Tag Archives: Covert Incest

Parentification: A Closer Look at The Harmful Effects.

 

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I have already touched upon the topic of parentification in other articles but, in this one, wish to examine its possible harmful effects a little more closely.

First, let’s quickly recap what is meant by the term.

Parentification refers to when a role reversal occurs between a parent and a child. To elaborate: the child is used by the parent to fulfil their own needs which, inevitably, leads to the child’s own needs at best becoming secondary to those of the parent or pretty much neglected altogether. Specific needs of the child that may be sacrificed, according to the researcher Chase, include the need for attention, the need for care and the need for guidance.

Such needs are neglected and the child is forced or coerced into taking on responsibilities with which s/he is not equipped to cope psychologically.

THE TWO TYPES OF PARENTICATION:

Parentification can be of two specific types (though they may occur simultaneously. These are:

a) Emotional

b) Instrumental

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Emotional Parentification : this is the most psychologically damaging of the two types. It occurs when the child is coerced into meeting the emotional needs of the parent. For example, my own mother, when I was as young as ten or eleven years old, would talk (seemingly endlessly) to me about her own myriad personal worries and concerns yet display no interest in my own life at all. I became her confidant and personal counsellor (but without being in a position to charge fee) and she would discuss with me the intimate details of her relationships with the succession of men she dated and brought home. My father had abandoned us when I was eight years old so my mother had no husband with whom to talk about her infinite set of worries. Indeed, such a situation is far from uncommon in households in which the child becomes parentified.

If there is more than one child in the family, the one who is chosen to be emotionally parentified is often the most sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable one. This was certainly true in our household. Typically, I’d be counselling my mother whilst my brother was upstairs in his bedroom listening to music or out with friends.

effects_of_parentification

Effects of emotional parentification: such parentification of the child represents unequivocal emotional abuse. The child’s innate concern for the parent and desire to please her is indisputably exploited. My own mother would positively reinforce my caring and compassionate behaviour towards her by referring to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’. To what degree this represented cynical manipulation of me by her I suppose I will never know.

Because emotional parentification involves a violation of personal boundaries it has also been referred to by experts in the field as covert incest, emotional incest and psychic incest.

As adults, those of us who were emotionally parentified as children are more likely than others to develop significant problems relating to others, including friends and partners. This is because we never learned from our parent how to develop healthy emotional bonds with others. The psychologist Bowlby found evidence that we are also more likely than others to develop what he called ‘anxious attachments’ (this can involve us being ‘clingy’ and constantly in fear we will be abandoned by those for whom we care).

Emotional parentification is thought to be especially damaging when the massive responsibility the child is taking on goes unacknowledged or is minimised and the child receives no support for what s/he is doing.

A second effect of having been emotionally parentified as a child is that we may become adults who are predisposed to outbursts of extreme anger and rage, especially in situations which trigger, consciously or unconsciously, memories of having been abused in childhood.

Instrumental parentification: here, the child is forced to take on physical responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for younger siblings etc. It goes way beyond ordinary expectations for the child to occasionally help out with small tasks.

Whilst very far indeed from a desirable state of affairs, such parentification tends not to have the devastating psychological impact that emotional parentification can have.

David Hosier. BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Emotional Incest

emotional-incest

Emotional Incest

Emotional incest, also sometimes referred to as covert incest or psychic incest, occurs when a parent expects/forces the child to take on the emotional role of an adult/spouse.

Although it does NOT involve sexual intimacy between the child and the parent, it does involve intense emotional intimacy which would far more usually be expected to take place between sexually involved, adult partners.

In my own case, my mother used me to act as her ‘counsellor’ from when I was very young (about 11 years old) and would reinforce this behaviour by referring to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist.’

