Dr Emma Katz, a leading expert in coercive control and its impact on children is interviewed by FiLiA Trustee Sally Jackson.
A must for anyone working in the field or who cares about someone it has affected, Emma describes what coercive control is like for Mothers and their children and importantly how the Mother/child relationship affects its impact and their recovery.
Dr Emma Katz is Senior Lecturer in Childhood & Youth at Liverpool Hope University and is the author of the much-anticipated monograph Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives (Oxford University Press, June 2022). She was a member of the Expert Advisory Panel for the HARM Network/Research England’s Domestic Abuse Policy Guidance for UK Universities (2021 Her publications are internationally acclaimed, winning awards including the Wiley Prize for best paper published in Child Abuse Review 2015–18, and the Corinna Seith Prize judged by Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).
Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives is available to purchase from the FiLiA Book Shop.n
Sally Jackson from FiLiA in conversation with Emma Katz – author of Coercive Control in Children and Mothers Lives.
Sally: I’m Sally Jackson, one of the volunteers for FiLiA and I’m really pleased today to be joined by Dr Emma Katz. In my day job, she’s known as the authority in children and coercive control. In her latest book Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, she researches the impact of domestic violence and abuse on children and young people, exploring coercive control, agency, resistance, recovery, and mother/child supportiveness in domestic abuse context.
A review from Evan Stark says “she applies the new paradigm of coercive control to amazing effect evoking the voices of women and children to identify the multiple forms of harm inflicted, how children resist and how some mothers break free. This book will change how we understand and respond to children’s experience of domestic abuse”.
It’s difficult to think of more accurate praise, and I’m really pleased to welcome you to the FiLiA podcast.
Emma: Thank you so much for having me I’m really so excited to be here.
Sally: Now this book, Emma, I’ve really enjoyed, maybe enjoyed is the wrong word, but I did enjoy reading it because I learned so much and it also brought together so much learning so well, which was really helpful.
It’s the first book specifically looking at the impact of coercive control in children and how that affects their recovery. The research comes from interviews with 15 women and 15 children who were all survivors of coercive control. It’s fascinating to read about the similarities and the differences of their experience.
Perhaps you could start with a brief explanation of coercive control and what that is.
Emma: Absolutely. So the way I see coercive control is that it involves an abuser trying to take over and redirect your life, making it all about pleasing and serving them. And they require you to give up your own goals, wishes, rights, your future in service of them.
And the way they do it is they use multiple tactics to get control over you and keep it for as long as they want, whether that’s five years, 10 years, 50 years, and the multiple tactics include: psychological abuse, manipulation, intermittent punishment and reward, periods of being nice that give you false hope, that things aren’t that bad and things are getting okay again now, economic abuse that sabotages your economic position and makes it difficult for you to break free of them again, making it difficult for you to have assets in your own name, to have access to your own money, draining you of money and resources, sexual coerciveness, reproductive coercion, sexual image abuse.
So like taking sexual pictures of you and then threatening to share them if you don’t cooperate, they isolate you from your family and friends and sometimes from your own children as well. They threaten you, they intimidate you and sometimes they are physically violent with you.
Not all coercive controllers are particularly violent, but some are. And in my book, the physical violence is very much part of the coercive control because it’s being done with a purpose. And that purpose is to control you. It’s to give you the message that if you are not more obedient in future, then I’m going to physically attack you again.
So it makes you more scared, more compliant, and the perpetrator will be very clever in how they’re doing all this, it’ll ramp up gradually over time.
At the beginning of the relationship, they tend to love bomb you and the relationship seems incredibly good. And you think you’ve met your soul mate, and then as they get more control over you, and as they sense that you’ve committed to them and they’ll move things along very quickly, getting engaged to you, having a child with you quickly, because they want you to commit early.
Once they sense that you are committed and they’ve started to entangle your life with theirs, the control will ramp up and it will continue to escalate usually over a period of months and years.
So, yeah, I think that coercive control is a multi-phased and sequenced attack upon your very selfhood, your very life, your very personhood, your identity and the survivor will be very confused about what’s happening. They’ll be doubting their own perception of reality because the perpetrator will constantly be having them question their own sanity. And they won’t be sure quite what’s going on for a long time and they will self-police themselves. So the abuser will have made it so clear that if the survivor displeases the abuser, the survivor’s going to have something very unpleasant happen to them.
And they’ll have done that so many times that the survivor will modify their own behaviour by themselves to try and avoid the negative backlash from the abuser, whether that’s psychological abuse or physical violence or increased control and monitoring, whatever it is, the victim will self-police themselves after a while to try and avoid perpetrators negative backlash.
This makes the control kind of invisible because the survivors had to internalise the perpetrator’s expectations so much that the perpetrator hardly needs to say or do anything anymore to get the survivor to be highly compliant.
It’s a really complex phenomenon and it’s so much more dangerous and destructive than we think it is because people might hear the term coercive control and think, oh, I’ve known someone really controlling so I must have experienced that, but what it really is, is an attack upon your very personhood, your selfhood, your autonomy, your self-determination, your ability to make ordinary everyday basic choices for yourself.
What we know about coercive control also is that it’s predominantly male perpetrated. So different studies have tried to get a sense of, to what extent men and women are perpetrators of coercive control. And from those studies, it seems, although we don’t have fully definitive answers yet, but it seems that coercive control is about 95% male perpetrated and about 5% female perpetrated. So when we’re talking about the perpetrator, we are the great majority of the time talking about a man.
