While many people criticize their parents’ lack of love, some parents give their children seemingly too much love – but immature and needy rather than mature parental love. Integrative Systemic Coaching recognizes the pattern of emotional incest and its consequences, which we also call the ‘Little Prince’ or ‘Daddy’s Princess’ syndrome.
This pattern is not only about immature love and unhealthy permissiveness. A key issue is that a parent loves a child as if the child was a partner, expecting the child to fulfill the role and behavior of a partner. This usually happens if parents did not learn how to fulfill their needs for partnership and love through quality communication and respect – and this is common. This pattern is especially dangerous if a child lives with a separated or widowed parent of the opposite sex, but it is common enough in seemingly stable families, if there is no mature love between parents.
How chronic internal conflict develops
When parents fight through their children, trying to make them take sides, it can be very confusing and frightening. Children can learn to see the world as an unsafe place and develop distrust in people – or stop trusting their own inner guidance. Some of those children develop chronic internal conflict.
Children over the age of seven can handle such circumstances somewhat better. But if children are under seven and the most important people in their lives tell them contradictory things, or even talk badly about each other, they will create strong defense mechanisms – so-called masks, or false identities, each of which tries to please – and love – one of the conflicted adults.
(Read more about complex internal conflict here.)
When this kind of family environment is followed by one of the parents turning to a child as a substitute partner – which often happens – the consequences are not only inner conflict, but deep identity loss and confusion about love and relationships.
The essence of emotional incest is that a parent turns to a child as a source of love, and unconsciously or even knowingly expects the child to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs. Usually, such a parent bonds to the child of the opposite gender; the father to the youngest daughter and the mother to the eldest son, although other combinations are possible too, including bonding to the same sex child. The other parent is meanwhile often rejected and alienated, which might lead them to devote themselves to one of the other children. Sometimes the unhealthily bonded parent and child can treat the other parent as their mutual child (especially if that parent is an immature or a sick person).
Emotional support at the partnership level – sharing feelings and responsibilities, shared decision making, raising children together (in such a case, the bonded parent and child often take care of the remaining children and/or the other parent together), supporting each other and having someone to talk to – these things are suitable for an adult partnership, not for a parent-child relationship.
Children in such circumstances may feel that they cannot live up to expectations, and might become anxious, perfectionist, controlling or feel chronically inadequate. Some children, on the other hand, might enjoy this special position and power, and expect privileged treatment from other people, too.
A parent who is bonded to a child in this way will usually try to keep the child close even when he or she grows up: often through various forms of manipulation, blame, or buying love. They might be particularly jealous of the adult child’s partner and might attempt to destroy such relationships.
In addition to jealousy and competition among same-sex children, this pattern leads to certain predictable consequences for the child. The child feels compelled to give up their own identity and needs to meet the needs of the parent. They can become very responsible, capable and intelligent, but without emotional stability, healthy self-esteem or a stable sense of identity, or they can go to the other extreme by avoiding responsibility and committed relationships, by immature and self-centered behavior.
The most common consequences for a child are (according to Martyn Carruthers):
– learning problems, asocial behavior, withdrawal, or excessive attachment to others
– lack of confidence, compassion and ability for intimacy
– lack of self-esteem and self-control
Possible consequences in adulthood:
– lack of identity and integrity,
– might expect worship and parental behavior (service, indulgence, “unconditional love”) from partners,
– fear of losing control
– avoidance of partnership through withdrawal, intellectualism or promiscuity,
– may perceive any expectation, request or emotional reaction of the partner as threatening manipulation,
– guilt and incapacity for true happiness,
– may oscillate between the role of a child and a tyrant,
– the need to prove their own “specialness”, including through lies, bragging and obsessions,
– perfectionism; inability to accept criticism,
– may feel compulsive attraction to married people and “love triangles”.
What is “normal”?
The guilt of a child who was in such a way expected to “pay back” for being born and raised, in combination with the guilt of taking someone else’s position in the family, is usually too deep and too strong to be consciously explored. People brought up in this way may consider manipulation, lack of boundaries or egotism to be normal and justified, and may rarely set boundaries or search for independent happiness.
