Coercive control is defined in the UK, in section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 as follows –
Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship
(1)A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a)A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,
(b)at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected,
(c)the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and
(d)A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.
(2)A and B are “personally connected” if—
(a)A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or
(b)A and B live together and—
(i)they are members of the same family, or
(ii)they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.
The construct of coercive control was conceptualised by Evan Stark as a gendered issue in which women’s disadvantage, put men in a position of inherent power over them. UK law is not gendered in that it is conceptualised as being about what one person does to the other in a position where there is a power imbalance.
Curiously, the power imbalance between parent and child is delineated in the act, so that control of a child, is not considered to be an offence – the act states –
But A does not commit an offence under this section if at the time of the behaviour in question—
(a)A has responsibility for B, for the purposes of Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (see section 17 of that Act), and
(b)B is under 16.Section 76 – Serious Crimes Act 2015
Which means that the coercive control of a child, in a post separation setting, is not recognised as a crime and yet it is the coercive control of a child, the basis of which is the power that the parent holds over the child, which lies at the heart of all cases of alienation.
Alienation of children in divorce and separation depends upon a power imbalance, without that, alienation as a dynamic, cannot take root. A child has to be under the control of one parent and out of the control of the other, in order for induced psychological splitting to occur. Psychological splitting, which is a readily recognised defence mechanism, is induced in the child when they are coerced into being unable to hold two realities in mind. When psychological splitting is induced, the child enters into a hyper alignment with the controlling parent and a rejection of the other. The basis of this is power and control over the child. This is a form of intimate terrorism, in which the child’s indepedent sense of self is removed and dependency upon the terrorising parent is induced and maintained.
Coercive control of children is readily seen when fathers alienate children as part of an ongoing pattern of control behaviours which are present before the relationship breakdown and which continue on via the child. Many of the alienated mothers we work with, ask why their children have become hyper aligned with their fathers, in situations where there was abuse of the mother by the father, which was witnessed by children. The reason for this, is the dynamic of intimate terrorism, which causes children to feel powerless, anxious and afraid, that this same abuse will be inflicted upon them should they not align with the father. Children who love their mothers, will become disdainful, cold and rejecting towards her, when they are held in the grip of control by their father post separation. Children who start of living with their mothers after family separation, can end up living with their fathers after being subjected to a pattern of coercive control which causes fear and anxiety. I have worked in many cases where fathers have systematically undermined the relationship between mother and child in order to obtain control over the child as a way of punishing the mother. Children can be induced into psychological splitting by abusive fathers, even if they only spend a very short amount of time with their father. Some children have had minimal contact with a father only to flip into wanting to spend all of their time with him. Coercive control is a deeply harmful pattern of behaviour which can end up costing a mother their relationship with their child and the child their capacity to hold an integrated sense of self as they hyper align with their father to reject their mother. Power and control is at the heart of this but currently in law, there is no recognition of the control of a child by a parent and so there is very little recourse to resolving this horrible problem.
Coercive control of children by their mothers is far less easy to recognise, this is because the control that mothers have over their children takes a more covert, less well articulated route. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour, covert enmeshment and manipulation is a pattern of behaviour which controls children’s sense of self and which causes fear of abandonment and anxiety. We do not understand these covert behaviours as well as the overt patterns which have been carefully and systematically articulated by women’s rights activists, perhaps because there is a lack of recognition of the harm that they do to children and perhaps, because they are largely carried out by mothers. In a world which is focused upon men=bad and women=good, where psychological splitting is a foundation for analysing power and control dynamics, this missing piece is why so many women fight against the reality that children are alienated by mothers as well as fathers. Nevertheless, even if we did recognise coercive control of children by their mothers, it is not recognised in UK law and thus is not a criminal act.
It seems curious to me that the law on coercive control deliberately delineates parental control over a child as something which is not criminal, in a scenario which is clearly one which is recognised as a serious problem in the post separation landscape. Perhaps this is the next step to protecting children from the dynamics which cause hyper alignment and rejection behaviours.
Perhaps this is the place upstream, where the alienation of children in divorce and separation, could be properly arrested.