Emotional Incest

“She was very controlling, very manipulative. She ruled like a dictator…When I got to high school and learned about [Hitler], I thought, Oh my God, he must be related to my mother.” (1)

Sexual abuse of children is a popular and entertaining topic for many people, but physical abuse is more deadly and emotional abuse is much more frequent. Daughters are particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse by their mothers, and some victims report that the effects of their mother’s emotional abuse were worse than the sexual abuse they also suffered. An old saying in some cultures is: You only have one mother, thank God!

Although sexual abuse is commonly called a “violation” of boundaries, that choice of words is a rhetorical attempt to justify moral blame and legal punishment. In sexual or emotional incest, a more accurate label is confusion of boundaries since the parent doesn’t recognize that the child has a separate mind and may normally have different preferences that contradict the parent’s preferences. The emotionally abusive parent reacts to a child’s different preference as if it is a self-contradiction within the parent’s own mind.

Respecting boundaries means knowing where your territory ends and another person’s territory begins. Ethically, you need the other person’s permission to cross into her territory, and the other person needs your permission to cross into your territory. Some abusive parents don’t merely ignore a child’s boundaries, they deny that the child’s boundaries exist at all.

Ideally, every individual should be free to choose her own boundaries as long as they don’t impinge on another person’s boundaries. Other people may offer suggestions on boundary choice, and may suggest that some boundaries may be rigid while other boundaries may be fluid; but if another person says: “You must choose this boundary for yourself” or “Certain boundaries must be rigid or must be fluid,” we may strongly suspect that the other person dictating such rules has some selfish political, economic, or ideological motive for saying that. Each individual should be free to choose her own boundaries, as well as being free to choose if her chosen boundaries are rigid or fluid.

Abusive parents mistakenly see the child’s dependency as a negation of the child’s unique and independent identity. The dependent child is seen as no more separate from the parent than the parent’s hand or foot. Such parents confuse descendance or resemblance with identity. In reality, even in very close proximity or with the umbilical cord still attached, a child has a separate brain and a unique genetic program. An emotionally abusive parent acts as if the child is a reincarnation of her own youth, conveniently ignoring that this new child has different genes and the new child’s brain is developing in a different environment. Or the parent denies that such differences are significant or relevant.

The classic expression of emotional incest is the jealousy parents feel for their child and their consequent attempt to have exclusive power over a child’s every choice, thought, word and deed. I have argued that the classic problem of jealousy is not inevitable but rather a result of the relatively modern, monogamous “nuclear” family. In an ideal polyamorous family children never learn to be jealous because they don’t see models of jealousy in their home, and they aren’t isolated from other children and adults. Unfortunately, jealousy is clearly rampant today in the tiny nuclear family.

The belief that jealousy is supposedly inevitable has become ingrained in modern Western culture. An elementary lesson every young teacher must learn is to keep proper “distance” between himself and his pupils. Nowadays we think of the risk of accusations of sex abuse, but the policy of proper distance existed long before the contemporary mass hysteria over child sex abuse. One thing a modern parent can’t stand is a child coming home and going on and on about how great her teacher is and how she can’t wait to be with her beloved teacher again tomorrow.

In fairness the average parent hasn’t studied child development and isn’t dedicating her life full-time to making children’s lives richer and happier. Most parents spend the majority of their time earning a living and trying to deal with many other immediate problems they have inherited or created or stumbled into. So unfavorable comparisons between a mediocre parent and a good teacher are quite unwelcome at home. Parents are much happier if a child has no special feelings for her teacher, or even better if a child wishes her teacher could be more like dear old mom.

Grandparents and other relatives are in the same position as teachers. From a parent’s point of view, it’s not fair that the parent has to pay all the boring expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, and medicine, and then some free-wheeling aunt or uncle or idle grandparent comes along and offers to buy the kids toys or take the kids to the circus. One generous grandparent who offered to buy a gift for a child was told by the frustrated parent: Give me the money and I’ll buy it.

I was teaching in a girls’ school in 1990 when the mass hysteria over child sex abuse spread from the U.S. to continental Europe. In the beginning I thought it was funny that any parent would suspect a teacher of wanting to molest his students. In my case I was more likely to strangle the teenage girls in my class than make love to them. But the abstract threat of sexual “stranger danger” is convenient for parents. Any threats that exist outside the home are a perfect excuse to keep kids inside the home and away from any competitors for a child’s admiration and affection. Abusive parents conveniently ignore the statistics that clearly show the vast majority of child deaths and serious injuries are caused by parents rather than strangers. The mass hysteria over stranger danger is merely an excuse to justify isolating children and cover-up a parent’s real, selfish fear: losing exclusive authority and control over her little captive audience.

