Coercive control in cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation

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.

8 thoughts on “Coercive control in cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation

  1. Hi Karen
    Hopefully these omissions from the 2015 Act have been put right in the Domestic Abuse Bill. The latest versions of the bill expand the net of coercive control to include ex partners, that no longer live together, and children.

    The 2015 Act provided for emotional abuse of children to be classed as child cruelty and s.66 amended Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (cruelty to persons under 16) accordingly. However, this is hopelessly inadequate and nebulous legislation. I have not heard of a single prosecution under this provision.

    Here’s a link to the Bill, without the Lords amendments. It looks hopeful.

    Click to access 5801171.pdf

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    1. This is excellent, many thanks PS, I will take a look to see if alienating behaviours are codified in there. So the DA Bill has what is needed to deal with this issue, no matter that the label, so bitterly fought over, is not in there? Like all labels, it seems to me that it is just a political football and not important so long as the behaviours are recognised. I will take a look and see whether or not coercive control of children looks like it is being covered. Thanks for flagging. K

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  2. An interesting and thought provoking article
    Why specifically exclude children when part of the overall dynamic, of the mother/father “battle” when children are involved, is the obvious “use” of the child, by one parent or other, as a pawn in the “battle”?
    This particular law would seem to willingly throw the child under the busIn order to discover the “motivation” to so deliberately do this would seem that digging deeper into the background seems to be needed here?

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  3. Sadly I am one of those mothers. I despair that this man’s cult-like grip over my daughters will ever be broken. This is what the family dynamics look like now: Daughters 1 and 2 despise each other. Daughter 1 has absolute control over Daughter 3 and since her father made her (daughter 1) the woman and mother of the house at age 15, she deliberately tries to keep Daughter 3 alienated from me. Daughters 1and 2 both have deeply enmeshed relationships with Father, and are in competition who can be his Number One Lady. Daughter 3 is somewhat caring, if cool, towards Daughter 2 (influenced by Daughter 1), who in turn desperately looks at Daughter 3 as her “safe person”. Daughters 1and 2 also vie for Daughter 3’s attention. Daughter 3 is somewhat cooler towards Father but also somwwhat warmer towards me. Daughters 1and 2 agree with Father that I am Satan, emotionally undtable, crazy in all ways possible. So the only warm relationships (if dysfunctional) here are all 3 daughters with Father, and between Daughters 1and 3. I have been kicked out. I have joined Exit and plan a VAD in Switzerland in two years. It hurts too much, on top of the decades of abuse and contempt from their Daddy dearest. Only the Second Coming can sort this out.

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    1. Oh my goodness Jenny, I am so sorry to hear this and how badly it has affected you, a VAD is horrendous outcome of the harm that is being done to you and your daughters, please think about how others might be able to help you. If you need assistance right now please let me know where you are and I will try to help you find the help you need. Sending you my support, Karen

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  4. Oh Jenny I am so sorry. Please don’t give up on your life you are worth far more than what has happened to you thanks to your daughter’s father. I wish I could make you see that life is worth living even after all the hell we are all going through. Please don’t give up on yourself. Before I left my alienator husband (who enmeshed my daughter from age 15) I was going to leave my body to science because I thought no one cared and no one would miss me and no one would turn up for a proper funeral anyway. More to the point, I didn’t care. I left him in 2015 when my daughter was 33 and the final strand of wafer thin hope had finally gone, and I drove 150 miles away not caring if I even got there. I hated where I was going, it held no happy memories for me, but it was where my sister lived. I couldn’t even say the name of the town I moved to or call my new house ‘home’ until very recently such were my memories of growing up there.

    Within a month I got a puppy (now six years old) and I went through the motions for his sake. Now, seven years on from my daughter’s last hate filled communication (by email) I can honestly say that I am content, even happy and I have found such PEACE without HIM in my life and away from my daughter’s sharp tongue. I hold out no hope of ever seeing or hearing from her again, but somehow, it’s turning out to be OK. I don’t know how that happened. My first child died in the 1980s aged five from a VERY rare degenerative, metabolic disease (mitochondrial disease) and that was hard enough but losing my surviving daughter in the way that I did, with her dad (MY HUSBAND!) encouraging it at every turn, was beyond everything that ever gone before. I was a targeted mum from 1996 and I clung on (in hell) until 2015 knowing that if I ever left HIM, I’d never see my surviving daughter again (he’d threatened me with that when she was not even three years old, not long after our first child died). I never thought I’d get over it. Maybe I haven’t (I’m still numb to most things and the only thing that gets through to me these days is pictures of abandoned and ill treated dogs on facebook!) but I have survived and my life is worth something to me now if only for my beautiful quirky little cairn terrier, Charlie. Please don’t give up on yourself. Somewhere, somehow, the sun shines no matter what.

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  5. I don’t know whether Karen will allow this post, whether it’ll be too big to post, or whether it will help anyone but, here it is, my story (names changed):

    My husband, Peter, alienated my daughter, Sarah, within our intact marriage of over 40 years. Shortly after we lost our first child, aged five, he told me “If you ever leave me I will fight you for custody and I will win!” He was referring to our toddler daughter, Sarah.

    I stayed with him and we had many happy times but he was becoming more and more a controller and a bully. By the time Sarah was in her mid teens he had been made redundant, had a crisis of status and decided he didn’t much like me any more. He told me he preferred Sarah. Peter said she was ‘grounded’ and I was ’emotional’ (he was happy to tell me he ‘didn’t do emotion’). It was at that point that my beautiful daughter changed towards me. Sarah had to protect her dad and give him back the status he’d lost. She became his best friend, protector and wingman. I stayed within the family because of that old ‘threat’: I knew for certain that if I ever left him I would never see my daughter again – she would always choose him over me.