But that’s not to say that male victims or female perpetrators aren’t important as well. Of course they are, but there’s just far, far, far, fewer of them compared to female victims and survivors of male perpetrators. And of course it also happens in LGBT plus relationships, any intimate relationship or family relationship it can happen in.
But for the most part we’re talking about male perpetration against women in the context of an intimate relationship.
Sally: And I think one of the things that’s really interesting and you described so well literally every aspect of somebody’s life being affected and contained by this control and yet still, so often we talk about, and we think about perhaps domestic abuse as being that specific violent incident.
Emma: That drives me nuts. As if you can contain the abuse to some discreet little window or pocket of time and say the abuse happened on a Tuesday between 7.00 and 7:15 PM, but the abuser will have been abusing constantly.
For example, that economic abuse will be continuous. It’s not like when they get angry with you and they get violent with you, they call up the bank and do something with the assets that favours them. And then when they’re in a good mood the next day, and they’re being all lovey-dovey and forgiving, they call up the bank again and do an equal distribution of the assets. No, they don’t do that.
The assets are constantly distributed in their favour and the abuse is just constant. Even during the good times, the good times are all about giving you false hope.
Sally: It’s something I think, as practitioners, and particularly our colleagues working in the statutory services, the police, housing offices, social workers and et cetera, we really need to upskill around recognising that complete effect that coercive control has on women’s space for action.
I think one of the things that really importantly you cover in this book is the child or children’s relational agency and this is something that I’ve not heard discuss before.
Perhaps could you share a little bit about how that was framed by the mothers and their children?
Emma: That was something I was really excited to explore in the book. So in case you don’t know, agency is a sociological term and it refers to the ability that humans have to use their free will, make decisions and be active in shaping the course of their own lives. And we all have agency to some extent, although we’re also constrained by the structures of society and the circumstances that we find ourselves in. So agency, basically, if you’re thinking, what does that mean? Think of it as free will. that’ll be enough to, to get your head around it for the purposes of what I’m about to say.
So relational agency is simply your agency exercised in the context of a relationship. So a lot of the time, what I found is that researchers and professionals imagine that the parent is the only one influencing and shaping the parent child relationship. The only one having agency within it.
But my book explores how children have agency in their relationship with their survivor parent, much more difficult for them to have agency in the relationship with the abusive parent, of course. And my book doesn’t really explore that because their agency is much more limited there. But with the survivor parent, who is receptive to their influence in a way that the abusive parent isn’t, children can have a lot of agency in that survivor parent child relationship.
So in terms of how it was framed by the mums and the children, the mums who I interviewed for my book, 15 mums, what they described was that they really cared what the children thought about what had happened, because the mums knew that the children were capable of forming their own opinions about what had happened.
And so when the children came to conclusions of their own accord, that were similar to the conclusions that the mothers had come to, I think mothers felt really validated by that, they felt like, thank goodness another person who was there gets what has really happened.
And the children themselves, the 15 children I interviewed with, they discussed numerous ways that they had attempted to help and support and positively influence their mothers. And this was so completely normal and every day, and it was just built into the fabric of everyday life. And it was done in very age, appropriate ways, you know, depending on the age of the child, it was so normal to the children that they were active in helping and supporting and positively influencing their mothers. I think they would’ve been very surprised to learn that there even was a concept to describe it because for them that’s just their normal mother child relationship.
Although I must say that not all the children were doing that. And as, as you mentioned before, it was quite variable. And I think we’ll get onto some of that variability as we go through this podcast. But there were some of the children who were really helping and supporting their mums, and this was totally normal to them.
Sally: And it was, it was really heart-warming as well reading about some of those ways a child recognising that just giving mum a hug was really important to her at that time. Equally mum recognising how much difference that made when she got a hug from a child after something quite difficult that they’d experienced. It was a really new way of looking at that relationship, which I don’t think we’ve explored before, which was really, really, really helpful.
In the book you talk about the importance of not separating domestic abuse and neglect or child abuse, but that in cases of coercive control, that they’re actually entwined.
Do we need to recognise that perpetrators against mothers are most likely to be abusing their children and even if we are not seeing that abuse and we’re not seeing those incidents that we talked about as well because of the way that we continue to frame both child abuse and domestic abuse as very incident based?
Emma: Absolutely. I think that anyone who is imposing a regime of coercive control upon a household where the pre or post separation is abusing the children within that household, because they are completely distorting what can happen in that household in profoundly unhealthy and problematic and negative ways.
So the regime of coercive control that the perpetrator is imposing on the household will, without a doubt, be directly harming the children’s own lives and their own development.
I had a feeling from the interviews that I conducted that some perpetrators had purposefully extended the regime of coercive control so it affected the children as well as the mother. And for some, they hadn’t necessarily done it purposefully, but it was still impacting on the children’s life in exactly the same way. So the impacts were the same, the child’s life and their development were harmed. And particularly, I think it’s really important to look at what is missing from the child’s life, as well as what is present within the child’s life.
So I’ll give you an example. One of the mums who I interviewed described, how, over time, her abuser, the father with the children, had established that he would have a really negative reaction if she went out, if she did anything except take the children to school and back again, he would have a really negative reaction.
