The Trauma Recovery Institute

Covert Incest & Enmeshment Recovery at The Trauma Recovery Institute

Covert incest occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion, and preoccupation. The parent, motivated by the loneliness and emptiness created by a chronically troubled marriage or relationship, makes the child a surrogate partner. The boundary between caring and incestuous love is crossed when the child exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than the child.


When we are abused in families, we learn to protect ourselves with ego defenses.

We repress our feelings; we deny what’s going on; we displace our rage onto our lovers, spouses or our friends;

we create illusions of love and connectedness; we idealize and minimize;

we dissociate so that we no longer feel anything at all; we turn numb.

– John Bradshaw


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



Complex Trauma, Covert Incest, Proximal Abandonment and Enmeshment Treatment at The Trauma Recovery Institute.


Traumatic life experiences often contribute to learned habits of movement and posture that reflect the self-protective movement patterns associated with those threats. Many of these trauma-related movement patterns affect the way that we move, sit and stand. They may lead to patterns of movement and posture that are abnormal and they may inhibit our normal coordination and our learning of other desirable motor skills.Self-protective movement and postural patterns of the experienced trauma are stored in the brain and the body’s survival memory. These learned dysfunctional patterns persist because they are, in a metaphorical sense, necessary for defense against future threats similar to those that elicited the defense in the first place. If traumatic memories are implanted in the brain, internal cues (such as dreams, imagined scenarios, and memories) as well as sensory information from the external environment will evoke motor, autonomic, somatic, and visceral responses to a perceived threat. This process is almost entirely unconscious and occurs typically before any conscious recognition or awareness. Using the term ‘psychological’ as opposed to ‘physical’ to explain a physical symptom or somatic feeling state or emotional event defies the obvious – that all perceptions, thoughts, symbols, or experiences have a physiological basis within the mind / body continuum.


Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy

is grounded in models such as affect regulation theory, an interpersonal neurobiological model of emotional and social development from early human beginnings and across the lifespan, attachment research, polyvagal theory, traumatology and interpersonal neurobiology. Drawing upon these various scientific and clinical disciplines, our trauma recovery work describes how the structure and function of the right mind and brain are indelibly shaped by experiences, especially those embedded in emotional relationships, and how communicating right brains align and synchronize their neural activities with other right brains. These experiences of interpersonal synchrony are a central focus of Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy. At The Trauma Recovery Institute we attempt to get to the root of your life challenging symptoms, discomfort, illness and maladaptive behaviours. This is not another talk therapy, although talking is certainly a part of psychotherapy, it is not the central feature of focus, talking in this context is about communicating body awareness, building therapeutic alliance, challenging internal object relations, investigating transferences etc. We offer a broad multi-disciplined, somatic orientated, polyvagal informed right brain to right brain approach to treating trauma. We also specialise in personality disorders & complex trauma. Our approach brings focus on the brain, body, mind, diet, lifestyle, relationships and most importantly the nervous system of which traumatic experiences have greatly shaped thus priming a predisposition of subsequent adversity.  The definition of a traumatic experience is an experience or experiences that overwhlem our capacity to cope. Trauma effects all areas of the brain and all bodily systems often manifesting as cancer, IBS and a host of other chronic illnesses and pain syndromes which can not be otherwise explained.


At The Trauma Recovery Institute We Endeavour
  • to co-create an interpersonally synchronized right brain-to-right brain emotional dialogue beneath the words with clients
  • to empathically receive the client’s rapid implicit (unconscious) nonverbal communications in synchronized mutual regressions
  • to sensitively monitor very slight changes in the other’s emotional expressions
  • to intuitively track physiological variations in the patient’s emotional prosody, facial expressions, and gestures
  • to interoceptively read one’s own physiological autonomic responses to the client’s emotional communications
  • to transiently shift from the verbal left into the nonverbal right brain and the deeper core of the personality
  • to co-create a relational context of implicit safety and trust with the client
  • to be able to work with strong, traumatic affect and relational trauma, typically found in personality and psychiatric disorders
  • to engage in stressful dyadic transference-countertransference and rupture and repair transactions
  • to be intuitively aware of one’s own spontaneous bodily-based subjective and intersubjective experience
  • to offer well-timed interventions and interpretations that can impact the client’s unconscious levels
  • to interactively regulate the patient’s dysregulated affective states, across a spectrum of psychopathologies.
At The Trauma Recovery Institute We Focus

