Coercive Control and the Pandemic
Research is emerging that the coronavirus measures are fostering an environment where perpetrators use of coercive controlling behaviour is flourishing. This post will examine how this type of abuse can be recognised, the effects this has on children and the implications for child contact and safety planning.
Early research into the effects of the pandemic on domestic abuse is showing that restrictions used to minimise the spread of the virus have reinforced environments that aid the behaviours used by perpetrators to exert power and psychological harm against a partner. We are seeing from this research, as well as evidence in our own case referrals, that abusers are using the lockdown to increase their control over victims, escalate abuse and use the pandemic as a tool for continuing abuse within the family.
The Women's Aid's survivor surveys,* completed during the first lockdown in the UK, gave us information directly from victims about the abuse they are suffering throughout the pandemic. 72% of respondents said their abuser had more control over their life since the pandemic and 67% said that their abuser was using the pandemic as part of their abuse with 10% saying the household was being forced to live under unnecessarily strict measures.
An online survey in Spain in May-June 2020** found a significant 23% increase in the general level of domestic abuse, largely driven by an increase in sexual and psychological types of abuse. The findings indicated that the largest effects occurred when both members of the couple were locked down together (14–16%) and when both partners were suffering from economic stress (25–33%). The increase in domestic violence was also higher among couples with children, particularly when the relative position of the man worsened.
Recognising coercive control
Domestic abuse does not always include physical violence, perpetrators can also seek to maintain dominance over their partner through psychological abuse and control. This type of abuse, coercive control, is a criminal offence in the UK and describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. Studies have found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control and women are far more likely than men to be victims of abuse that involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats.
A pattern of coercive controlling behaviour against a victim can include:
isolating them from family and friends,
dictating how they spend their time,
controlling the finances,
making unreasonable demands,
threatening and intimidating them,
controlling their appearance,
restricting daily activities,
degrading and belittling them,
To determine whether coercive control is being used in a relationship and to gain an understanding of how children are being affected by controlling behaviours, children and victims can be asked whether there are restrictions placed on their movements or activities (such as extra-curricular school activities), whether there are things they do or do not do for fear of the perpetrator's reaction and if they are able to engage freely with family and friends.
Caution should be taken when considering what is being said by perpetrators who exhibit controlling behaviours as they often create a plausible charming persona, making it even more difficult for victims who fear they will not be believed.
For our full guidance on coercive control management and safety planning please visit our post Coercive Control: Management and safety planning for social workers.
The effects of coercive control on children
When studying the effects of coercive control on children, it is increasingly acknowledged that children are often trapped in the perpetrators' regimes of coercive control. The same attitudes of self-centeredness and entitlement that relates to the perpetrators' abuse of their partners can also drive the way they parent their children, with perpetrators likely to parent in ways that are rigid, authoritarian, neglectful or overly permissive.
Children living in this environment can find that they are prevented from living a full and happy life as they are restricted from spending time with their mothers, wider family members and other children. They may also be stopped from engaging in extra‐curricular activities or attending medical facilities. Living in this way can cause children to become isolated, disempowered, hamper their development and contribute to emotional and behavioural problems.
It is important to note that in studies of children's experiences of coercive control it has been found that in families where physical violence was not a regular form of abuse, children exhibited the same negative outcomes as those who had lived with more frequent physical abuse.
Like adult victims/survivors, many of the children and young people were living under conditions of constraint and entrapment, and coercive control could severely harm their emotional/psychological, social and physical wellbeing and their educational achievement. Some perpetrators/fathers appeared to deploy public performances of being a ‘caring’, ‘indulgent’, ‘concerned’ and/or ‘vulnerable‐victim’ father, thereby obscuring their coercive control. - Katz et al. (2020)
Continuing coercive control through child contact
Child contact provides an opportunity for coercive controlling parents to continue their abuse of children and ex‐partners. Post‐separation, coercive control can lead to children experiencing threatening, strict and authoritarian parenting or, in contrast, a vulnerable/victimised parent who appears indulgent but causes the children to feel responsible for their wellbeing while undermining the non-custodial parent.
When looking at the appropriateness of child contact, the safety of the children should always be the primary concern. Keep in mind that when looking at the risk that a perpetrator poses to their victim, past behaviour is the most reliable indicator of future behaviour.
A lack of childcare support can cause vulnerable mothers to turn to ex-partners for help and support, particularly with the stress of lockdown restrictions, overriding concerns regarding the abuser's behaviours. Separation under any form of duress carries a much greater risk of reconciliation, therefore, victims who have separated due to written agreements with children's services will require extra support during this time. Visit our post How Can Vulnerable Mothers be Supported to Detach from Their Abusers? for further guidance.
Safety planning for the pandemic
Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our post How to complete safety planning with families. The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; what can be done to help families living in isolation with an abuser and completing emergency safety planning with perpetrators. This section also gives up to date information on how DV-ACT assessments are used to safeguard children in care proceedings.
DV-ACT experts are able to complete assessments and treatment programmes with victims and/or perpetrators for cases that are purely concerned with coercive control regardless of the status of the case. Assessments will examine the use of control used in the relationship and the impact of this on the children and victim, with a risk management plan for each member of the family. DV-ACT can also deliver focused and specialised treatment programmes for both victims and perpetrators.
References and resources
*Womens Aid COVID-19 survey - The impact of Covid-19 on survivors: findings from Women’s Aid’s initial Survivor Survey and A Perfect Storm – The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and the services supporting them.
** Arenas-Arroyo, E., Fernandez-Kranz, D., Nollenberger, N. (2021). Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,
Katz, E., Nikupeteri, A., and Laitinen, M. (2020) When Coercive Control Continues to Harm Children: Post‐Separation Fathering, Stalking and Domestic Violence - https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1002%2Fcar.2611
Helplines and resources
UK government - https://www.gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help
Womens Aid Coronavirus safety advice for survivors - https://www.womensaid.org.uk/covid-19-coronavirus-safety-advice-for-survivors/
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form email@example.com
Online community support - With Abuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and even houses a solicitor who will answer questions and queries for no charge, and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?