So she couldn’t go out in the community. She couldn’t see friends, she couldn’t, move about freely, she couldn’t even take them to the park because of his negative reaction when she did that. So it became internalised for her. She wouldn’t even attempt to do it because she would’ve known from years of experience, exactly how he would react and how bad that reaction would be.
So this mother described how this then directly impacts on the children’s lives. I just didn’t go out. So then the children didn’t go out. It was just school and home. So they’ve 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.
And so here, this abuser wasn’t necessarily deliberately keeping the children isolated, but he didn’t give a damn that the children were actually highly isolated because he wouldn’t let the mother just live the life of a normal mother and go about freely in her community.
But some abusers seem to quite deliberately want to control their children just as much as they wanted to control the mother.
For example, one mother described how, one of the things he didn’t like about our daughter, when he got violent with her, he’d say ‘you are just like your mum’ because I’d argue back at him and our daughter would as well. And so he’d knock it out of her. And then she was more quiet, more reserved in what she said and did more cautious.
So here, I think this particular father was just as invested in having a super obedient, suppressed, oppressed child as he was having a highly obedient, suppressed, oppressed wife. And he was willing to use physical violence to knock out the resistance from both of them.
And I think that coercive, controlling abusers are more than willing to harm and distress and impede the healthy development of children, if it helps them to further their regime of coercive control.
So if upsetting the children will upset the mother and make her more compliant, you know, if she’ll go along with something such as having, for example, if she’ll go along with doing something sexual that she finds painful and degrading, because she knows that if she doesn’t, then the next day he’ll ruin the activity that the children are looking forward to and she knows that because in the past she said, no. And then he has ruined the activities of the children the next day. And she’s seen their devastation that that trip, they were looking forward to he’s cancelled and he won’t go anymore.
So they’re more than willing to use the children in multiple different ways to further their regime of coercive control.
And I think as part of their mission to get control and keep it, which remember is exactly what they’re trying to do, the coercive controlling abuser will carry out many different kinds of harm. They will carry out economic abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, stalking. They will isolate you intimidate you. They’ll physically abuse you via tactics like sleep deprivation. And sometimes some of them are physically violent. Against children they’ll carry out many acts that would be considered child abuse and neglect. So they’ll create situations where the children can’t get their basic needs met and are highly deprived.
One mother described how her abuser was buying expensive food for himself, but was expecting her to pretty much live on water while she was breastfeeding. So he was really compromising the child’s ability to get their nutritional needs met even when they were just a few weeks old.
Obviously if you impose separation abuse, if you financially destroy the mother by dragging her back to court over and over and over again to family court, because it’s the only way that she can try to keep her children safe and the legal costs mount up and up and up and up and up then again, the children will end up in a highly deprived state and the abuser won’t be concerned about that. They’ll be quite happy to have caused that if it’s harming the mother who they’ve targeted.
The abuser will psychologically abuse the child in multiple ways, for example, harming pets is a favoured tactic of psychologically abusing children. We know that at least half of coercive controlling abusers do hit the children.
If you are a child who has a domestically violent father, you have a 50:50 chance that he will frequently physically assault you. Some of these fathers do sexually abuse their children and they also do things like stalking, especially post separation. And when they’re stalking, they’re not just stalking the mother, they’re also stalking the children. So the children become victims of stalking as well with all the constraint upon autonomy and the constant feeling of being under siege the stalking brings. The child will be experiencing all that as well.
So the abuser of is simply doing all these things as part of their mission to control and dominate and subjugate the family. It’s all part of the coercive control.
So this is why I say it doesn’t make any sense to try and separate out what the abuser is doing to the mother and label that domestic abuse, and then say, and look at what he’s doing to the children and label that child abuse and neglect because he’s doing it all for the same reason for the same purpose, it’s all so intertwined. It’s all about this getting control and keeping it.
So, as I say, I see coercive control as this overarching form of abuse that contains many different kinds of abuse towards the adult victim, many different kinds of abuse towards the child victim as well.
Sally: And positively we saw the Domestic Abuse Act that finally children have been recognised themselves as victims which I think very much goes to speak to a lot of what you’ve just described and I suppose, in a social context, that means that if we are aware of someone that we’re concerned about their relationship, and we think that they, as an adult may be experiencing abuse from their partner, that we also need to be considering those children and know that if that is happening to mum, then the children will be experiencing abuse as well.
Emma: Absolutely. And of course it’s so important when we are thinking about that, to realise that the mum will most likely be doing everything she can do to keep the children as safe and okay as she can, within the limits of what the perpetrator will allow her to do, there’ll be a lot of things that she would really like to do to make them more safe and okay, but the abuser will not let her, so it is the abuser who’s responsible for those harms to the children.
And if we want to help the children, the best thing to do is to tackle the abuser, curb their ability to carry on with this abuse, make it incredibly difficult for them to carry on with this abuse. And then with the mother, assist her with the practical and emotional support she needs to be able to become free of the abuse.
But again, we, we can’t imagine that separation will lead to that freedom because the abuser will continue to abuse post separation, if they can get away with it, which is why we need to make it really hard for them to continue abusing. Separation doesn’t always equal safety.
Sally: And as you alluded to just now as well, mum will already be doing so many different things to protect herself and her children.