We find this pattern to be more common between mothers and sons, than between fathers and daughters or other combinations. One reason might be that, in the past, men were usually more distant from families, looking for recognition and approval outside of them, while women were bonded and limited to their families, seeking emotional support within them, since it was rarely possible to get it from husbands. Lately, as men became more family-oriented, father-daughter bonding became more common.
Many women whom I have worked with, confirmed that they experienced their partner to be subordinated to his family, especially to his mother. Symptoms can include:
spending too much time with his mother and expecting the wife or girlfriend to accompany him and approve of it
allowing the mother to be overly and sometimes rudely involved in partnership decision making
allowing the mother to criticize or humiliate her daughter-in-law, even to try to turn the grandchildren against her.
Conflicts between a mother-in-law and the son’s wife are traditional and almost legendary in many countries. This speaks to the prevalence of this pattern (though the problem may sometimes also be in the daughter-in-law, and not just in the husband-mother-in-law relationship).
Ask your partner to imagine how he would feel if he put his own life and family first. Ask your partner about her feelings of owing something to her parent and how she would feel if she stopped trying to make the parent happy and expressed her true feelings to him. Expect guilt, incredulity and justifications in favor of parents (e.g. “my mother/father did so much for me” … “it’s normal that people care for their families” and similar responses).
Also, if you are a partner to such a person, examine your own emotional patterns; why did such a person romantically attract you? People with this syndrome are usually strongly romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex with the same pattern, and in marriage they alternate between the roles of a parent and a child to one another. Over time, they become irritated by their partner’s behavior (‘You are the same as my father!’), or they feel subtle guilt about leaving their parents, so they may withdraw emotionally and sabotage intimacy. This can lead to divorce, victim games … or focusing on a child as a partner substitute, which carries the pattern to the next generation.
If you want to change this situation, the first thing you need to do is to take responsibility for yourself and your own happiness. If the other person does not want to change (I recommend that you both seek counseling with an expert before reaching such a conclusion), there is not much you can do other than ask yourself why do you stay in this situation. What do you have to believe to accept it? To motivate yourself, ask yourself: what will my life be like in five or ten years if the situation remains the same? What could it look like if, instead, you invested that time in working on your personal development?
These questions open up deep insights not only about your relationships patterns and how much you believe you deserve to be happy and loved, but also about your financial independence. Women especially might feel limited in this area as they may face realistic limitations, such as taking care of children, employers’ reluctance to hire single mothers, or lack of education and work experience due to the time invested in motherhood.
Yet, we are even more limited by our habitual beliefs about ourselves and our abilities, or about money and life in general. Resolving financial issues may demand a deep change of your sense of identity, of how you perceive reality, and a consistent change in behavior. This cannot be done in a couple of weeks or months, so give yourself time and be patient with yourself.
When a parent becomes a child
Another toxic pattern is expecting parental love from a child. Parents may unconsciously hope that in a relationship with a child they can experience the love that was lacking in their early family. Parents who grew up with inadequate support sometimes feel that a baby might be the only person who accepts them and loves them the way they are, the only person who they can ever be truly close to.
Consequently, a parent might feel an urge to earn, or even buy, approval and love from a child. An expectation that the child will take care of the parent’s feelings is even more present than in the previously discussed emotional incest. This is a common cause of children being “spoiled”. Such children may unconsciously feel that they are not truly loved for who they are, but for what is expected from them. They may try to compensate for this lack of love in the only way they learned – by demanding more and more from parents and later from other people.
Many people believe that permissiveness alone creates spoiled children. Permissiveness is a part of the issue, but not the only one. Parents who lack healthy boundaries are unable to teach them to children. That presumes lack of self-esteem and mature love.
Some parents who seek a substitute parent in their child, don’t spoil the child, but they express their expectations in other ways, such as acting needy, weak and helpless. This is a more extreme version of seeking a partner substitute, with similar but more intense consequences for the child. Such children feel they must face responsibilities and challenges way beyond their experience, abilities and level of development. Generalized anxiety is a very common consequence, followed by persistent sense of inadequacy and fear of losing control.
This article is a part of the book “Emotional Maturity in Everyday Life“