• Claire Verney

How to Recognise Coercive Control

In this post, we give the 10 most common indicators that a perpetrator is using coercive control in their relationship.


10 ways to recognise coercive control

What is coercive control?


Coercive control became a criminal offence in December 2015, it describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. This pattern of behaviour can include manipulation, degradation, gaslighting and also monitoring and controlling the person’s day-to-day life from whether they can see friends and families, to what activities they can undertake and what clothing they can wear.


A 2014 study found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control (Kelly et al, 2014). Further studies in 2015 found that women are far more likely than men to be victims of abuse that involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats – two key elements of coercive control. (Myhill, 2015). Dr Emma Katz studied the effect of this abuse on children finding that men’s controlling behaviours can have an even more deleterious effect on children than witnessing physical violence against their mothers (Katz, 2016).


Recently coercive control has reached mainstream media in the UK particularly following media interest in the Sally Challen case. Sally successfully quashed her murder conviction in 2019 on the basis that she had spent decades as a victim of her husband's coercive and controlling behaviour.


10 Ways to spot coercive control


We have used our many years of experience working with both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse to produce a simplified list for social workers of the most common coercive controlling behaviours we know men use in abusive relationships.


The presence of any of these behaviours suggests that coercive control is being used in a relationship.


1. Isolation - The perpetrator is isolating her from family and friends, this could be by not allowing her access to transport, her phone or leaving the home, he may also ban them from the home.


2. Monitoring - He monitors her communications and how she spends her time, tracking apps on mobile phones can aid this monitoring.


3. Finances - He controls her access to money, even if she works and earns money her access to her wages may be tightly controlled, alternatively he may control her ability to work and earn money herself.


4. Demands - He makes unreasonable demands, which could include breaking the law or sexual activities, these demands are followed up with threats or pressure if she refuses.


5. Restrictions - Her daily routines are restricted, including restriction to transport, medical help, community groups and other services.


6. Degrading - She is repeatedly put down, called names and told, or made to feel, worthless.

"I could sense that there was something morally wrong with my father. He was always putting my mother down, and talking to her like she was nothing. She was constantly criticised, over everything, from her cooking to her physical appearance. She was called embarrassing, humiliating names in company. He didn't like her having friends. He didn't like her speaking to other people when they went out." - David Challen interview with the Daily Mail

7. Appearance - He controls her appearance by telling her what clothes to wear, how to style her hair or how she should use make up.Threats - He threatens her with harm or embarrassment to herself or her child.


8. Destruction - Her property or possessions are destroyed, this can include damage to the home, harm to a pet or the children's belongings.


10. Gas Lighting - She is made to question her reality, think she is going insane, or doubt her memory of events.


Effects on Children


Children living in an environment where coercive control is used will find that they are prevented from living a full and happy life as they are restricted from; spending time with their mothers and wider family members, visiting other children, engaging in extra‐curricular activities and attending medical facilities or children and community groups. Additionally, this controlling behaviour could limit children from being able to play freely in the home and bring about verbal abuse and harsh punishments for breaking the rules. Living in this way can cause children to become isolated, disempowered, hamper their development and contribute to emotional and behavioural problems.

It was notable that, in the families where physical violence was not a regular feature of perpetrators'/fathers' abuse of mothers, interview data suggested that children had experienced the same negative impacts (e.g. internalising and externalising behaviours, mental health difficulties) as those who had lived with frequent and sometimes severe physical violence. - E Katz - Beyond the Physical Incident Model: How Children Living with Domestic Violence are Harmed By and Resist Regimes of Coercive Control


Working with vulnerable mothers


It is important when dealing with coercive control and its effects that we lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. Clinical impressions are not always helpful in these cases, especially as some of the most controlling and dangerous men are able to present themselves very well and many abused women present with issues such as poor mental health or drug and alcohol abuse as a direct result of the abuse. Police evidence and independent witnesses are notoriously difficult to come by, it is then necessary, for workers to listen to the details of what is being said in assessment interviews and have the necessary skills and knowledge to ascertain the veracity of each parents account. For further details please visit our post on why only domestic abuse experts should be used for domestic abuse cases in care proceedings.


Where domestic abuse is identified as an issue in children's services cases DV-ACT experts deliver a bespoke programme of work for Mothers. This intensive, 10 session programme is completed on a 1:1 basis with bespoke sessions tailored to the mother's needs. The sessions have been developed specifically for mothers whose children are in child protection measures and covers the following:


Motivational work

Separating and reconciling - examining the process of 'getting back together'

Emotional attachment to the abuser - examining distorted thinking Understanding the cycle of violence and abuse 

What is a 'good father'

Exposure to violence as a child and the impact on adult attachments/learning Prioritising the children's safety and risk management Parenting - empathy and understanding for the children's experience, reparative parenting


Bespoke sessions on cultural imperatives, violent resistance, drug and alcohol use, self-esteem

and self-efficacy are included where needed.

DV-ACT can also provide training and consultancy for social work teams and expert domestic abuse assessments for children's services cases.


Further Reading and Resources


Justice for Women Sally Challen case - https://www.justiceforwomen.org.uk/sally-challen-appeal

Daily Mail article with Sally Challen - https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7466541/Sally-Challen-bravely-speaks-victims-coercive-control-partners.html

Man jailed for first-ever coercive control offence - https://www.herts.police.uk/news-and-appeals/Man-jailed-for-first-ever-coercive-control-offence-1645

CPS Legal guidance - https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-intimate-or-family-relationship

ONS Research -https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/developingameasureofcontrollingorcoercivebehaviour/2019-04-18

Beyond the Physical Incident Model: How Children Living with Domestic Violence are Harmed By and Resist Regimes of Coercive Control (E Katz) - https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/car.2422


About Us

DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, 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 domestic abuse, support referrers and provide an expert service.





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