And so I think it’s really important that we see her as the expert and that she leads. She’s the one that knows that what’s worked before and what’s not worked before and et cetera. So we really need to be partnering with her to find the solutions.
Emma: Yes, partner with the mother. She is the expert in this situation. She knows it better than anyone.
Sally: You’ve mentioned to think a little bit more in detail about the manipulation that perpetrators do and we’re kind of like perhaps imagining that perpetrators will be manipulating their partners and possibly their children, but also really adept at manipulating the professionals that may be getting involved with the case as well.
Could you talk a little bit about what you learned about that?
Emma: Oh yes. You name it, they’ll be manipulating it. It’s what they do. They are masters of controlling the narrative and manipulating everybody to maintain their own power and control.
Researcher Dr Laura Monk put it really well. She said:
‘whether it is by being charming, articulate and well presented. Or whether it is by being abusive, intimidating, or threatening, perpetrators seem to control professionals using tactics that are indistinguishable from those employed to control their victims.’
And as I mentioned, they’re masters at manipulating the narrative, so what they tend to do is spread narratives among the people in their lives.
Over a period of months and years, they’ll be planting and spreading and furthering these narratives and the narratives will present them, the abuser, in a positive light and will present the victims and survivors, adult and child, in a negative light. And then this can really shape the way that the professionals, the social workers, the court professionals, the police come to view the situation.
And unfortunately the perpetrator can be so good at doing this that they come to be viewed as the great guy, the caring father, or even as the victim. And meanwhile, the adult or child survivor is perceived as the problem, the one causing trouble. And the more that the adult or child survivor protests against this, the more negatively they’re probably going to be viewed. Their attempts to set the record straight may be interpreted as evidence of their manipulativeness, their love of conflict, their uncooperativeness or their mental instability.
But they’re just trying to explain the truth of their situation. And what we really see is coercive controllers, manipulating and grooming others. They do this in person. They also do it on-line; they’re doing it on all the social media platforms. And they’re doing this with a purpose to gain allies for themselves to increase their own power and to further marginalise and disempower the victim and survivor.
So it’s a win-win for them when they can get someone on their side because their power is increased and the survivor’s power and resources are decreased. They present themselves in a positive light. For example, as reasonable, logical, highly talented, perhaps a genius.
With certain famous coercive controllers, we hear about how they’re so talented and they’re a genius. They can present themselves as very respectable, moral, generous, funny, cool, fun, devoted, hard done by, suffering unfairly a victim of injustice so they can present themselves in all these different lights, according to what will work best for them.
And they’ll also be creating these false narratives about the victim and survivors, to cast doubt about their character, about their sanity, their motivations, their credibility. So they’ll be probably spreading rumours and planting ideas that the victim and survivor is perhaps abusive, violent, drunk, or a drug user. And indeed they may very well be turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the hellish conditions that the abuser has created, but the abuser will leave that part out and just portray them in a very negative light as a drunk or a drug user. They’ll present them as being mentally unbalanced, emotionally unstable.
And again, they probably will be because they’ve been subjected to horrific abuse, but the abuser will leave that part out that they are in fact, the cause of the psychological distress that the survivor’s currently in. And will just portray them as crazy. They might suggest that that the survivor is sexually promiscuous, not sufficiently religious, if that’s going to serve them well to make that claim. They might paint that the survivor as cold, hysterical self-centred or narcissistic perhaps.
Abusers love to claim that their victims are narcissists because then when the survivor is trying to get help, everything’s seen through that lens that they’re narcissistic and no one will believe them.
They’ll obviously go for the idea that she’s a bad mother and will make false reports about her being a bad mother and accuse her of all sorts of things to do the way she treats the children.
And they’ll draw on your classic tropes of ‘she’s a woman’s scorned’, ‘she’s a vindictive X’, ‘she’s a gold Digger’, she’s a fame seeker’. She’s making these claims for attention. And with children, they’ll draw on your facets around children as well. Perhaps suggesting that they’re an out of control teen or a child who’s being coached and brainwashed, and doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re a child who’s a liar, a fantasist an exaggerator. They can’t tell fact and fiction.
So all of these narratives, they’ll be planting in the minds of the professionals. And it takes a professional who really is aware that the abuser is going to try to do this and is also aware of what coercive control looks like, to be able to tell apart the victim and the abuser, because the abuser will do a great job of making themselves look like a victim and will do a great job of making the victim look like an abuser.
There’s even a word for that. It’s called DARVO (Deny Attack Reverse Victim Offender) it’s a favourite tactic of abusers. They Darvo, they Deny that they’ve been abusive. They Attack the character of the real victim and survivor, and they Reverse the order of Victim and Offender. So if you just abbreviate that is, comes out as DARVO.
They also present these false narratives to their children. That’s a regular practice that they do, so they might tell their children, mummy doesn’t love me anymore and she’s kicked me out. And, you know, mummy’s so horrible and mean and nasty to me. They might say, mum doesn’t love you, mummy told me the other day she hates you, or she thinks that you are fat or ugly. So they’re planting these awful ideas in their children’s minds as well.
One 14-year-old girl who I interviewed who’d managed thankfully to break free of these kinds of narratives from the abuser and could now see them for what they were. She described, how she’d been put through this process for years herself, she described exactly what her dad had said to her and how it had made her feel. And what she said was: my dad, when, when I was younger, used to tell me, your mum makes me cry. Your mum makes me do this stuff. I can’t see you because of your mum.