 

The child, then, is used to satisfy the parent’s needs. I provide examples of such needs below:

– advice

– companionship

– ego fulfillment (especially if the parent is narcissistic – click here to read my article about the effects of narcissistic parents on their children)

– counselling

– intimacy

– the need to have a confidante

– the need to have a ‘best friend’

– the need to have a substitute spouse

– the need to have a substitute parent (indeed, some parents ‘parentify’ their own children – click to read my article about this

– emotional support

Because the focus within the family dynamic is on the child meeting the needs of the parent, the child’s own needs are likely to be neglected. Examples of such neglected needs include:

– protection

– guidance

– nurturance

– affection

– affirmation

– discipline

– structure

Adverse Effects Of Emotional Incest :

THE ADVERSE EFFECTS ON CHILD OF BEING FORCED TO PARTICIPATE IN AN EMOTIONALLY INCESTUOUS RELATIONSHIP INCLUDE:

– crisis in identity – may vacillate between seeing self as talented and worthless/having high and low self-esteem

-isolation from peers – this can mean the child grows up without developing necessary social skills

– learns to repress/suppress own needs

– development of a compulsion to be ‘special’/excel – as it was learnt in childhood being ‘special’ was the only way to gain the parent’s approval

– become out of touch with own feelings

– personal boundaries fluctuate between being too strong and too weak

– a fear of intimacy and personal commitment (due to unconscious fear of being exploited in the same way as was exploited by the ‘needy’ parent or due to fear that any such relationship will become ‘suffocating’ like the childhood relationship with the parent

– a compulsion may develop to recreate another intense relationship in adulthood (repetition compulsion) or a relationship with a selfish/self-absorbed person (again, repetition compulsion)

– anger

– guilt

– addictions ( eg alcohol, drugs, gambling)

– problems with emotional intimacy

– problems with sexual intimacy

Parents At Risk Of Emotionally Enmeshing Children:

WHICH PARENTS ARE AT GREATEST RISK OF ENMESHING THEIR CHILD INTO AN EMOTIONALLY INCESTUOUS RELATIONSHIP?

– single parents

– divorced parents

– unhappily married parents

– isolated parents with little social support from other adults

– narcissistic parents ( click here to read my article on this)

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Above eBook now available for immediate download. Click here.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

Borderline Mother : Four Types

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

 

For those of us who grew up with mothers who suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD), our childhoods were often painful and anguished. We found ourselves living in a world that was contradictory and confusing ; it is likely that we suffered chronic anxiety as we did not know how our mother would react or behave from one moment to next.

Due to our mother’s instability, it is likely that we started off life with an insecure emotional attachment to her, and, throughout our childhood, it is likely that the mother with borderline personality disorder was inconsistent, unpredictable (expressing affection one minute but rage the next), inappropriately intense and emotionally controlling.

She may, too, have been deeply verbally hostile, expressing hatred and issuing threats. We may have often been told we were not wanted and that she might well abandon us. It may well have felt like living in an emotional prison.

The effects of mothers with borderline personality disorder on their offspring can be quite devastating ; we can grow up feeling fragmented, confused and, later, develop symptoms of psychological ill health ourselves, such as impulsiveness,   being full of rage and hostility, being sometimes prone to violence, depression and deep anxiety.

We may become in danger of tipping over into psychosis under stress ( particularly in response to rejection and abandonment). We may, too, develop addictions as short term coping mechanisms to deal with our psychological pain. In short, we become at risk of developing borderline personality disorder ourselves.

 

Borderline personality disorder is diagnosed in women twice as frequently as in men. It has been hypothesized that this could be due to the fact that men with BPD are much more likely to be misdiagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder and end up in the prison system (which is often clearly likely to make their condition even worse). It is estimated that, in the USA, there are about 6 million people suffering from BPD, which, in turn, must mean that there are also millions of children living with mothers who have BPD.

Below are some of the most frequent things people who have been brought up with mothers with BPD say about them :

– she is completely unpredictable

she denies what has happened

– she sees everything in extreme terms (also called ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking)

– I sometimes find myself hating her

– I am not able to trust her

– she’s always exploding into rage

– she imposes her negative view of the world onto me

– she drives me insane

– she makes me feel terrible about myself

 

 

 

 

All individuals who suffer from borderline personality disorder (BPD), including the borderline mother, experience its core symptoms; these are

fear

helplessness

emptiness

anger

However, one of these symptoms may PREDOMINATE and thus shape a particular BPD sufferer’s character.

 

In relation to this idea, James Masterson (1988) classified borderline mothers into four sub-groups; these are :

1) THE WAIF MOTHER

2) THE HERMIT MOTHER

3) THE QUEEN MOTHER

4) THE WITCH MOTHER

Let’s look at each of these BPD mother types in turn :

1) THE WAIF MOTHER – personality traits include helplessness, hopelessness, proneness to deep despair, extremely low self-esteem, very high sensitivity, having a ‘victim mentality’, passivity and vulnerability. Sees self as failure. May treat her children alternately indulgently and negligently. There often exists an intense underlying feeling of rage  which may be particularly likely erupt in response to abandonment (either real or imagined).

POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF WAIF MOTHER ON CHILDREN :

– they may come to see themselves as failures for not being able to make her happy

– they may internalize her despairing view of the world and become despairing themselves

– they may become ENMESHED in their relationship with her and therefore find it difficult to separate from it.

2) THE HERMIT MOTHER – sees the world as dangerous and people in general as self-serving and callous. Constantly expecting disaster to strike and sees signs of imminent calamity everywhere. Has a deep sense of inner shame which she projects onto others. May have a tough exterior and a superficial image of being confident, determined and independent. However, beneath this façade she tends to be distrustful, insecure and prone to rage and paranoia. Gains self-esteem from work or hobbies.

POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF HERMIT MOTHER ON CHILDREN :

– they may internalize mother’s fear of world in general and therefore become anxious if they need to adapt to new situations

– they may find it very difficult to learn appropriate coping skills in relation to a large variety of life’s problems

– they may find it difficult to trust others

 

3) THE QUEEN MOTHER – constantly craves attention; uses her children to fulfil her own needs; cannot tolerate disagreement or criticism from her children – sees this as evidence that they do not love and respect her; chronic feelings of emptiness;   inability to ‘self-soothe when distressed; powerful sense of own entitlement – may be prepared to use blackmail in order to get what she wants; capable of planned and premeditated manipulation; discards friends without guilt when they are no longer of use to her

POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF QUEEN MOTHER ON CHILDREN :

– essentially this type of borderline mother sees her children as her audience who must constantly respond to her in ways which bolster her (very fragile) self-esteem – she expects from them their unquestioning and unwavering love, support, attention and admiration. As it is impossible for her children to satisfy her insatiable emotional needs, conflict increases dramatically as the children get older. Rebellion, deep confusion and anger are likely responses from children who live with this kind of mother, but beneath this the children long for approval, recognition, consistency and unconditional love. In essence, however, the ‘queen’ mother’s own needs trump those of her children’s, as far as she is concerned.

4) THE WITCH MOTHER –  this type of borderline mother is consumed by self-hatred (often on an unconscious level) and tends to be extremely hostile and cruel towards their children. Because of their feelings of rage mixed with impotence, they have a propensity to be particularly cruel to those less powerful than they are (e.g. younger). They also tend to be self-obsessed and have little or no concern for others. They are likely to respond particularly venomously to criticism or rejection. At the base of their need for power and control is their intense desire to prevent abandonment. This particular sub-group of BPD is very resistant to treatment as those who suffer it tend not to allow others to help them.

POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF WITCH MOTHER ON CHILDREN :

– the children of this type of mother are likely to find themselves as the target of random, intense and cruel attacks

– as with other forms of abuse, children who suffer the verbal/emotional/psychological abuse assume (completely incorrectly) that it is they themselves who are at fault. As a result of this profound misconception, they are likely to become depressed, subject to feelings of shame, insecure, hypervigilant (i.e. always on ‘red alert’ on the look out for danger) and dissociative.

As adults, they may develop difficulties with forming and maintaining relationships. It is possible, too, that they will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suffer from BPD themselves, thus potentially perpetuating the cycle.

