Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Coercive Control Weighs Heavily on Children

A recent study sheds light on the adverse impact of coercive control.

Key points

  • Coercive control in an intimate relationship has gained recognition, including the harm to adult victims.
  • A recent study reveals the depth of hurt to children requiring serious attention as well.
  • A family can be a ripe environment for coercive control to flourish; leaving a partner might be the best protection for children.
Samer Daboul/Pexels
Source: Samer Daboul/Pexels

Coercive control almost always accompanies intimate partner violence (IPV), but IPV doesn’t need to accompany coercive control to effectively gain power and dominance over an intimate partner. Coercive control is increasingly recognized and now pays close attention to the traumatic impact on adult victims. Although the impact on children of IPV has been well-cited, the adverse effects of coercive control on children have begun to be examined. New data can help us make better-informed decisions about how to protect children.

A recent systematic review of 51 studies concluded that coercive control, separate from IPV, is a serious contributor to adverse child well-being outcomes (Xyrakis et al., 2023).

Coercive Control in the Home

In her well-received book, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor identifies that the structure of a familial environment is the most conducive for brainwashing—slowly breaking someone down in order to manipulate their thinking and beliefs to gain a powerful influence over them.

Coercive control is the descriptive term that encapsulates ongoing emotional, verbal, and psychological abuses. The essence of these types of abuse is to coerce—manipulate—with the singular focus to dominate and have control over the targeted person—in this case, an intimate partner. The coercive tactics that are embedded in behavior—sometimes seemingly “normal” behavior—including restricting access to money and financial decisions, gaslighting, statements of degradation and humiliation, isolation, using a threatening voice, etc. In a family, children are at high risk of being psychologically harmed by witnessing the over-powering abuse of a parent and becoming targets of coercion as well.

Coercive control has reached new levels of recognition. Since 2020, with reliable research regarding coercive control in intimate relationships showing that it causes devastating harm and may predict future physical violence, some states have protection laws or pending protection laws.

Adverse Effects of Coercive Control on Children

In my work with individuals with coercive partners, I hear of concerns about their spouses’ abusive behavior taking place in front of their children; children developing a fear of the controlling parent and making them more complicit to that parent; children being recruited by the dominant parent; children identifying with the controlling parent, e.g., showing a lack of respect for the victimized parent; and the occurrence of similar dynamics playing out between siblings.

From the systematic review, “Specifically, studies reported that CC (coercive control) was associated with increased parental psychopathology, poorer family functioning, harsher parenting and higher levels of child abuse, strained parent–child relationships, children used as tools and co-victims of CC, increased risk of child internalizing and externalizing problems, limited socializing opportunities, increased bullying, poorer perinatal outcomes, limited access to healthcare, and increased risk of child mortality” (Xyrakis et al., abstract, 2023).

The parental condition, although not the case for all couples, is often that the coercive partner is male, and the targeted person is female and the mother who holds the majority of the responsibility for the children. When she’s subjected to the harm of coercive control, she will be at risk for many losses, including self-esteem, trust in her own perception and judgment, agency in life, and a sense of well-being. It’s easy to surmise that when one’s capacity is traumatically impacted, she will parent but cannot fully be the parent she wants to be.

New Outcomes for Children Subjected to Coercive Control

Beliefs that can get in the way of deciding what is best for children include “He’s never hit me,” “The kids are asleep when he yells,” and “He’s a great dad.” The biggest struggle for the victimized partner with children is whether to stay or leave. Often, it’s to stay while making huge efforts to somehow make the relationship better and improve the familial experience. When the coercive partner is not receptive to taking responsibility for their behavior, there is never a chance for a shift toward caring and stability to take place.

I’ve worked with women who could not leave an abusive partner, no matter how badly they personally felt, but could do so when leaving was in the service of protecting their children. More often than not, this was when IPV became part of the experience and was clearly seen as wrong.

With more information exposing the detrimental effects of coercive control on children, parents can feel a greater validation of their own experience with coercive control and recognize the harmful effects on their children. Coercive control can be reason enough to influence a victim to leave a coercive partner to protect themselves and their children.

Contact the Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential help or information regarding resources in your area at 800-799-7233. To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory.



Taylor, K. 2004. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. New York: Oxford.

Xyrakis, N. et al, 2023. “Interparental Coercive Control and Child and Family Outcomes: A Systematic Review.” First published online December 2022.

More from Carol A. Lambert, MSW
More from Psychology Today