Emotional Incest

The Hidden Breakdown between Parents and Their Children.

Screen Shot 2015 08 25 at 10.57.04 AM 300x300 Emotional IncestDr. Patricia Love’s book The Emotional Incest Syndrome has been a fundamental tool in my practice and has been critical to my understanding of what to avoid as a parent. I urge you to see whether the following signs of enmeshment occurred in your experience as a daughter or son.

I also encourage you to consider whether you are using any of these infringing behaviors on your children. Below are the signs of enmeshment often overlooked by well-meaning parents who were not given the necessary tools to protect their children’s dignity and individuality.

Indications of an Overly Close Parent-Child Bond

  • I felt closer to one parent than the other.
  • I was a source of emotional support for one of my parents.
  • I was “best friends” with a parent.
  • A parent shared confidences with me.
  • A parent was deeply involved in my activities or in developing my talents.
  • A parent took a lot of pride in my abilities or achievements.
  • I was given special privileges or gifts by one of my parents.
  • One of my parents told me in confidence that I was the favorite, most talented, or most lovable child.
  • A parent thought I was better company than his or her spouse.
  • I sometimes felt guilty when I spent time away from one of my parents.
  • I got the impression a parent did not want me to marry or move away from home.
  • When I was young, I idolized one of my parents.
  • Any potential boyfriend or girlfriend of mine was never “good enough” for one of my parents.
  • A parent seemed overly aware of my sexuality.
  • A parent made inappropriate sexual remarks or violated my privacy.

Indication of Unmet Adult Needs

  • My parents were separated, divorced, or widowed or didn’t get along very well.
  • One of my parents was often lonely, angry, or depressed.
  • One of my parents did not have a lot of friends.
  • One or both of my parents had a problem with drinking or drugs, or addictions to other behaviors, such as work, shopping, or pornography.
  • One of my parents thought the other parent was too indulgent or permissive.
  • I felt I had to hold back my own needs to protect a parent.
  • A parent turned to me for comfort or advice.
  • A parent seemed to rely on me more than on my siblings.
  • I felt responsible for a parent’s happiness.
  • My parents disagreed about parenting issues.

Indication of Parental Neglect or Abuse

  • My needs were often ignored or neglected.
  • There was a great deal of conflict between me and a parent.
  • I was called hurtful names by a parent.
  • One of my parents had unrealistic expectations of me.
  • One of my parents was very critical of my achievements, how I looked, or what I revealed to our community.
  • I sometimes wanted to hide from a parent or had fantasies of running away.
  • When I was a child, other families seemed less emotionally intense than mine.
  • It was often a relief to get away from home.
  • I sometimes felt invaded by a parent.
  • I sometimes felt I added to a parent’s unhappiness.[1]

Notice what fits your experience as a child and what fits your behavior as a parent. Summarily, the dynamics of incestuous families involve heavy use of denial, minimization, and rationalization, along with confused roles, secrecy, rigid beliefs and expectations, loss of trust in authority, and lack of expression of warmth. In fact, solidarity is only a pretense. When one really wakes up from such relational illness, as enmeshment, and tries to parent his or her children, the challenges can be overwhelming.

However, be encouraged. I know that you would not be reading this if you were not looking for ways to improve your relationship with your child. Prayerfully consider whether your relationship with your child would benefit from seeking your child’s input on whether they have experienced any of the above enmeshment qualities in their relationship with you. I strenuously urge you to see your child’s honesty as a blessing.

Technically, ask your child: “Did/Do you experience that you were my emotional support?” If they answer no, move onto the next enmeshment sign in the list. If they answer positively, ask your child: “Would you help me understand how I did/do that so that I can cease using you in this way?”

If they are interested in communicating what has happened with you. My coaching with parents is to do the following in response to their answers:

  1. Thank your child for their honest feedback.
  2. Apologize for burdening your child.
  3. Do not explain the context or excuse the behavior they believe enmeshed them.
  4. Take notes on what they say.
  5. Confess these concerns to a friend/counselor/pastor so that you are able to get support so that you can prevent any further enmeshment with him/her.
  6. Remember that is NEVER too late to establish safety and respect in your relationship with your child. It doesn’t matter if your child is 40 years old or older. You are the most powerful and significant indicator of their worth in their lifetime.

Thank you for reading this. I hope you are encouraged to take back the choice to recover whatever is broken between you and your child.

[1] Patricia Love, The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When A Parent’s Love Rules Your Life. (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 25, 26

Former Shelterwood Academy Therapist:

Mary Ellen McDonald-Mann, MS, LCSW
President of Mann Counseling Group & Co-founder of Last Battle, LLC

Video: Mary Ellen presents her new book From Pain to Power


images 37 OVERWHELMEDAre you feeling overwhelmed?  I know that only this week I felt completely overwhelmed and not sure what to do next.  And the feeling of being overwhelmed does not seem to go away with age or experience.  It’s always right there, bubbling up as new problems and situations present themselves. And it appears that I am not alone.

Bobb Biehl, a friend, mentor, and a guy that just happens to also be a world-renowned expert in leadership, shared a few thoughts with me as to how he works himself out of the “pit.” I pass these helpful tips along because feeling overwhelmed is unavoidable, but knowing how to dig yourself out of the “pit” faster next time is where the wisdom and growth truly resides. Here is an abridged version of what he shared:

1. STOP … recognize it … admit it, “What am I feeling? Overwhelmed!”

2. ASK “Am I tired?” … Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

* Fatigue turns us introspective and negative

3. UPDATE / CREATE my “Life Milestones List”

* Remembering past accomplishment brings a sense of deep encouragement

4. SHIFT my focus from “What I lack to what I have

            * Moving from negative to positive     

5. UPDATE / CREATE my Visual Perspective Chart to re-focus my thinking

            * Visual Perspective Chart … a sheet of paper with an icon of you in the center and all of the pieces swirling around in your head somewhere on the sheet. This gives you a visual picture of all of the pieces of the puzzle you are trying to put back together!