on how to work more directly and effectively with bodily-based emotions, unconscious affect and transference – countertransference within the therapeutic relationship, especially in “heightened affective moments” of the session. Attention is also placed upon working with the defenses of right brain dissociation and left brain repression that blot out strong emotions from consciousness. This central focus on right (and not left) brain affect regulation in the co-created psychotherapy relationship shifts the clinical focus from a reasoned, coherent cognitive narrative to a spontaneous emotion-laden conversation. In this manner the clinical emphasis moves from objective cognitive insight to the subjective change mechanisms embedded in the emotional attachment bond of the therapeutic relationship itself. Trauma Recovery is a complex pursuit and due to trauma and neglect’s impact on all bodily systems, any approach to address the presenting symptoms will be an oversimplified model, therefore we must approach trauma with a multidisciplinary approach on top of cultivating presence and establishing a strong therapeutic alliance with our clients. Modules of treatments such as SE, EMDR, Neurofeedback etc may be helpful adjuncts but they are way too simplified to be effective treatment for trauma, complex trauma and the presenting symptoms of trauma and neglect. The right brain implicit self represents the biological substrate of the human unconscious mind and is intimately involved in the processing of bodily based affective information associated with various motivational states. The survival functions of the right hemisphere, the lo- cus of the emotional brain, are dominant in relational contexts at all stages of the lifespan, including the intimate context of psychotherapy. The central focus of the psychotherapeutic encounter is to appreciate the client’s motivation, we need to discern the emotional experience he or she seeks. At times, the goal sought will be self- evident to client and [therapist]. At other times, the goal will lie out of awareness and will be difficult to ascertain. The golden thread in assessing motivation lies in discovering the affect being sought in conjunction with the behavior being investigated. In other words, understanding the need underpinning the behaviour, the corrective emotional experience so to speak. The right hemisphere is dominant for the recognition of emotions, the expression of spontaneous and intense emotions, and the nonverbal communication of emotions. The central role of this hemisphere in survival functions is that the right hemisphere operates a distributed network for rapid responding to danger and other urgent problems. It preferentially processes environ- mental challenge, stress and pain and manages self-protective responses such as avoidance and escape. Emotionality is thus the right brain’s “red phone,” compelling the mind to handle urgent matters without delay. Neurobiological studies also demonstrate that the right cortical hemisphere is centrally involved in “the processing of self-images, at least when self-images are not consciously perceived. Deep psychotherapeutic changes alter not only conscious but unconscious self-image associated with nonconscious internal working models of attachment. Both unconscious negative emotions and unconscious self-images are important elements of the psychotherapy process, especially with the more severe self pathologies. Thus, the essential roles of the right brain in the unconscious processing of emotional stimuli and in emotional communication are directly relevant to recent clinical models of an affective unconscious and a relational unconscious, whereby one unconscious mind communicates with another unconscious mind such at that with the therapeutic alliance.


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 therapists and clients to a complex interrelational therapeutic dyad addressing transference – countertransferential modes of communication, rupture and repair, right brain to right brain, limbic system to limbic system, in order to address and explore trauma that persists in our bodies as adults which can present as complex reenactments inside and outside of therapy and influences our adult relationships, thinking and behaviour.” – The Trauma Recovery Institute


There is much confusion regarding talk therapy which I would like to offer some clarification on. Many trauma researchers including myself over a number of years have suggested that talk therapy does not work or talk therapy is not enough to address the trauma because the trauma is often stored in the body. There has been a host of fantastic published work showing that in-fact trauma is stored in the body. It is also well documented and I concur from my many years in clinical practise that recalling traumatic events and sharing the story of the trauma offers very little relief of trauma symptoms. Having said that any therapy that offers trauma treatment without talking certainly will not address trauma either and will most likely be an extraordinarly over simplified treatment or may infect be retraumatising particularly if involving touch.The body must come into the therapy but talk must be present too. The origins of talk therapy come from freud’s talking cure therapy of free association. Freud was less interested in the unpredicictibility of emotions and instead relied on the thoughts of his patients. Allowing patients to simply talk in order to relieve symptoms. There are other forms of talk therapy that are more modern such as grief counselling and other forms of counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. In any trauma informed psychotherapeutic treatment of trauma there will indeed be talking but it does not take centre stage, it is just one part of the therapeutic alliance and one part of top down modality in a multidisciplinary approach. Trauma is very complex and an effective treatment model must be as broad as possible and multidisciplinary.

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