 

OTHER WAYS A BPD MOTHER MAY HAVE MADE US FEEL:

– used by her to fulfil her own needs

– that it was impossible to predict her emotions/behaviour

– worthless

– unlovable

– manipulated

– constantly on ‘red alert’ in case we may inadvertently do or say something to anger her

– alternately idealized/demonized by her

– that we were her caretaker

– used to provide her with emotional support

– that she demands unconditional love, approval and admiration from us, but seems unable to love us unconditionally

– confused by her unpredictable behaviour and treatment of us

– controlled by fear (e.g. of her rages if we do not comply with her wishes to the letter)

– deeply hurt by her cruel teasing

– that we are not permitted to show anger, regardless of how provoked we may have been

– overly confided (as if we were a surrogate partner or parent rather than her child : SEE SECTION BELOW)

– burdened by responsibilities we are too young to be expected to cope with

– that our own feelings are belittled/undermined/dismissed as trivial/denied/ignored

– that we are expected to achieve standards that are impossible to meet

– deprived of displays of physical affection (e.g. hugs)

– as if we are constantly receiving ‘mixed messages’ from her (this can lead to finding ourselves in an emotional ‘double bind’ which is very distressing – click here to read my article on this).

– as if we are a ‘bad’ person (click here to read my article about how we are, insidiously, made to believe we are ‘bad’ people).

NB. Obviously, diagnosis of BPD needs to be left to a professional. Just because a mother makes us experience some of the feelings above does not mean she has BPD. Mothers with other conditions (e.g. depression, anxiety, PTSD, drink/alcohol addiction) may make us feel some of the things listed above, as, from time-to time, may mothers with no psychiatric condition.

 

When BPD Mothers Treat Us Like Surrogate Partners

 

I have written elsewhere about how, after my parents’ divorce, my mother increasingly used me as her emotional caretaker, even referring to me, quite brazenly, as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ (a role foisted upon me that I see now, with hindsight,  I was all too willing to fulfil to the point of preoccupation and even obsession) until I was thirteen and our relationship broke down in such a way that I was forced to go and live with my father and his newly acquired wife.

Such a relationship with a BPD parent (in which the child essentially becomes the parent’s surrogate partner) is, in fact, by no means a rare phenomenon in dysfunctional families. It is referred to by some experts in how family systems operate as ‘covert incest’ and can occur between a mother and her son or between a father and his daughter.

 

In my case, my mother used me to satisfy her psychological needs because my father had left the family home. However, such ‘covertly incestuous’ relationships can also occur in which both parents are still living in the same household but their marriage / relationship has broken down (this sad scenario is particularly likely to arise when one of the parents is an alcoholic).

Complicity :

It is important to realize that when a parent manipulates the child into becoming, essentially, a surrogate partner, it is not only serving this parent’s needs. It also serves to free the other parent from this parent’s emotional demands. In this way, the other parent is complicit in what is being done to the child, and, through lack of intervention, enables its continuation.

Typically, the parent who is using the child as a surrogate partner will make that child his/her confidante and seek advice on subjects that the child is emotionally  ill-equipped to provide such as marriage problems, loneliness, or relationship difficulties with new boyfriends / girlfriends.

Repercussions For Adult Life :

Unfortunately, such ‘covertly incestuous’ relationships can seriously harm the child’s capacity, when s/he becomes an adult, to form healthy, intimate and sustainable relationships with others. Many therapists are of the view that such difficulties are likely to persist until the affected individual gains insight into how his/her dysfunctional childhood relationship with his/her opposite sex parent has significantly contributed to these difficulties.

 

Note : ‘Covert incest’ is also sometimes referred to as ’emotional incest.’

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Select Works by Masterson :

  • Psychotherapy of the Borderline Adult : A Developmental Approach (Brunner / Mazel, 1976)  ISBN 0-87630-127-8
  • The Real Self : A Developmental, Self and Object Relations Approach  (Brunner / Mazel, 1985)  ISBN 0-87630-400-5

 

eBook :

Christine Lawson discusses these types in more detail in her outstanding book Understanding The Borderline Mother, available on Amazon (see below). Click image for more details or to download a free sample.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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