    Peter’s father had died shortly after we were married, when Peter was 21 and I was 18. It was at that point that Peter first told me about his mother’s problems and how, as a young teenager, he had come home from school on quite a few occasions and found her with her head in the gas oven, on the floor after taking pills and in the closed garage with the car engine running. He told me that his mother was ill and had often admitted herself to the local mental hospital and undergone electric shock treatment. He was very protective of his mother. Some months after the death of Peter’s father, his mother tried once more to take her own life and a few months afterwards told Peter that she had married again. He was livid – forever after, he called her new husband a ‘money grabbing charlaton’.

    A few months after her secret wedding she went on holiday to Spain with her friends and jumped to her death from their hotel balcony many floors up. Four days later Peter’s sister went missing and was finally found hanged in woodland. There were no suicide notes or messages. My husband never spoke about what he felt or showed his feelings. He arranged a joint funeral for his mother and sister. But his new step father was not included and his mother was buried alongside her dead husband. The name on her headstone was that of his father; his step father was erased and never spoken of again. Many years later, one of Peter’s mother’s friends told me that his mother had always said “If anything happens to me, look after little P.” There was no mention of his sister who was only three years older. It was Peter whom his mother was always needing or needed to look after.

    I am absolutely certain that as a child, Peter must have been very deeply affected and disturbed by his mother’s attempts to kill herself, especially since he was the one who always found her when he got home from school. He must have dreaded going home. I cannot begin to imagine the full horror and panic of facing and having to deal with such a deeply frightening situation. Maybe it was the beginning of his absolute need for full control when he became an adult. I questioned him in later years but he always categorically denied that it had ever affected him … but he felt the loss of his whole family deeply and I am sure it was this that caused him to do what he did when he pushed me out of our family.

    Whatever the truth, I am sure it left him emotionally scarred and it was behind his desperate need to have the way he felt about himself constantly boosted – a role that our daughter took on from the age of fifteen. She made him feel good about himself in a way I had once done but obviously ceased to do. But beyond all that, Sarah was ‘his blood’ (his words) and that fact took on a huge psychological significance above and beyond everything as she grew into a bubbly, exciting, popular teenager and adult with a passion for his hobbies. Peter was always deeply scarred by the fact that he had lost all his family in such tragic circumstances, and our daughter was all that he had left, the only one who was HIS blood. In the end, he simply couldn’t share her with me – I was not his his blood. When I told him I was leaving he said “Good, I won’t have to share her with you anymore”. She belonged to him, as he had belonged to his mother (who had told me the first time I met her “Blood is thicker than water”).

    If I had to analyze Peter I would say that he had such a terrible, traumatic childhood which he absolutely had no chance of ever being able to control. So, as he grew up from that sad little boy who had the grave responsibility for saving his mother foisted on him far too young, he turned into a man who had to control the world around him. And the one person he could control was me. I feel desperately sorry for that little boy and have great sympathy for him, but I do not feel sorry for the man he became. Our daughter on the other hand did feel sorry for him, and she took over the role he made for her as his protector and wingman.

    I am pretty sure that his mother’s suicide attempts were the reason that Peter buried his emotions deep. He just couldn’t cope with anything bordering on emotional … which was why, after the first few months following our first child’s death at the age of five, he never spoke of, nor acknowledged her ever again. Neither did he ever go with me to the place where we had scattered her ashes, and even years later, when we went to the nearby cafe and walked back alongside the grass and flower beds where her ashes were scattered, he never once allowed his eyes to look in that direction. He most likely cared very deeply about her loss, but to all intents and purposes his lack of acknowledgement was as though she never existed and it hurt me deeply because I never ever knew whether, on the anniversary of her death or on her birthday, he remembered or not. That lack of acknowledgement really hurt. It hurts me even now. I have all the family photographs. All the photographs I took of our first child. The one thing that haunts me most of all now, is, will my surviving daughter want to collect them after I’ve gone, will my beautiful first child’s memory die with me? It hurts.

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  6. If i may firstly say Karen Woodall thank you for all you and the other professionals are doing to right the wrongs of P.A. If i may tell you of my real world recent experience without mentioning their names here in the U.K. i got contacted on Christmas Eve 2018 by the London Met Police, i was “accused” charged and put on trial for harassment in 2019. The complainant was my daughter, [adopted by her step father at 17 years old, and it must be added i had been following the adoption Judge Wildbloods advice to continue sending cards and letters] In my daughter written Police Statement she mentions to the Gloucestershire Police that her mother [who was by her side in the Police Station interview room “for moral support”], had encouraged my daughter to make the complaint, that my “birthday cards” etc were harassing. i looked on silently at court months later while my daughter hidden behind a screen told lies under oath while watched from the gallery by her mother. i felt heartbroken at the immense pressure she was being put under to do as her mother had directed, my defence barrister was verbally abused by my ex as her entered the courtroom and the Officer in charge was asked to have words with the mother. My evidence was heard on a different day but my daughter, my ex and her band of extended alienation helpers (including the officer in charge of bringing the case) did not attend to hear the NOT GUILTY verdict. My daughter is an adult, she was coerced as evidenced by her own statement yet the Police did nothing for her except support her mothers narrative. My ex had even phone one of my brothers and tried to rally his support to have me stop sending birthday cards. That is how brazen Narcissistic abusive coercive alienating parents can be. Obviously I have not written to my daughter since 2018 but it has been suggested to me by friends that still get to see my daughter that my daughter is also unaware of the not guilty verdict. Only God knows what she has been told. By the way i brought the matter to the full attention of my local M.P. and the U.K. Minister for Justice. Both were sympathetic but unhelpful. Kind regards & best wishes to all non alienating people of the world Derek Anthony Farmer

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