Emotional Incest: Parent-as-Friend and the Very Real Problem of Parental Over-sharing
by Sven Erlandson
The late comedian of the 80s and 90s, Sam Kinison, in one of his shticks about male-female relationships and women wanting to talk to him about their problems, would bitterly include the line, “Oh yeah, honey, I really love being your emotional [expletive] tampon,” which would be followed by his mock screams of anger tearing through the microphone, as he was inclined to do. And for those inclined to extremely offensive humor, as I was in my 20s, he drew loud and long laughs.
Yet, as I moved into my work life as a spiritual leader that phrase, 'emotional tampon', stuck with me. It's quite lurid, but it conveys the point well for that very reason. In fact, I find myself using that exact phrase often in counseling, particularly when working with young adults struggling to find themselves and their paths in life. Though, it comes up with strong frequency also in 30, 40, and 50 year-old people struggling with completely different issues.
I'm not even going to get into male-female relationships and the female need to talk and thereby bond with their mates. Nor am I going to get into the male need to talk and thereby bond with their mates. Nor am I going to get into the mis-characterization of men in our culture as emotionally locked up, incapable of sharing, and basically spiritual dolts.
Instead, I want to focus simply on that notion of the 'emotional tampon', or, rather, the extremely powerful and insidious effects of parents who share too much with their children.
Truth is, we've all been there. Maybe it's in the car with our kid or on a walk or in the kitchen. But it's that moment when we've felt overwhelmed by life, either in a gargantuan way or even in a momentary way, and we have used our child as a sounding board for our adult problems. We've all done it, at one time or another. But far too many parents have done it far too much. And, well, really, even once is far too much. For, the effect is that the soul of the child is traumatized.
When we do it, it seems so harmless. Though, it is anything but.
Worse, it feels safe. That's why we do it. The parent who shares the adult problems with the child feels, even knows, that the child will likely never share the secrets, that the child will feel even more bonded to the parent, and, worst of all, that the child will care, when no one else seems to care or really understand. And that is where the trauma happens. That's when it becomes rape, or, more accurately, incest. That's when the soul of the child no longer matters to the parent, except to meet the parents own needs.
Forgive me for being rude in my tone, but children do not exist for parents.
Children particularly do not exist to meet the needs of parents. Most importantly, children do not have the capacity to shoulder adult problems -- to be responsible for an adult. They do not have the capacity to care for the emotional, soul needs of an adult, even one they might love with all their heart. Children barely have the capacity to care for their own emotional needs, and then only when well-taught by an adult whose love cup is already full and who can give attention, time, and deliberate effort to the emotional/spiritual needs of the child without the parent's own spiritual needs getting in the way.
The parent shares his or her problems with the caring, loving, adoring child. And all that child wants to do, at least in the beginning, is to take the mommy's (or daddy's) problems away. The child wants nothing more than to make mommy stop hurting. And the child knows mommy or daddy is hurting because little Billy or Susie can feeeeeeel it in mom's words or in dad's mannerisms as the adult problems are discussed, or can simply hear those words of hurt spoken explicitly. And so, at the deepest, soul level, the child takes on the weight of the parent, even though a child really only has the ability to carry one person – herself, and again only barely, particularly in the first few decades.
What ends up happening, however, if the emotional rape continues is that the child eventually reaches the point of distancing him- or herself from the parent emotionally and perhaps even physically, even while simultaneously feeling guilty for abandoning the needy parent. For, eventually, the child has the realization that he/she simply cannot fix the parent, whether it's because the parent doesn't want to be fixed, or the parent keeps going on and on, for years, caught in the same loop of problems, or because the child eventually realizes that no matter what she does the parent doesn't seem to be getting any better or changing. Tired of being trapped in the car with dad while he recites his problems, or tired of going on vacation with mom while she ends every day with how much people don't like her, or tired of the parent disparaging the other parent, or just tired of having to listen to and feeeeeel adult problems.... out of the pain of exhaustion and futility, the teen or young adult pulls away, often slowly.
Now, I keep using the word 'child' here, but I am in no way limiting emotional incest and its effects to, say, the first ten years of life. In fact, this rape of the soul often takes place in the teen years, precisely when the child most needs his own full attention on listening to his own soul and having the courage to follow it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no child is really able to carry a parent until perhaps his or her mid-thirties. For, that's roughly when the shift happens, the move into adulthood; or at least when the numerical adult is finally most ready to be an adult in his soul. That's roughly when the adult is finally standing on his or her own to feet, not just financially and in having her career up and running, but in her soul. Or, that's when she's at least finally ready to look at soul stuff, which itself is an indicator of maturity.