Isolating children to indulge a parent’s jealousy is a form of emotional abuse that is common and widely accepted nowadays, but it is no less damaging or reprehensible than sexual abuse or neglect. Under the guise of “protecting” children from the risk of spoiling or bad influences, such parents are themselves a bad influence on children. In the U.S. the exaggerated risk of stranger danger has become so popular that parents themselves are being arrested for letting children outdoors unsupervised, and a movement has arisen – Free Range Kids to combat the hysteria.

Human beings are social animals, so isolation is extremely painful for a growing child and is usually just the tip of the iceberg.  Parents most likely to emotionally abuse their child are the ones who have no adult partner and need a child’s company and “loyalty” to ward-off the parent’s own loneliness. Such parents either have low self-esteem and feel insecure and dread rejection, or they have an unrealistic opinion of their own expertise in supervising the child’s education, character development and social skills. The emotionally abusive parent thinks she is a jack-of-all-trades who doesn’t need any “outside interference” in her child’s life. In other words, a child is typically isolated by the worst possible parent.

In some cases a single parent isolates the child and then neglects her. I have witnessed a child make a comment and her parent simply doesn’t respond. After a reasonable pause the child makes a follow-up comment, and the parent doesn’t respond again. It may be that a parent is so incompetent she doesn’t know how to respond and doesn’t have enough self-esteem to say “I don’t know” or “I’m too exhausted to talk right now.” Or it may be that the parent doesn’t really want to be with the child, so by not responding in effect the parent isn’t there. The child is left wondering if she is hopelessly boring or completely worthless. That is a kind of emotional abuse just as bad as helicopter parenting.

Jealousy, forced isolation and neglect are certainly the most common expressions of emotional abuse today, but there are other ways that parents emotionally abuse children. A parent may actively shame a child’s sexual curiosity and natural lack of inhibition, or a parent may passively neglect to answer a child’s sexual questions and thereby model the parent’s own toxic shame. Regardless of the parent’s motivations, the effect in both cases is likely to be the child’s mental castration and eventual sexual dysfunction. A division of labor is useful in parenting as in most other kinds of work, and a parent should be competent in the kind of work she has to do. If a mother was mentally castrated by her parents when she was a little girl and is now sexually dysfunctional, she should not be supervising her own children’s sex education or anybody else’s.

Before a parent appoints herself supervisor of her child’s sex education the parent should ask herself: When she was a child did she enjoy the benefit of accurate, balanced, and comprehensive sex education, or was her sexual development neglected? Was she allowed to fondle herself whenever she wanted or was she made to feel guilty about her natural genital sensations? Does she still experience normal and healthy clitoral erections as every little girl does, or is her body now silent? A responsible parent feels overjoyed by her child’s healthy genital function, not jealous and resentful.

In reality child development is not an exact science, so in theory parents should be free to raise children as they see fit and vary from current fashions of political correctness if they prefer. However, ideally all children should learn that they too are free and may communicate with anyone about anything, including and especially if they disagree with their parent’s opinions and wish to protest their parents’ behavior. Not as an opportunity for government authorities to impose politically correct preferences on parents, but as an opportunity for parents to dialogue with other adults in the community and receive constructive feedback.

Traditionally, women play the role of the weak, innocent, childlike saint who can do no wrong and is always above suspicion. So whenever a mother does something clearly wrong it’s easier to blame the husband, father, brother or some other male. Some victims of child sex abuse confide to their therapists that they initially accused their father of being the perpetrator, when in reality it was the mother.

Some emotionally abusive mothers are not blameworthy, because they are deeply disturbed. Another daughter/victim described her mother this way: “She would call me from phone booths when I was a child to say that she had slit her wrist and that she was at a phone booth, that she was about to bleed to death.” (Ibid). In such cases serious psychiatric intervention is called for. I focus responsibility on the mothers who are otherwise fairly normal, not basket cases, although there may be many more deeply disturbed mothers out there who avoid detection because of the traditional parental privilege of isolating children and terrorizing their children into silence.

Selling treatment for sexual or emotional abuse is a big business, even though there is no evidence that any such treatment method is safe or effective by medical standards. Some therapists exploit confused victims of abuse by hiding the lack of evidence, while claiming that just as the child is helpless and not responsible for the abuse, so is the therapist helpless and not responsible for the cure. The victim/patient must “take responsibility for her own recovery.” Nonetheless, if any abuse victim refuses to experiment by trying unproven treatment, it’s a sign of weakness and lack of courage!

Rather than waste time and money on ineffective and possibly dangerous quacks and charlatans treating abuse after-the-fact, I suggest that parents and especially mothers should try to prevent emotional incest by allowing children their own identity and providing even very young children with the freedom to develop their own personality and preferences. Children today have to face a world of information that is very different from the world parents grew up in.