And he paints such a bad picture of her ‘and he blamed her and us, me and my sibling, for everything. He said he was on antidepressants because I wasn’t seeing him often enough. I felt very small and bad. After our weekend visits with our father, my sister Zoe would be off school most Mondays because she felt so ill. She was on the sofa being held by mum and crying. He would call my sister Zoe and say, you’re the only one who really loves me. I was just so drained and I felt like crying all the time.’
So you can see that huge psychological and physical and educational harm that, that these false narratives were causing for the children is really a such destructive behaviour. And yet, so often it flies under the radar. The abuser gets believed and the harm that they’re causing to the adult and child, victim survivors is just completely overlooked.
So as a society, we need to get so much more clued up with this because they’re not just doing this to the professionals, they’re doing this to the friends, the neighbours, their parents, your parents, your whole community.
It’s like I said, right at the start of this answer, if you name it, they will groom it. They will put a false narrative on.
Sally: I was really pleased you broadened that out as well, around the wider society where this will be happening, because it also of course, plays into what we know happens in all sorts of other arenas, where the man is believed and the woman is blamed, you know, whether that’s around rape, whether that’s around other aspects of harassment and et cetera.
Society does very easily buy into these narratives that he seems like a good upstanding bloke. And she does seem a bit sort of like wired all the time and she must be difficult to live with and just buys into and believes these narratives that comes from the perpetrator’s mouth.
Emma: Absolutely. And these are centuries, absolutely thousands of years old stereotypes, that men are reliable and honest and speak the truth and women are unstable over emotional hysterical. And so of course, Influenced by the presence of these ideas in our society for thousands of years, we still tend to think that way today, even if we don’t explicitly think that, even if we have a feeling that generally we’re in favour of men and women being equal, we haven’t necessarily questioned all of the layers of false beliefs that we have around men and women which are just so built into our societies and our ways of thinking that they’re quite insidious.
So, yeah, I think it’s very easy to default to believing a man because he’s a man and because we trust the word of men because men are honest stand upstanding and stable in our imagination. And of course you mentioned that she seems a bit wired and you know, she seems a bit over emotional. So boy, she must be tough to live with.
But again, what we’re seeing there is a symptom of what the abuser has caused. She won’t have been like that before. The abuser will have caused her to be like that with his relentless abuse.
Sally: Very much, again, sort of plays into why this is an issue for all of society and not just for individual families or organizations, statutory or voluntary, to be able to deal with.
I think in your previous work, you talked about what you described as the five factor framework and the impact that, that has on the relationship between a mum and the child. Could you perhaps remind us a bit about those factors and how they do affect the relationship?
Emma: Absolutely. So, I was really curious as to why some mum/child relationships in under coercive control seem to hold up really well. And the mum and children seem to stay close and supportive with each other. And other mother/child relationships seem to get profoundly harmed and strained and disrupted in the circumstance of coercive control. And I was really curious as to why the variability, what was allowing some to hold up relatively well in those conditions while others were just wiped out or made really strained.
So I was looking at the interviews with the 15 mums and 15 children and trying to work out what different experiences they’d had.
And I came up with this five factor framework. So these were the five factors that seemed to be influencing how strained and distant or conversely close and supportive the mother/child relationship was able to remain under conditions of coercive control.
So the first factor was how was the father actually behaving towards the children himself? Was he mostly hostile with the children or on the other hand, mostly disinterested in them those are two very negative states to be. So they were just getting this relentless negativity from him, either like hostility or disinterestedness or on the other hand was the sometimes hostile and disinterested because they all are like that sometimes, but also sometimes superficially nice with them.
What I found was that the fathers who threw in some periods of nice behaviour, into the mix with their children, the children tended to end up with more strains and more distance in their relationship with their mum.
Whereas for the children whose fathers were just either were just relentlessly hostile or disinterested in them, it was much easier for those children to recognise that he was not a good person, to recognise that he was an abuser and to recognise that they liked their mum and that their mum wasn’t treating them in this hostile and disinterested way, and that they much preferred the good treatment they had from their mum compared to this horrible, hostile disinterest treatment from their dad.
But when he threw in these periods of superficially nice behaviours, as some of the fathers had done, according to the interviews, that was where children got really confused. And they were no longer able to be sure that their father was an abuser. They craved the times that he was nice and that left them very open to manipulation from him because they were craving his attention.
They were craving the good times. So that was the first factor.
The second factor was how much the children were aware of the father’s abusiveness. In cases where he was like physically violent with the mother in front of the children, they tended to dislike that. They tended to feel more close and supportive with the mother when they were witnessing something that was so clearly and unambiguously abusive like him hitting the mother in front of them. But if his abuse was a lot subtler, a lot more covert and secretive, then again, they were struggling more to recognise that he was an abuser, but they were still feeling all the effects of his abuse. So again, their relationship with their mum was getting more strained if the abuse was more covert and hidden, because they just weren’t as sure what was going on so they couldn’t get to grips with it.
Also if the dad was keeping the mum under a very strict regime of coercive control, like demanding that she spent huge amounts of time keeping the house spotlessly clean, keeping her so busy with that, that she could not spend proper time with the children, again that tended to undermine the relationship with the children that she had with them.
