is actually a threat rather than nurturing  
Trauma can be conceptualized as stemming from a failure of the natural physiological activation and hormonal secretions to organize an effective response to threat. Rather than producing a successful fight or flight response the organism becomes immobilized. Probably the best animal model for this phenomenon is that of ‘inescapable shock,” in which creatures are tortured without being unable to do anything to affect the outcome of events. The resulting failure to fight or flight, that is, the physical immobilization (the freeze response), becomes a conditioned behavioral response.
In his book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, Allen Schore has outlined in exquisite detail the psychobiology of early childhood development involving maturation of orbitofrontal and limbic structures based on reciprocal experiences with the caregiver. Dysfunctional associations in this dyadic relationship result in permanent physicochemical and anatomical changes, which have implications for personality development as well as for a wide variety of clinical manifestations. An intimate relationship may exist, with negative child/care giver interaction leading to a state of persisting hypertonicity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems that may profoundly affect the arousal state of the developing child. Sustained hyperarousal in these children may markedly affect behavioral and characterological development.
Many traumatized children and adults, confronted with chronically overwhelming emotions, lose their capacity to use emotions as guides for effective action. They often do not recognize what they are feeling and fail to mount an appropriate response. This phenomenon is called alexithymia, an inability to identify the meaning of physical sensations and muscle activation. Failure to recognize what is going on causes them to be out of touch with their needs, and, as a consequence, they are unable to take care of them. This inability to correctly identify sensations, emotions, and physical states often extends itself to having difficulty appreciating the emotional states and needs of those around them. Unable to gauge and modulate their own internal states they habitually collapse in the face of threat, or lash out in response to minor irritations. Dissociation and/or Futility become the hallmark of daily life.
We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean, the ins and outs of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day. The elusiveness of emotions and feelings is probably . . . an indication of how we cover to the presentation of our bodies, how much mental imagery masks the reality of the body” – Damasio
Trauma Treatment
Effective treatment needs to involve (1) learning to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing the capacity for interoception, (2) learning to modulate arousal, and (3) learning that after confrontation with physical helplessness it is essential to engage in taking effective action. Introception is the process of embodied mindfulness, and in neuroscientific terms it is becoming aware of visceral afferent information (bodily sensations)
Being traumatized is continuing to organize your life as if the trauma was still going on unchanged and every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past. After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system, a survivor’s energy now becomes about suppressing inner chaos at the expense of spontaneous involvement in life. These attempts to maintain control of these unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole a range of physical symptoms such as autoimmune diseases, this is why it is important in trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind and brain. Deactivation of the left hemisphere of the brain has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words. Without sequencing we cannot identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions or create coherent plans for the future.
When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the trauma were happening in the present but because their left brain may not be working very well, they may not be aware that they are re-experiencing and reenacting the past, they are just furious, terrified, enraged, shamed or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it, for their behaviour, they may say,
I acted this way because you looked at me like that or because you were late”. This is called being stuck in fight or flight.
In trauma recovery where the left hemisphere is activated through speaking of the traumatic past and making sense of what happened within a safe environment, the left brain can talk the right brain out of reacting by saying that was then and this is now. This can only happen when safety is establish through attunement with a therapist where the amygdala is down regulated, this can often take some time for traumatized people as the amygdala tends to stay in a heightened state of arousal ready for fight or flight even years after then traumatic event or experience. Even the slightest detection of a threat can cause extreme arousal of this system. Minor stimuli will illicit major responses.
This is why it is important to engage the left and right-brain in trauma recovery, whilst body based interventions are absolutely imperative and ofcourse right brain to right brain affect reglation is critical for rewiring the nervous system contributing to long term character change and critical for trauma recovery, these interventions may be undermined should they exclude left-brain based activities. Body based interventions such as dance; massage and yoga are a fantastic adjunct to psychodynamic psychotherapy. Lazar’s study lends support to the notion that treatment of traumatic stress may need to include becoming mindful: that is, learning to become a careful observer of the ebb and flow of internal experience, and noticing whatever thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and impulses emerge. In order to deal with the past, it is helpful for traumatized people to learn to activate their capacity for introspection and develop a deep curiosity about their internal experience. This is necessary in order to identify their physical sensations and to translate their emotions and sensations into communicable language—understandable, most of all, to themselves.
Traumatized individuals need to learn that it is safe to have feelings and sensations. If they learn to attend to inner experience they will become aware that bodily experience never remains static. Unlike at the moment of a trauma, when everything seems to freeze in time, physical sensations and emotions are in a constant state of flux. They need to learn to tell the difference between a sensation and an emotion (How do you know you are angry/afraid? Where do you feel that in your body? Do you notice any impulses in your body to move in some way right now?). Once they realize that their internal sensations continuously shift and change, particularly if they learn to develop a certain degree of control over their physiological states by breathing, and movement, they will viscerally discover that remembering the past does not inevitably result in overwhelming emotions.
After having been traumatized people often lose the effective use of fight or flight defenses and respond to perceived threat with immobilization. Attention to inner experience can help them to reorient themselves to the present by learning to attend to non-traumatic stimuli. This can open them up to attending to new, non-traumatic experiences and learning from them, rather than reliving the past over and over again, without modification by subsequent information. Once they learn to reorient themselves to the present they can experiment with reactivating their lost capacities to physically defend and protect themselves.
Working with Trauma & Dissociation through right brain affect regulation at Trauma Recovery Institute
Trauma Recovery Institute offers unparalleled services and treatment approach through unique individual and group psychotherapy. We specialise in long-term relational trauma recovery, sexual trauma recovery and early childhood trauma recovery. We also offer specialized group psychotherapy for psychotherapists and psychotherapy students, People struggling with addictions and substance abuse, sexual abuse survivors and people looking to function in life at a higher level. Trauma recovery Institute offers a very safe supportive space for deep relational work with highly skilled and experienced psychotherapists accredited with Irish Group Psychotherapy Society (IGPS), which holds the highest accreditation standard in Europe. Trauma Recovery Institute uses a highly structured psychotherapeutic approach called Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP).
At Trauma Recovery Institute we address three of the core Attachment Styles, their origin’s the way they reveal themselves in relationships, and methods for transforming attachment hurt into healing. We use the latest discoveries in Neuroscience which enhances our capacity for deepening intimacy. The foundation for establishing healthy relationships relies on developing secure attachment skills, thus increasing your sensitivity for contingency and relational attunement. According to Allan Schore, the regulatory function of the brain is experience-dependent and he says that, as an infant, our Mother is our whole environment. In our relational trauma recovery approach you will learn to understand how the early patterns of implicit memory – which is pre-verbal, sub-psychological, and non-conceptual – build pathways in our brain that affect our attachment styles. Clinically, we can shift such ingrained associative patterns in our established neural network by bringing in new and different “lived” experiences in the Here and Now.
The Role of the Therapist in transforming attachment trauma: Healing into wholeness takes the active participation of at least one other brain, mind, and body to repair past injuries – and that can be accomplished through a one-to-one therapeutic relationship, a therapeutic group relationship or one that is intimate and loving. In exploring the “age and stage” development of the right hemisphere and prefrontal cortex in childhood, we discover how the presence of a loving caregiver can stimulate certain hormones, which will help support our growing capacity for social engagement and pleasure in all of our relationships. Brain integration leads to connection and love throughout our entire life span. At trauma recovery institute we bring a deep focus to the role of Neuroscience in restoring the brain’s natural attunement to Secure Attachment. Our brain is a social brain – it is primed for connection, not isolation, and its innate quality of plasticity gives it the ability to re-establish, reveal and expand one’s intrinsic healthy attachment system.

Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) at Trauma Recovery Institute Dublin

Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is a highly structured, once to twice weekly-modified psychodynamic treatment based on the psychoanalytic model of object relations. This approach is also informed by the latest in neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. As with traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy relationship takes a central role within the treatment and the exploration of internal relational dyads. Our approach differs in that also central to the treatment is the focus on the transference and countertransference, an awareness of shifting bodily states in the present moment and a focus on the client’s external relationships, emotional life and lifestyle.
Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is an integrative treatment approach for working with complex trauma, borderline personality organization and dissociation. This treatment approach attempts to address the root causes of trauma-based presentations and fragmentation, seeking to help the client heal early experiences of abandonment, neglect, trauma, and attachment loss, that otherwise tend to play out repetitively and cyclically throughout the lifespan in relationship struggles, illness and addictions. Clients enter a highly structured treatment plan, which is created by client and therapist in the contract setting stage. The Treatment plan is contracted for a fixed period of time and at least one individual or group session weekly.


“Talk therapy alone is not enough to address deep rooted trauma that may be stuck in the body, we need also to engage the body in the therapeutic process and engage ourselves as clients and therapists to a complex interrelational therapeutic dyad, right brain to right brain, limbic system to limbic system in order to address and explore trauma that persists in our bodies as adults and influences our adult relationships, thinking and behaviour.”


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