Can abuse happen without a physical element?


Dear Stop It Now!,

Is there such a thing as emotional and/or mental sexual abuse? I have some concerns about the father to my children in regards to some comments he makes, how possessive he is of my oldest daughter and her time with me and how he has brought my oldest daughter into very adult topics throughout her life. 

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Dear Concerned Parent,

Yes, adults can have relationships with children that are abusive even though there is no actual physical touch. When a child is treated like an adult, put in adult situations and is not able to act in age-appropriate ways, then yes, this child is in a situation that could have an adverse effect on her. 

Abuse and Boundaries
There is a type of relationship generally known as “emotional incest”, where a parent treats a child in sexualized ways, without actually having a physical, sexual relationship with the child. In this type of relationship, the parent treats the child like a surrogate spouse, a source of emotional support, and often as a confidante. 

It is a very unhealthy way of singling out a child to meet the emotional needs of the parent, and does not take into account the needs or developmental level of the child. There are many articles and books on this type of relationship (also called “covert incest”) that you can search for on the Internet. By learning more about it, you may be able to see if this is the type of relationship that is taking place between your daughter and her father.

And it’s important to add that adults with good intentions can have boundaries that are questionable and may even put a child at risk. For example, adults who include children in adult-oriented conversations are modeling poor boundaries that can later give a child a wrong message about what’s okay and what’s not. This, in turn, can make it difficult for them to practice safe judgment skills, and may possibly increase the risk that they could be victimized. 

Warning Signs
Have you had a chance to review our warning signs, Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children and the Signs That an Adult May Be At-Risk to Harm a Child? You also don’t mention whether you see any see Warning Signs in your daughter. Do you have concerns based on her behavior? Has she mentioned any concerns about her dad’s behavior around her? What about your other children – have they raised any concerns or demonstrated any worrisome behaviors?

Raising your Concerns
I’m not aware of what kind of relationship you have with your daughters’ father or if you have any other concerns about his behavior, but is it possible to talk with him about your concerns and observations? If you are concerned in any way that he could be violent or that your safety would be at risk, please do not pursue a conversation with him unless you have strong supports. Our guidebook, Let's Talk, may help with some communication tips.

Continue to talk to your daughter and all your children about safety and boundaries. Without making an accusation or even asking directly if her dad is abusing her, ask about what she does with their dad – what she likes, how it is to hang out with him. Just be curious about the relationship and listen to what she says. Focus on building your relationship with your children, helping them to feel safe to speak up about anything that concerns them.

Keep paying attention and being available to your daughter. She needs you. I hope this information has been helpful and please contact us back with any further questions.

Take care,
Stop It Now!


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Last edited on: April 13th, 2022