The third factor was to what extent the abuser was purposefully undermining the mother/child relationship, for example, as I’ve mentioned already, like whispering in the children’s ear, you know, mum told me that she thinks that you’re stupid. Mum told me that she thinks that you are ugly, not letting the mum and children spend time together, encouraging the children to disobey mum, have no respect for her, not listen to the good ordinary parenting things that she’s trying to do with them. Like make them have a bath and do their homework and eat a decent diet.
So the more he was trying to undermine the mother/child relationship, obviously the more strained it got and some abusers really played on that tactic a lot more than others. For some, they weren’t that focused on undermining the mother/child relationship. And for others they’d really worked out that it was a very effective thing to do to make the mum more distressed, more isolated, to undermine her own confidence in her herself.
Of course, if you are a mum whose children don’t seem to like you very much and won’t listen to a word you say, it increases your low self-esteem and it increases your entrapment as well, because you think I could never leave the abuser because I couldn’t manage the children on my own because they won’t listen to a word I say they’ll only listen to him. So it again, increases entrapment. It makes you feel miserable and like a failure. So some abusers had really cottoned onto the power of undermining the mother/child relationship.
The fourth factor was how the mother’s ability to emotionally connect to the children, how much that had been damaged by the abuser, because for some mums, they described how the abuse had taken such a toll on them, that they were living in a state of autopilot. They’d gone emotionally numb. They described like that daily life was robotic for them. They were looking after the children, they were going through the motions, but they couldn’t really feel anything. And I’m guessing they were in a kind of dissociative trauma state because of the constant abuse from the father.
They described how they were trying to protect their children, but they felt like having any fun was with them was just out of the question. So for children whose mom seemed to be emotionally distant from them. Of course, that put a strain on the mother/child relationship, it wasn’t as close as it could have been.
But some mums were able to maintain an emotional connection to their children. And I’m not saying that this is a superior option because it’s just good luck as to whether or not you’re able to do that or not. It’s nothing to do with like how hard you’re trying or anything. I’m not saying it like that at all. It’s just that, some mums, through no fault of their own have gone into a dissociative kind of trauma state, and some mums have, for some reason, not gone into that state, it just depends how each individual reacts to the trauma, but for the ones who could maintain an emotional connection with their children and they were still able to do that, that increased mother/child closeness. Of course it did because they were able to be more emotionally connected.
The final factor was the children’s own views of the mother and the father which of course were highly influenced by the four factors I just talked about, but the children themselves, they were taking all this in and then they were acting accordingly.
So they had their own wishes and ideas and feelings around which parent they wanted to talk, to spend time with, be close to. And for some children the factors aligned in such a way that it was very obvious to them that they wanted to talk and spend time with and be close to their mother. And they could see really clearly that they didn’t want that with their father because he was always hostile with them. They knew that he was highly abusive. They’d seen it. He hadn’t really attacked their relationship with their mum. They were still emotionally connected with their mum. So of course they wanted to spend time with mum. They wanted to be close to her. They loved her. But for some children, the factors aligned in such a way that they gravitated more towards the perpetrator and were really confused about their mum. For those children, they’d experienced the abuser sometimes lavishing them with treats being really nice to them. They weren’t really sure he was an abuser because it was very subtle and covert what he was doing. Perhaps they’d not been able to spend much time with mum because mum always seemed to be busy doing the housework. Of course, the children wouldn’t recognise that she had to, because otherwise she’d be punished for not doing it enough. Mum was kind of emotionally cut off from them. So again, for the children, they wouldn’t understand why that was, but they’d just be getting vibes that mum wasn’t really emotionally present with them. And so the abuser had presented himself to them as the fun parent, the parent who would indulge them, allow them to not do their homework, ignore bedtime, not bother to clean their teeth, eat whatever junk food they wanted to eat. And for the children, you know, yay. Christmas has come early. So they were much more interested in being bonded and close with the abusing parent, sadly, than they were with their protective mum who was doing her best.
The factors had just aligned in such a way that her relationship with the children have got really, really compromised.
So that’s it in a nutshell, obviously it’s a little more complicated than I’ve just explained. And this was only in the 15 families that I had data for. It might play out differently in different families.
So if you are listening to this and this isn’t quite resonating with you, or you feel like I haven’t quite captured it, that’s absolutely fine because I don’t have data on hundreds of families to be saying, this is just what was going on for my 15, but if this is resonating with you and this is making sense of some of your experiences, then that’s really great.
There’s a whole chapter in the book about this. If you’d like to have a look at that in more detail, it’s a nice chunky chapter that explains it all in more detail.
Sally: And I think it’s really helpful in kind of explaining how those relationships have been affected, but also because we are talking about relationships recognising that one sibling’s relationship with mum might be very different from another sibling’s relationship with mum.
Not because she’s a good mum or a bad mum, but because of the way that the perpetrator has gone through those various things that you’ve just described.