In other words, despite outward appearances and personality characteristics that may make a young person appear mature, no kid can carry a parent without sacrificing his or her own soul and significance in the process. We're not just talking about the ability to listen or even some psychological ability to understand another person's problems. This is so much f**king deeper than that. We're talking about weight. The gravity of a matter. Adult stuff is heavy, too heavy for any child, any teen, or any young adult to carry, and certainly too heavy for any under-35 to carry two loads of (his own and his parent's). We're talking about energy – a significant transfer of negative energy from one person to another. As the parent tells her painful stories and travails to her daughter, likely over and over again for years, the child not only has to listen and try to understand and thereby help mom, she is then saddled with the weight of that problem pulling down her own soul for years, or more likely decades. The real damage from soul incest isn't just in the moment, when the child becomes sad and empathetic toward the parent. Nah, the real damage happens in the days, weeks, months, and decades later when the weight of carrying a second person drains the child's energy, causing health problems, depression and anxiety problems, and serious self-worth problems.
Because this is fundamentally not a psychological problem that is being created by the parent when engaging in incest of the soul of the child – i.e. when the parent is taking advantage of his power and influence over the child (and the child's dependence and vulnerability) to get his own needs met. The reason I call it incest or rape of the child's soul is because the fundamental message that is being conveyed to the child is, “You don't matter. I do” or “You matter only insofar as you can meet my needs and attend to my emotional bleeding.” When that inversion of responsibility happens – when the child's soul takes on the weight of the parent's soul problems – the child gets the very clear message that who she really is and what she really wants for her young life don't f**king matter. Mom matters; dad matters; mom's problems matter; dad's problems matter; but I don't matter; who I am and what my soul needs do not matter, at least nowhere near as much as mom's problems matter.
Again, the parent exists to take care of the child (and we're not just talking about food, clothes, and a roof here); the child does not exist to take care of the parent (at least not 'til old age). The parent(s) exist, at least in the first 20+ years, to tend the changing soul needs of the child. The next 15 or so years the adult-child must learn to tend his/her own soul needs. Only then can the child someday shoulder the weight of the parent, if need be.
See, when the child gets the underlying message “You don't matter,” when that powerful notion gets imprinted in the wet cement of the child's soul it has the deeply profound effect of, if I may mix metaphors, punching a gaping hole in the bottom of the child's love cup. We all have a cup that we're walking through life trying to get filled. We're all trying to create that lasting experience of feeling full of love inside. And we create all manner of personality characteristics, caring actions, life successes to get people to pour love into our cup. But, if there's a hole in the bottom of the cup – i.e. if the person believes, deep down, that they don't matter or that they're shit or just not good enough – no amount of love being poured in will ever be enough. The love will never accumulate. It will be fleeting – poured in and draining out. And just as water sticks to the inside of a funnel, there will be some love residue that sticks in the person with a hole in the bottom of their love cup. But it will never be enough. There will always be a longing for more, never a feeling of fullness. The person will never believe the husband who adores her and thinks she really is beautiful. The person will never believe his work really is great, no matter how much money he makes or how many pats on the back he gets. They'll never believe it, because, deep down, they believe that they don't matter and that they're no good.
So, even if the mom and/or dad explicitly stated things like “You're wonderful,” “I love you,” “You can do anything you want in life,” and “I totally support you” – words that seem brilliantly supportive on the surface – mom and/or dad's ACTIONS (actions!!!!!!) were conveying the fundamental message that, ultimately, you don't matter; I matter, you don't. And that message supersedes all other messages.
As an aside, the same effect occurs when the parent seemingly innocuously spreads little seeds of doubt every time the child or teen expresses what they really want or the direction they really want to go with their life. The same effect occurs when the parent very subtly goads the child into a career path that would make the parent most proud, as if the child exists to meet the parent's need to brag to other adults. The same effect often occurs when there is a disabled sibling in the house or a 'golden child' in the family; they simply suck all the oxygen out of the room, commanding most of mom and dad's attention, and thereby conveying to one child (or more), “You don't matter” or “You don't matter as much,” which the child's soul naturally converts into the extension, “I don't matter, at all.” The same effect occurs when mom is in love with her work, when dad is depressed, when mom is an alcoholic, when dad or mom is physically abusive, when a parent is regularly using the child for the parent's own needs for positive attention, or when a kid is made to feel like the black sheep of the family or the family problem child (the one everyone blames for everything, so that they don't have to look at their own sh*t).
