If I saw Mum was upset… Children’s experiences of coercive control

Child Abuse Review

 

‘If I saw Mum was upset I’d give her a cuddle or something like that, try and make her feel happy.’ (Bob, aged 12)

The Archers

a ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ – is apparently the world’s longest-running radio soap opera.

Recently it has barged its way into our national consciousness with the unfolding storyline of the increasingly controlling behaviour of one of the main characters, Rob Titchener, towards his new wife, Helen. The narrative appears to have captured something of the reality of coercive and controlling behaviour that many women (and also fewer, though still many, men) in our society suffer as a daily, lived experience.

It is a reality that I am coming across increasingly in the Serious Case Reviews I have been studying as part of a Department for Education-funded project to explore the lessons that can be learned nationally from serious and fatal child maltreatment. Out of 175 case reviews where a child has died or been seriously harmed through abuse or neglect, 94 (54%) have had evidence of domestic violence within the parents’ relationships. I suspect the reality may be even higher.

And, sadly, that doesn’t capture the far greater numbers of children living with the fear and intimidation of ongoing domestic violence (both physical and through other coercive behaviours).

 

Beyond the physical incident model

In our January issue of Child Abuse Review, we published an important paper by Emma Katz from Liverpool Hope University: Beyond the physical incident model: How children living with domestic violence are harmed by and resist regimes of coercive control. Dr Katz interviewed 15 mothers and 15 children who had managed to separate from perpetrators of domestic violence.

 

‘Lots of times when Mum was giving me attention he’d tell her to go over to him so she’d have to leave me to play by myself.’ (Shannon, aged 10)

 

The responses to her interviews demonstrated how, even in the absence of specific incidents of physical violence, these children and young people experienced horrific lives which were dominated by the coercive, controlling behaviour of the perpetrators, including:

  • Control of the women’s and children’s time, movement and activities within the home
  • Preventing mothers spending time with their children
  • Limiting the children’s ability just to be children
  • Isolating mothers and children from their families, friends and sources of support
  • Restricting what mothers could spend their money on

 

‘[Because of the perpetrator’s/father’s control] I just didn’t go out, so then the children didn’t go out. It was just school and home. So they missed out on days out, family trips, socialising with people. And they’ve missed out on knowing what healthy relationships are about in other families because children don’t make as many friendships if you can’t mix with other mums.’ (Marie, mother)

 

However, in spite of the extremely negative impacts on these children, Dr Katz also found examples of remarkable resilience: of children and their mothers finding ways to support and sustain each other, and ultimately to escape from the entrapment that had been built around them.

In her paper, Dr Katz argues that we need to move beyond models based on specific incidents of physical violence, to be aware of the daily lived reality of many of these mothers and children, and to seek ways to recognise and support their attempts to build resilience and break free.

You can read and download Dr Katz’s report for free from the Child Abuse Review website.