  1. Quoted in Beverly A. Ogilvie’s “Mother-Daughter Incest.” (Haworth Press, 2004.) Although I don’t doubt that some mothers do sexually abuse their daughters, and this book is purportedly about sexual abuse, almost all of the abuse described in the book is clearly emotional, not sexual.

About Frank Adamo

Author of the novel "Revolt of the Children," the eBook "Real Child Safety", a photo-documentary "Girl Becomes Woman," and a video for kids "Buddy Massage." I do not defend, promote or excuse any kind of abuse or exploitation. Become a part of the Foundation for Research and Education on Child Safety. www.FRECS.org
This entry was posted in child sexual abuse, children, parenting, sex, sex education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Emotional Incest

  1. sexhysteria says:

    To add some perspective, in some surveys of the general population four times as many men report having been sexually abused by their mothers compared to women reporting they were sexually abused by their mothers. For example: Russell, D.H. (1984). The prevalence and seriousness of incestuous abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 8, 15-22. Cited in Ogilvie Op. Cit.


  2. Pingback: Ideal Sex Education | Sexhysteria's Blog

  3. Rijche says:

    Thanks for this article! I am 40 and have just been able to start dealing with the psychological, emotional, sexual and physical abuse I suffered from birth all the way into adulthood by my parents, siblings, and other relatives. So much of this article rang true to me because I experienced these kinds of abuse first hand so for many years. My parents used every method of abuse listed here, in addition to others and I know how damaging and hurtful it has been to me and some of my siblings.

    I would warn ALL parents to consider the welfare of their children, NOT by what churches preach, governments dictate, or hysteria in society claim, but by natural, loving parental motivation for the welfare of their child.

    Sex is part of what we are, it is not evil. But everything in its proper place, time, and method.

    When you discipline a child, is the motivation and method of discipline in the child’s best interest or to make YOU feel good and make YOU feel in control and powerful?

    Do you belittle your child in any way, directly or indirectly? Can you see they are hurting and do you feel happy when you see them like that? Do you make excuses such as “they need humbling” or any other excuse to allow or contribute to the abuse of your child? If so, change today! A person, even a loving parent, can allow abuse with little things and carry on for a long time making excuses. Many years later when the child is well into adulthood, that child will feel much resentment because the hurt continues after the abuse has stopped. The child may come to you, seeking to discuss and resolve the pain they have/are suffering, but it will most likely be too late, because you have become so good at self deception and excuses, that you wont be able to help your child in even this resolvement, and you will continue contributing to their pain.

    Growing up and making social attachments outside of the parent/child relationship is natural, good, and healthy. Children should be allowed to have those relationships and those bonds with others and experience their own bodies and lives in the most healthy ways. Guide your children and teach them, tell them what you believe is right and wrong, but don’t use shaming, belittling, terrorizing or other extreme methods to force your children. Let your children make mistakes after you have taught them, and they will naturally come to respect you and your efforts to teach them, they will know you love them and cared about their best interests, and they will be healthier, happier, and more productive in society; even if they have chosen not to follow all of your counsels.

    Being a parent is a great thing, a wonderful and special position, and should never be used to fulfill the emotional satisfaction of the parent at the expense of the child!

    I encourage any person who is able to perceive that they have done anything along these lines of abuse to seek counseling and help to be a better parent. Excuses like “I’m doing the best I can” or “I’m a good parent who wants what’s best for my child” or “My parents were worse” or any other excuse from being better are all just that, excuses. If you truly want what is best for your child and to be a ‘good’ parent, then you will address any potential areas for improvement, you wont look away when something you do or see makes you feel uncomfortable because those are the exact things that are hurting your child and in which you need improvement.

    Also, for any who have experienced these abuses; seek help, counseling. Not all counselors are competent, even if they are licensed. I have seen some who have made my life much worse by blaming me for the abuse that was perpetrated by others upon me. Seek other help if this happens to you, but don’t give up. Seek friends who can understand, who have possibly gone through similar situations and have healed. Support groups exist where you can find others who can support you and help you. Even if you are many years out of the abusive environment, these things you suffered still affect you and may be hurting you in your social interactions, relationships, or self-esteem in ways you don’t even realize or fully understand.

    Seeking good, appropriate help can help you heal, become more healthy in every aspect of life and bring you a greater level of happiness, make you better able to deal with troubles in your life without as much pain or confusion, and help in countless other ways which you will be surprised to find remove or greatly diminish the power of the damage that has been done to you. I wish you good luck in your endeavors to find healing and peace!


  4. sexhysteria says:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that “…making social attachments outside of the parent/child relationship is natural, good, and healthy.” I think part of the motivation for the mass hysteria over “stranger danger” is to excuse and justify a parent’s incestuous tendencies. But I’m not very enthusiastic about counseling or other attempts at treatment that have never been proven safe or effective by medical standards. An ounce of prevention…


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