The effect, regardless of what hollow words of support are coming out of mom and dad's mouths, is that the child grows up believing they don't matter, because something else or someone else matters more.
And in the far-too-common situation where mom (or dad) has a soul that is hemorrhaging onto the child, the damage is far more powerful and lasting, not just because the child is trapped in a relationship where his/her own soul being belittled and stuffed with adult problems way beyond his/her ability to deal with, not to mention disgorge. No, what makes it truly awful is that no one can see it and it's basically socially acceptable.
Far, far, FAR too common nowadays is the parental practice of befriending the child. And it is a total “friends with benefits” situation, not sexually, but soul-wise/emotionally. Soooo many parents nowadays LONG FOR a parental-child relationship that is a friendship, and they commence that far too early – i.e. before 35-ish. See, the child is still the child, dependent upon the parent in multiple ways; more importantly, the child is utterly incapable of bearing the weight of adult problems and bearing the weight of feeling responsible for carrying an adult's problems. (It's not just the problems themselves. It's the sense of responsibility that far exceeds any level of responsibility that even a 25 year-old is capable of, not to mention a 15 or 8 year-old.) But the parent, in viewing the child as a 'friend', gets to use the child as his/her emotional tampon. And not only does no one see the emotional/soul abuse, other parents and society at-large often laud the relationship as healthy and good. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
The parent is raping the child and the world is clapping.
By dashing into another person's soul and filling it with my sh*t, I convey the message that your soul and it's needs don't matter. Thus, I not only go through life making my existence about serving others (and not in the healthy way, even though it may look so on the surface), I go through life with no boundaries, whatsoever. See, boundaries are an act of self-expression. When you say 'no' to something or someone, when you stop doing something or stop allowing something, or when you say you will only go thus far, you are saying, “This is who I am and this is what matters to ME.” And, that is an act of self-expression – i.e. showing the world who you really are. But, if you've been taught that who you really are ultimately doesn't matter, then there's no way in hell you're going to start drawing up boundaries later in life, either with a spouse, friends, a boss, or with kids. In other words, if you've been taught that you're not allowed to have boundaries and that I can walk into and walk on your soul whenever I damn well please, then you're going to continue to allow people to walk into your soul and do a home makeover whenever they damn well please; and all under the umbrella of 'love'. Ain't that nice?
You don't matter. You exist for other people.
And that is the spiritual textbook definition of depression and a terrifically unhappy and unfulfilled life.
See, one of the core spiritual truths is that each and every one of us has greatness and extreme goodness inside of us. Yet, if you have been taught that you don't matter and you suck or aren't good enough, then you are cutting off your spiritual flow. You're blocking your true greatness. You're diminishing the very instrument that was created good and great. You're insulting the gods, saying that what they created is bad, or certainly not as good as others. And there begins the wasting of a life.
Yes, this whole “child as friend” thing has gotta go. I'm making far too much money off adults and young adults whose mom didn't rent a psychologist or go to a good priest to dump her problems on; or whose dad didn't open up to his buddies or his wife. I'm making too good a living off people who have been carrying other people, but are ill-equipped to do so. I used to do this for free, as a pastor, spiritual guide, and friend. But now I charge because I see how rampant the problem is and how radical the transformation when someone finally sees they've been raped their whole life by the one person they were trusting the most. I see the transformation when I tell someone they have permission to set mom down and stop carrying her. I see the powerful life change when an adult or young adult realizes they don't have to be their parent's friend (or at the very least not the friend who is responsible for carrying the other's burdens).
For the record, it's not even a question of whether the child, teen, or young adult has the 'ability' to carry the parent's needs (again, he doesn't, no matter how mature he may seem). It's simply inherently wrong. It's using another person to meet your own needs without their consent, long before the age where they're even capable of consent – and soul consent is far heavier than sexual consent. And it is using a person who is in a relationship where there is a clear power imbalance – i.e. where they can't say 'no' to the rape without there being serious ramifications.
Because we've got such spiritually pathetic adults and parents (no matter how much they go to church or how much they see a therapist or take Zoloft), we've got an adult population seeking someone who'll actually give a shit about them. And so, that adult population has children; and they then fall in love with their children. And, and, and.......they start emotionally raping their own children – i.e. using them to get their own emotional/spiritual needs met. We've sooooo lost spiritual leadership in this country. Churches have become largely devoid of true wisdom (and residually parental spiritual guidance), and have settled for the watered-down nonsense of Bible verse recitation and banal lesson-making and finger-pointing, even though every pastor and bishop in the land will tell you every other pastor isn't wise but they themselves are. And far too many psychologists suck at truly healing souls and really going into the deepest, darkest shit in a person's life, in no small part because they're not trained for soul stuff; they're trained to change behaviors, regardless of what's really going on deep below the surface.
So, we've got this spiritually drained population of adults that have holes in the bottom of their own love cups wandering around looking for soul love, unaware of the hole in their own soul; and they're effectively poking holes in the love cups of their own children – generationally perpetuating the problem they inherited from their own parents. Parents are going to children to get their own needs met, and they're doing so in the deepest and most sacred area of life. And because of this spiritual incest that is being committed in homes on every block of every city, we have an ever-growing population of young adults who believe they don't matter and/or that they are inherently unimportant or no-good.
And that deep soul problem then manifests as lack of motivation, bulimia, binge-drinking, abuse, prescription drug abuse, self-loathing (obviously), prison, crime, and every other manner of socially f**ed-up behavior or life-damaging behavior.
And you can't solve this shit by just trying to change the behaviors. You don't stop the bulimia by trying to get the girl to stop bingeing-and-purging. You stop the bulimia by going to the core of the girl's soul and helping her to see that it was stolen from her or that her mom has been stuffing it full of mom's own nasty-ass life. Mom, through her actions, has basically been whispering in her daughter's every day for years the insidious, soul-crushing words, “You don't matter. I matter.” And to extract that message from the daughter – and thereby heal the hole in the love cup – requires spelunking the deepest caves of her soul for all artifacts and residue of mom's incest. For, until that message is excised from the child's soul and life, she will never own her own life, and she will keep trying to run from the voices in her head (read “mom's voice” or “dad's voice”), which are causing her to dislike herself, doubt herself, and make life far more difficult than it has to be. The bingeing-and-purging – like the stealing or gambling or binge-drinking or staying stuck on Prozac or just staying incessantly busy (as if busyness is some sort of virtue to brag about) – is just a way to run from the giant wave that will crash down on you if you stop. It's the wave of all the crud going on in your head and soul, the wave of all your past, the wave of believing at your deepest soul level that you don't f**king matter.
We run because we're terrified of the wave, terrified of the hole in the love cup, terrified not just of what we've been taught about ourselves by our parents' actions and incest but terrified of admitting that we are victims of inept and ultimately criminal parents.
Yes, soul rape is criminal. It does far more damage than any other crime I am aware of. But to rape a child's soul is beyond words and simply must stop. And this whole parental-oversharing thing and parent-as-friend thing has got to stop, at least 'til the kid hits 35-ish and they have more of their own soul figured out and cleaned out.
The child doesn't exist for you. You exist for the child. You exist to protect not just the child's genitalia and physical well-being, but more importantly you exist to protect the simple belief in the child that they matter and that they are good.
And it doesn't mean shit how many times you SAY to a child, “You matter and you are good,” if your actions or other words are conveying the exact opposite message.
Allowing your problems to bleed onto your child, teen, or young adult is the surest way to create an unhappy child, teen, or young adult and the most lock-tight formula for creating life problems for that child, once he or she reaches adulthood. Using your child as an emotional tampon kills the soul of the child, causing decades or even an entire lifetime of pain......and all because you wanted someone who gave a shit about you.
Ps. It's very reasonable to assume that this cultural phenomenon of using children as friends will only increase in the upcoming years/decades. We continue to breed children to be proficient at interacting with computers, yet lacking in their interpersonal capacities, thus making them less likely to have friends of their own in adulthood or quality friendships in which they can unburden the things going on in their soul. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to conclude these kids, as adults, will themselves turn to their children as someone who gives a shit, seeking acceptance, understanding, and a listening ear.
-- Sven Erlandson, MDiv, was the very first person to both name and delineate the 'spiritual but not religious' movement in America in his seminal book, "Spiritual but not Religious". He has written several other books and has a speaking and counseling practice in Manhattan and Stamford, CT (Badasscounseling.com).