6. STOP comparing myself to any other human being on planet earth

            * I never want to compare and start feeling superior or inferior!

7. REMEMBER heaven … it puts all of this life’s pressures / priorities in perspective!


Now, you and I both have a process to help us find our balance faster next time, especially when there is no one around to help “dig us out”!

Thanks for the help, Bobb Biehl.
You can find more information on this and other topics on his website



Hope for Teens with Anxiety Disorders

thoughtful med 300x200 Hope for Teens with Anxiety DisordersEveryone has times of feeling anxious, scared or fearful. In fact, our bodies have an innate ability to sense and respond to pending danger that helps us survive. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders can feel like a car alarm repeatedly sounding when there’s no real threat. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern for teens in North America, affecting an estimated 4% of all children, impacting their day-to-day life, friendships, school performance, physical health and their sense of well being. My colleagues and I at Shelterwood are concerned that in this modern, fast-paced, plugged-in world, anxiety disorders in teens are greatly increasing. We are seeing more teens than ever before that are constrained and made miserable by their fears when they should be feeling safe, secure, confident and happy.

Symptoms of anxiety include a rapid heartbeat, difficulty catching one’s breath, a sense of doom, sweaty palms, an upset stomach, and even nausea and vomiting. Focusing on the feelings can cause them to intensify, a vicious cycle. Anxious symptoms become a true anxiety disorder when anxiety leads to avoidance of the situation that is causing the anxiety and causes significant physical distress and disruption of daily life and functioning. An unresolved anxiety disorder can often lead to depression or substance use problems in future years.

Anxiety, however, exists on a spectrum. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and beneficial. It keeps our teens safe and conscientious; it motivates them to perform well. Teens who tend to be anxious are often model students: high achieving, diligent, analytical, sensitive, alert, creative and imaginative. Two little anxiety and a teen may take foolish risks or lack motivation to succeed. But too much anxiety and children become so paralyzed by fear that they may be unable to leave their parent’s side, leave the house, go to school, make friends or participate in normal life.

The good news is that anxiety can be very successfully managed or treated when required. Regular exercise and reliable routines in teens are often all it takes to quell mild cases. Mild and moderate anxiety is very responsive to cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a process of addressing in the unhelpful thoughts and actions that underlie anxiety. Other examples of types of therapy include stopping thoughts, talking back to negative thoughts, not believing everything you think, relaxation techniques such as breathing, mindfulness meditation, and gradual safe exposure to the things which one fears.

Teens and adults alike could benefit from learning simple techniques to turn off their body alarms that are sounding unnecessarily. In more long-term or severe cases of anxiety – such as panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder – treatment may include a period of anti-anxiety medication in addition to teaching the teen age-appropriate techniques.

If you’re worried about your teen’s anxiety, we would also love to visit with you and provide support.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder might be the official mental health title, but many of us simply know it as the winter blues.  While the medical classification of this seasonal pattern has changed over the years, the recognition of this depressed mood has become more common.  It appears that its prevalence ranges from 1.4% in Florida to 9.9% in Alaska.

As Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years have all passed, winter is beginning to hit hard and maybe you have begun to recognize some of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

– Difficulty waking up in the morning
– Nausea
– Tendency to oversleep and overeat, especially having a craving for carbohydrates
– A lack of energy
– Difficulty concentrating on or completing tasks
– Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities
– Decreased sex drive

snow med 300x199 Seasonal Affective DisorderAs we struggle with the change in sleep patterns, inactivity due to the weather, and hormonal fluctuation due to less sunlight, it becomes much more appealing to stay indoors rather than drive through the cold to meet up with friends. Emotionally, it can become difficult when our schedules are controlled by the weather. So, how do we break out of the pattern of winter hibernation and isolation when it is so appealing? Here are a few ways for us to intentionally combat the emotional struggles that come along with the winter season.

  • Exercise! Exercise increases serotonin levels, helping us to feel excited and motivated. While it’s hard to get up the energy to go out to the gym on a cold night, families can unite during these times. Put in a game on the Wii or do a fun workout video in your living room, together. This approach is good for a few laughs as well.
  • Engage together at home. While it may feel like a chore to go out, bring the activities home. Playing board games together, baking, reading, watching a movie, or playing charades can be fun to do together without having to make the commitment to go out.
  • Build in time to relax too. Celebrate reading a book and having hot chocolate. Light a candle and listen to relaxing music. Take a bubble bath. Intentionally planning relaxing time rather than just isolating yourself can be a healthy way to combat the negative feelings associated with winter.
  • Be productive. When it is not appealing to be outdoors, take advantage of getting household tasks done. Celebrate completing goals, even completing household chores.
  • Intentionally plan outings. Winter introduces many activities such as sledding, skiing, etc. Go out to the movies, to a museum, or a play. Then, reward yourself later with some relaxation time.

The winter months can be long. They can feel exhausting. But, there are some practical things to boost our mood during these times. What are some ways you have found to combat with winter blahs or seasonal humbugs?