Emma: Oh, that’s a really important point you just made because the abuser will also attack the solidarity between siblings, because if the siblings are united, then that poses a real problem for the abuser because they might unite against him. So sibling solidarity needs to be undermined and very often they’ll do that by favouring one child over the other. And then the favoured child sees how the un-favoured child is treated and thinks. Oh my God, I better keep in his good books otherwise I’ll get treated like that too. It thinks that either consciously or unconsciously. The un-favoured child is jealous and resentful perhaps of the sibling who’s being favoured so there’s a lot of tension between them. So you can end up with one sibling, very close to the victim, survivor parent, another one, very close with the abusing parent, another sibling who keeps out of it completely and tries to just keep themselves to themselves and keeps their head down, so you can see because as you said, of what the abuser is doing, you can end up with very variable sibling relationships.
Sally: We’ve kind of touched on this already, but we talk in the book about leaving and about post-separation violence which of course is a continuation of the coercive control even after the relationship itself may have ended.
I really like the quote that you had in the book that asks, instead of asking why doesn’t she leave? We should be asking ‘what is the state doing to make it possible for an adult and child to become free of perpetrator abuse?
So what are some of the key things as a society we need to improve that would support survivors and their children on their road to recovery?
Emma: How long have you got, because a lot, because we are getting it so wrong at the moment.
So I think firstly, we need to curb the ability of the abuser to carry on abusing. And at the moment we’re doing very little around that and the most you can do is get some sort of protective order. And many survivors say it’s not worth the paper it’s written on because the police won’t enforce it and he’ll breach it over and over again. And everyone just shrugs their shoulders.
So the abuser really needs to be facing some major obstacles to carry on their abuse. And at the moment they’re facing no obstacles or the obstacles they’re facing are really easily surmounted. So we really need to look at how we can put great big roadblocks in the way of the abuser that carrying on their abuse, things that are going to be effective.
As we’ve said, survivors are the experts in what is, or isn’t going to work and how seriously an abuser is going to take various different measures. So we need to be listening to them. I think so far, the police services have had partial training in coercive control, but it’s still a postcode lottery as to what forces have done and what training. And I would like to see a lot more training of the police on coercive control.
The number of successful prosecutions for coercive control in the last year we had data for, the number that actually ended in a conviction, I can’t remember the exact figure, but it was in the 300s and if we were doing our jobs properly, then it would actually be probably more like a million because there’s a lot of this coercive control going on.
So something is going very amiss there that there were only 300 successful convictions for coercive control in the last year we had data for.
There’s various different ideas around what might work to manage offenders better. Should they be on a registry of offenders? because many, many abusers, they do this multiple times. They have multiple victims and survivors; they make a whole career of coercive control so they’re currently not on any kind of register for that behaviour. Should they be?
Also I was reading the other day that only 1% of perpetrators actually get an domestic abuse intervention that is designed for perpetrators so many of them are sign posted to things that are completely inappropriate, like a course in anger management. But that’s not going to help a coercive controller because the coercive controller isn’t angry, although they might seem angry, but they’re not angry. They’re over entitled. They think they have a right to abuse you. They feel justified in their behaviour towards you. So helping them to manage their anger better is not going to alter their beliefs that they have a right to abuse you.
Less than 1% of abusers are getting a perpetrator program that is actually designed to tackle domestic abuse. Why is only 1% getting that? Why are not 99% getting that?
The program needs to be of a really good standard. It needs to be delivered safely. Shoddy perpetrator work can be really dangerous because you can harm the survivor in many different ways.
And if you give the abuser of a certificate, saying they’ve completed perpetrator work, but that work was below standard, then they’ve got a certificate proving that they’ve changed and they haven’t changed at all. So it needs to be done to a very high standard.
So the organisation Respect accredits perpetrator programs. We need to be looking at standards for them if we’re going to roll them out more. The last thing we want is these things popping up all over the place, being delivered by people who have no understanding of coercive control and only making the situation worse.
And then practical things like making it easier for the survivor to leave with grants of money, safe, affordable housing options, housing options that are suitable if you are a disabled survivor, because rates of domestic abuse are even higher in the disabled community than they are in the non-disabled community and very often you might become disabled as a result of the abuse if you weren’t already. So safe, accessible, affordable housing options, grants, you need to have enough money to be able to live on once you get out otherwise, how can you get out?
We need to make it easier for survivors to be rid of coerced debt and associated credit rating problems. We need to create a different system and I’ll get onto this a bit more later, a different system for deciding what happens to children’s relationships with both parents, post separation because at the moment the family court is not succeeding in keeping children safe from coercive controllers.
We need a system that is thoroughly versed in coercive control and child abuse that is deciding on what happens to the children’s relationships with both parent’s post-separation. And we need a system that is a lot more willing to say no contact and keep the abuser out of the child’s life, because at the moment, less than 2% of applications for contact to the family court result in order of no contact.
And yet we think that at least 62% of cases before the family court are domestic abuse cases. So in almost every single domestic abuse case the abuser is being allowed contact with the children. There’s no evidence that they have given up being a coercive controller and there’s no reason to think that they would’ve given it up because this is so deeply in-built in their personality and their belief system that there’s every likelihood that they are still a coercive controller and that they’re seeking contact with the children as a means to continue their coercive control.
So we need to create systems that are a heck of a lot more willing to say no contact to these abusers and to let the child heal without the presence of the abuser in their life. And to let the child get on with a decent life, with the one safe and protective parent that they have. Because children can do really well, research shows that children can do really well with one safe, protective parent. It’s a total myth that children must have two parents in their life to be okay.
If one parent is an abuser research suggests the child will be better off with just one that’s safe and protective and supportive parent and the abuser not in their life.
