Summary: When it comes to coercive control in parental relationships, the children aren’t just passive witnesses. Children exposed to coercive control experience problems with social-emotional and physical development, and broader family functioning outcomes such as strained relationships with their parents or experiencing harsher parenting. Children also often exhibit behavioral and psychological challenges.
Children can often be overlooked in situations involving interparental coercive control, but the impact on them is significant, a new research review from The Australian National University (ANU) has found.
Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviors and asserting dominance within an intimate relationship. It can include limiting access to money, gaslighting or isolating the target from their support system.
Lead author, ANU graduate and clinical psychology registrar Nakiya Xyrakis, said traditionally a lot of the focus has understandably been on adult victim-survivors, but children can be profoundly affected even if they aren’t the direct target.
“We found unfortunately children are often used as tools to enact coercive control,” she said.
“There are also a host of negative outcomes for the victim-survivor that might impact their parenting capacity and their relationship with the child.”
The evidence suggests there are similar but distinct impacts on children exposed to coercive control as those exposed to other forms of intimate partner violence.
This can include things like impacts on social-emotional and physical development, broader family functioning outcomes, such as strained parent-child relationships and harsher parenting, as well as psychological and behavioral challenges.
“The whole experience of children having to observe this dynamic can be highly traumatic and distressing for these children, so at times they might feel emotionally overwhelmed and their parents might not be well placed to respond sensitively,” co-author Dr. Dave Pasalich said.
“This comes at a time when kids really need that emotional support—it can have real implications on the quality of the parent-child relationship.
“It is something that can affect all different types of families—it doesn’t discriminate.”
The researchers said while coercive control has become a much talked about topic, less discussion has focused on children.
“Our aim was to review the impacts not just for the couple involved, but for the broader family system, especially children,” Ms. Xyrakis said.
“Kids are forgotten a lot of times in this space, but they suffer a lot. When something like this happens it shifts the whole family dynamic.
“There are situations when, for instance, kids might have to step up and take on the role of parent, or end up caught in the middle of complex, and often, scary relationship dynamics. Children aren’t just passive witnesses.”
About this coercive control and neurodevelopment research news
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“Interparental Coercive Control and Child and Family Outcomes: A Systematic Review” by Nakiya Xyrakis et al. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse
Interparental Coercive Control and Child and Family Outcomes: A Systematic Review
Coercive control (CC) is a core facet of intimate partner violence (IPV) and involves asserting power, dominance, and control over another person. Although the adverse impacts of childhood exposure to interparental IPV have been well documented, the outcomes of childhood exposure to interparental CC have not been systematically examined.
This study aimed to address this gap by reviewing available empirical evidence on interparental CC and child and family outcomes. Articles were identified by searching electronic databases using keywords relating to CC, children and parents, and child wellbeing outcomes.
The final review included 51 studies that reported on adverse outcomes pertaining to parenting and family relationships (k = 29), child internalizing and externalizing problems (k = 7), social-emotional development (k = 5), and physical/health development (k = 17).
Specifically, studies reported that CC 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.
Evidence identified CC as a unique contributor to adverse child wellbeing outcomes, independent of exposure to IPV more broadly.
Results indicated that the impacts of childhood exposure to CC are complex, far reaching, and, in some cases, devastating. The limitations of the findings, as well as implications for practice, policy, and research are discussed.