ashamed girl

“Covert incest occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion, and preoccupation. … The boundary between caring love and incestuous love is crossed when the relationship with the child exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than those of the child. … The child feels used and trapped; these are the same feelings overt incest victims experience.”

– Dr. Kenneth Adams in Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners

Understanding Covert vs Overt Incest

Most people readily understand the concept of overt incest, even if it makes their skin crawl. It’s exactly what it sounds like – hands on sexual abuse of a child perpetrated by a family member or some other primary caretaker. Covert incest is much less easily understood. Put very simply, covert incest is the indirectly sexualized use/abuse of a child by a parent, a step-parent, or some other long-term caregiver. With covert incest, the sexuality is implied or suggested rather than physical in nature. Even though there is no direct sexual touch, covertly incestuous relationships have a definite sexualized element – a sexual undertone – that feels icky to the child, although victims are only rarely aware of why they feel this way.

Survivors of covert incest say things like:

  • Mom used to make me watch TV with her every night, cuddling and holding her hand even though I was already a teenager. She would tell me how my father was such a disappointment to her, and that he didn’t turn her on anymore, but at least she had me. Sure, I liked staying up late and getting to watch stuff that other kids didn’t, but it always felt a little bit too close for comfort.
  • When I started to get breasts, my father would comment on them all the time. He pretended he was joking, but I could tell he was really examining them. He also talked about how much he liked my mom’s breasts, but that she was a pain in the ass and frigid. I’ll admit that I liked hearing that I was pretty and I enjoyed my dad’s attention on some level, but mostly it just creeped me out that he talked about my looks so much. Sometimes he would come into my room unannounced when I was getting dressed for school or undressed for bed. He never touched me, but I always had this feeling, whenever I was home, that he was just around the corner watching me.
  • My mother talked about my body all the time, especially when I was going through puberty. She pretended she was joking about things like peach fuzz on my upper lip and armpit hair, but it made me uncomfortable. Plus, I never had any privacy. She would stand outside the bathroom door or my bedroom door and talk to me, asking if I was OK or if I needed anything. And she didn’t just talk to me about dating and being intimate, she would talk about things like performing oral sex on a women and how important it was to get it right and satisfy her. I never said anything then, but that was the absolute last thing I wanted to hear from my mother. What I really wanted was for her to just go away and let me be.

Covert incest occurs when one or another of the victim’s parents uses the child as the primary object of affection and emotional support, usually because the parents have emotionally and physically distanced themselves from one another for any number of reasons. Because the covertly abusive parent is not getting his or her needs met in healthy ways by an adult romantic partner, he or she turns toward the child – the little prince or princess – for emotional fulfillment. Essentially, the child is forced into an adult role, enmeshed and sexualized in ways that feel uncomfortable to the child and prevent emotional growth. In other words, the child is thrust into an unhealthy, grandiose adult attachment, interrupting the natural evolution of his or her sexual and relational self.

Typically, because they were not actually touched sexually, adult survivors of covert incest resist the notion that they were abused, no matter how icky things felt at the time. (Their abusers also tend to reject and disavow the abuse.) Nevertheless, the damage is done and it is quite serious. In fact, covert incest victims are taught the exact same life lessons as overt incest victims – concepts like my needs don’t matter; what matters most is what you want; my purpose is to be an emotional/sexual object for you (or someone else) to utilize. In short, both covert and overt incest survivors report feeling trapped and used by the offending adult, and this is true even when the victim denies the abuse.

Still, it is not unusual in treatment for covertly abused clients to say things like, “I wish I’d been beaten or profoundly neglected. At least then I could point to something concrete and really obvious when I look at the challenges I have as an adult. But how do I claim that my problems relate to mom being too loving and attentive? And now it’s really hard for me to separate things like feeling connected vs. being objectified.”

Adult-Life Manifestations of Covert Incest

As discussed above, the internal experience of covert incest mirrors that of overt incest. So it is unsurprising that the trauma of covert incest manifests in adulthood with the same basic symptoms and consequences as overt incest, including the following:

  • Love/hate romantic relationships – often involving emotional distancing and/or enmeshment
  • Difficulties with self-care (both emotional and physical)
  • Repetition of the abuse (intergenerational abuse)
  • Mood disorders of seemingly unknown origin
  • Sexual (and relationship) anorexia
  • Sex and relationship addictions
  • Physical manifestations like vaginismus, IBS, erectile dysfunction, migraines, etc.

These manifestations make perfect sense when we understand the general link between childhood trauma and later-life emotional and psychological issues. Essentially, numerous studies prove that the more often and/or the more severely a child is traumatized, the more likely he or she is to develop issues such as those listed above. For instance, one well-known and highly regarded study found that kids with four or more significant traumatic experiences prior to age 18 are:

  • 1.8 times as likely to smoke cigarettes
  • 1.9 times as likely to become obese
  • 2.4 times as likely to experience ongoing anxiety
  • 2.5 times as likely to experience panic reactions
  • 3.6 times as likely to be depressed
  • 3.6 times as likely to qualify as promiscuous
  • 6.6 times as likely to engage in early-life sexual intercourse
  • 7.2 times as likely to become alcoholic
  • 11.1 times as likely to become intravenous drug users

As you may have noticed, the two adult-life manifestations most impacted by early-life trauma are alcoholism and IV drug use. Thus we see the undeniable link between childhood trauma and addiction.

This is especially true if the early-life trauma is chronic in nature with no relief or support. And without doubt covert incest is a chronic issue with nobody for the child to turn to. Honestly, what is a kid dealing with covert incest supposed to do? Can he really go to his school counselor and say, “I’ve only been acting out because my mom is constantly taking me to the movies and telling me how handsome I am. Can you please make her stop?” Plus, children tend to keep their mouths shut about abuse of any kind, so even a well-trained and incredibly perceptive school counselor is unlikely to hear about anything other than the most blatantly overt forms of neglect and physical/sexual trauma.

The simple truth is that addicts of all types nearly always have an extensive history of unresolved childhood trauma – neglect, inconsistent parenting, addiction/dysfunction in the family, and various forms of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Unsurprisingly, incest survivors, both overt and covert, are more likely than most, thanks to the severity of their trauma and its often ongoing nature, to experience later-life problems like addiction, intimacy issues, and mood disorders.

Identifying and Treating Covert Incest and Addiction

As discussed above, covert incest victims (and perpetrators) tend to deny the abuse, even when its adult-life manifestations are patently evident. As such, it is incumbent on therapists to read between the lines during assessment and later sessions, looking for evidence of an unhealthy, sexualized enmeshment during childhood that may be an underlying trauma issue.

If and when covert incest is identified as a driver of addiction (or any other psychological disorder), both the incest and the addiction must be dealt with. Otherwise, the client may not fully heal from either problem, and the chances of relapse increase significantly. In most cases where addiction is present, the addiction should be addressed first, with covert incest and other childhood trauma issues placed on the back burner until sobriety is firmly established and the client has developed enough ego strength and social support to handle the difficult, emotionally painful “re-experiencing” work of trauma treatment.

In time, a covert incest survivor turned addict may need specialized treatment for both addiction and trauma, with external social support on both fronts. For instance, an alcoholic covert incest survivor might eventually cycle through individual therapy, addiction-focused group therapy, incest-focused group therapy, 12-step substance abuse recovery (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), and an incest survivors support group (like Survivors of Incest Anonymous). Many such multiply diagnosed people are best served through treatment in a multi-addiction psychiatric center such as The Ranch or The Meadows.

For more information on covert incest, check out Ken Adams’ excellent book, Silently Seduced, and/or Pat Love’s equally good book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome.