Incest In Your Family Of Origin

Scientists remind us that there are compelling genetic reasons why incest leading to pregnancy must be avoided, and the legal system has determined that childhood incest is a crime.

Our focus in this post will be on the emotional reasons why childhood incest must be avoided. What does incest do to the mind of the victim? What is the psychological damage involved?

Incest is traumatic, pure and simple. An experience is traumatic when the mind of the victim is unable to properly assimilate or cope with the experience. As a consequence the individual is mentally overwhelmed and certain psychological functions and experiences necessary for a stable emotional development are interfered with.

Incest can occur with or without a physical experience of sex.  This means that there are emotional forms of incest. For example, when a relationship between a parent and child or adolescent is highly ‘sexualized’ without a physical expression of sex in the relationship.

All forms of incest are psychologically toxic. However, some forms of incest are more toxic than others. The younger the child the greater the trauma. Incest experiences involving both emotional and physical expressions of sex are more traumatic. And incest involving emotional and/or physical aggression and abuse of the victim are also more traumatic.

The most toxic form of childhood incest involves sex with a biological parent (or grandparent) in one of the following combinations: mother-son; mother-daughter; father-son, and; father-daughter. A slightly less toxic form of incest involves a step-parent or other parental adult or friend of the family.

A milder but still traumatic form of incest involves a significantly older sibling coercing sexual contact with a younger sibling. And the mildest form of incest involves sexual contact and experimentation between siblings who are not far apart in age. The latter usually occurs with little or no coercion which emphasizes their experimental nature and decreases the traumatic impact of the experience.

Let’s be plain, the family of origin has a ‘job’ to do. It’s job is to launch an emotionally and physically developed man or woman into the world. Anything that interferes with this goal will compromise the mental health of a child in that family. The following are some of the psychological experiences that are essential for a stable development in childhood and adolescence. Each is damaged by incest:

innocence:   Children require a period in life when their innocence as a virgin ‘purity’ is preserved. It’s a time to play. A time to have fun and be carefree. In fact, we could define childhood as the period in early life where responsibilities are few and a child is allowed to indulge in playful fantasy. The harshness of certain aspects of reality is kept at bay by mature parenting members of the family.

Incest disturbs childhood innocence. It introduces the ‘family sickness’ into the child’s experience in ways that corrupt the child’s emotional and physical functioning and development. The harsh reality of the family sickness invades and prematurely relinquishes the child’s innocence.

vulnerability:  Another hallmark of childhood is the experience of emotional and physical vulnerability. Emotional vulnerability involves a state of ‘openness’ and receptivity to what the people you love have to offer you. The love you feel for them creates an air of intimacy and openness when combined with the love they provide you.

Incest injures the heart that is born vulnerable and open. It creates the need for psychological and physical ‘defenses’ to protect oneself from further injury. The ability to tolerate openness and vulnerability is a necessary part of our ability to love and be loved later on in life.

trust:  At the beginning of life, you trust the people in your family to provide the love and help you need to grow. You have a firm belief and expectation that they will be responsible to you and take care of your needs. This is what all children want and need.

Incest destroys trust. It replaces the naive trust of childhood with a suspicious mistrust. The mistrust that incest creates negatively limits a child’s interpersonal relationships in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

freedom:  A feeling of being free to grow and thrive as an individual without excess control or coercion from members of the family is an important experience in childhood. In order to grow, you have to have ‘room’ to grow. You get the room in your family of origin by being allowed to responsibly pursue your own goals and personal dreams.

Incest requires control and often involves coercion. It relinquishes the freedom I’m talking about by subjugating the will of the child with the sick sexual needs of the abuser. Control takes the place of freedom. In most instances control is required to initiate and repeat an experience of incest. The sick sexual needs of the family member becomes part of a malignant dependency on the child.

protection:  In a healthy family, children are protected from harm and abuse. Protection is one of the primary functions of a family. The formula is simple. Everyone is protected in the family group, especially more vulnerable members. Protection blocks the experience of chronic fear and anxiety from occurring.

Incest destroys the feeling of being protected in a family. Feeling protected  is replaced by feelings of dread, hurt, fear, anxiety, resentment, and sometimes anger and hate.

positive self-esteem: The self-esteem of a child or adolescent will determine the quality of the individual’s psychological life and love-life. A positive self-esteem nurtured in supportive family relationships will help a child weather the difficulties and disappointments involved in growing up.

Incest corrodes a child’s self-esteem. One of the most corrosive consequences of incest is ‘shame.’  Included in the feeling of shame is an irrational (because it’s not realistic or true) belief that the child is responsible for what the family member has done to him or her. When a child’s self-esteem has been damaged in this way it is very difficult for the child to acknowledge the extent to which he or she has been ‘victimized’ by the incest.

love-life:  In a healthy family, a child is permitted to grow up without the burden of the ‘family sickness.’ When a child is injured by the family’s sickness he or she will ‘transfer’ the hurt and pain of the experience in some form to other relationships in adulthood. What this means is, unhealed incest trauma doesn’t go away. It infects the child’s love-life now as an adult. There are a variety of ways this can happen.

A couple of common forms of repetition involve doing the same thing to your children that was done to you, and having children with someone who will do to your children what was done to you. You can easily guess how this kind of re-traumatizing experience can damage a person’s ability to love and be loved in their own immediate family relationships.

As a victim of incest it is important to eventually understand your family’s sickness. When incest occurs in a family it is the result of a failure of parenting. You are a ‘victim’ of a family environment that failed to protect you from abuse and trauma. As a victim you are not responsible in any way for what has taken place, no matter what members of your family have told you. There is no rational excuse for incest. It is an abnormal, abusive, and traumatic experience that is always psychologically damaging even if it doesn’t look that way on the surface.

If you are currently experiencing incest in your family, the first step is to stop it from happening further. You must find a way to end it. Your efforts to end it should get stronger if they’re ignored or not taken seriously. The fact that you yourself realize that this is a problem is 50% of the cure. Don’t try to ignore this problem hoping that it will go away on its own. It won’t.

Think about what you could change about yourself that would make it harder or impossible for incest to continue. Ultimately you can seek the counsel of someone outside your family who can get to know the details of your particular situation and help you by alerting the proper authorities and agencies. Whatever disturbance these self-protective measures create in your life will never be as bad as the aftereffects of letting incest continue.

At some point in time you may consider an experience of counseling or psychotherapy. Your objective should be to understand the reality of what’s happened and how you can repair the psychological damage involved. This is best accomplished in an emotionally intimate ‘non-sexual’ relationship with someone who cares about you and understands the traumatic consequences of incest.

Comments? Welcome. Dr. Tom Jordan


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Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.

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