• Claire Verney

Coercive Control: Recognising the Effects on Children

It is increasingly acknowledged that children are often trapped in the perpetrators' regimes of coercive control and suffer the same harmful effects as those living with physical abuse. This post will examine how this type of abuse affects children and the implications for child contact and safety planning.

Coercive control and the effects on children

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 control over their family. An online survey in Spain 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 increase in domestic violence was also higher among couples with children, particularly when the relative position of the man worsened.

Recognising coercive control

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 behaviours often includes; isolating the family from the maternal family and friends; controlling the finances; controlling their appearances and restricting daily activities.

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.

Ensure the children can speak freely without the perpetrator present when asking questions and 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.

When working with families where coercive control is suspected it is helpful to establish a routine of regular visits where the victim/children are seen on their own. If completing visits remotely due to Coronavirus restrictions avoid any video conferencing work in the home as this can be monitored by the perpetrator. It is also highly protective for children to have contact with other children and adults outside the family home, if the child is very young this could include securing a nursey place. The contact does not need to be a professional but could be any trusted adult.

For those families living in a home where coercive controlling behaviours are being used, it is important that a safety plan is in place that will specifically address this type of abuse. 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 those families living in a home where coercive controlling behaviours are being used, it is important that a safety plan is in place that will specifically address this type of abuse. For our full guidance on coercive control management and safety planning please visit our post Coercive Control: Management and safety planning for social workers.

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

Arenas-Arroyo, E., Fernandez-Kranz, D., Nollenberger, N. (2021). Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,

- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047272720302140

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 are available in the UK as follows:

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 help@nspcc.org.uk

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

About us

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?