I also feel we need to develop a suitable pathway of NHS, mental health recovery and support for adult and child victims and survivors.
If you go to your GP now and you say, I’m a survivor of domestic abuse. I’m a survivor of coercive control. I need support to recover my mental health as a result of the abuse, the doctor has no referral pathway to put you on. They’ll give you the kind of standard referrals, but nothing that’s bespoke to recovering from domestic abuse, which is very, very specific and needs particular kinds of support and intervention and help. So I think that that pathway needs to be developed.
And then when the adult victim survivor and the children get out, as we talked about, often their relationship with each other is very strained. We need to fund parent/child relationship recovery programs so that the strains that have been caused, can be worked through and the relationship made healthier and more functional again and so it can become a source of support and positivity in the mother and children’s lives rather than a source of strain and stress and worry.
So we already have those kinds of programs, but they’re again, post code lottery, underfunded, not available in so many victims and survivor’s areas although in some areas they are available and we know that when they’re rolled out that they work really well. So I think that needs to be up-scaled massively.
So I think I’ve given you about seven or eight different categories where we need to be improving. There’s probably more, but those are the ones that spring to my mind, there’s plenty of work to be done here. We’re not getting it right at the moment.
Sally: Absolutely. And it constantly astonishes me when we know how sadly prevalent domestic abuse is in our society, that we are so woefully lacking in some of the things that you’ve mentioned to help us to both stop it and to help women and children recover.
Emma: And do you know what else it would be completely cost effective to deal with this? Because the Home Office itself estimated in 2019, that domestic abuse was costing the economy at least £66 billion a year. £66 billion. And they couldn’t even account in that figure for the impacts on the children. That was only the impacts on the survivor adult, because the impacts on the children, they said, which is too complicated to calculate.
So you could easily take that £66 billion and double it, probably triple it. If you start accounting for the impacts on the children as well. So it would be exceptionally cost effective to deal with this better because it’s costing the economy huge amounts of money. I’ll refrain that, the abusers are costing the economy huge of money, they are the ones causing the cost
They are the ones who are causing the cost. As taxpayers, we are paying into a system that is allowing hundreds of billions to be wasted every year because we’re not tackling domestic abuse properly so I think it’s everyone’s business as taxpayers to demand that the government does better on this.
Sally: Absolutely. And if we’re using that money, then let’s use it effectively.
One of the other things in the book that you do is look at relational issue. Looking at how mothers and children help each other to recover both specifically from the coercive control, but also more generally.
What were some of the strategies that you saw them using?
Emma: I’m really glad you asked me about that because it’s just so often overlooked. We imagine that it’s professionals who are doing the work of helping the mums and the children to recover or we might imagine that they don’t need any help to recover once they’ve separated, everything will be fine.
But actually they need a lot of help to recover and very often it is the mothers and the children themselves who are helping each other to recover. Because again, they’re the experts in what’s happened. They have an instinct for what is needed. They have an instinct for what is opposite to coercive control and how to bring that about because they’ve lived it.
So not in every case, but quite often we do see the mums and the children doing a great deal to help each other recover. And I think we need to highlight that they’re doing that and place them for it and see how great they’re doing with that.
So, some of the strategies that the mums and children in my study were using, and these were just completely ordinary domestic abuse survivors. I didn’t pick them because they were exceptional in any way. They were just your ordinary domestic abuse survivors, but some of the strategies they had been using, so both the mums and the children we’re reassuring each other about the past, telling each other that what had happened with the abuse was not their fault. They were reassuring each other about the present and the future, don’t be worried, it’s going to be okay, we need to live our lives and we need to make our lives fun. And they were reassuring each other that they would be there for each other in the future.
The mums were doing a lot to help the children understand what they’d been through and come to terms with it. And again helping the children to understand that it wasn’t, their fault, children tend to blame themselves a lot. Children were helping to just cheer their mums up in everyday life as mum’s mental health was slowly recovering from what she’d been through and children were doing these little things that were nice, mood lifting, little things, like making their mum a cup of tea and watching a nice movie with her, eating some chocolate with her. And they were doing that quite consciously because, it was fun for them, but they could also see it was helping mum’s mood and mothers were also doing huge amounts to try and help children to overcome the emotional and behavioural impacts of the coercive control.
So we were seeing that children were sometimes they were withdrawn, very shy or on the other hand, very angry and aggressive because of what they’ve been through. And the mums were doing so much every day to try and help the children to resolve those issues and function in a healthier way.
Mums were saying that they’d sought various different kinds of help for their children and that help being effective. They they were constantly reinforcing with their children – We don’t hit, we don’t kick, we don’t call each other nasty names. That’s wrong. That’s not how we treat each other in this household –
If the children were struggling with obsessive compulsive behaviours, which is, you know, often linked to a need to feel safe. So very understandably they had a lot of that going on for them, or if they were upset or withdrawn, the mums were trying to come up with ideas for drawing their children out of their shells and making them more confident, sending them to different hobbies that would help them to express themselves differently.
So the mums would’ve done huge amounts to try and help the children emotionally and behaviourally.
They tended to be supporting each other’s confidence, trying to make each other feel more confident, bumping up each other’s confidence. They were communicating with each other in an open way, which both mums and children said they really valued because there had been so much secrecy and lack of communication when the abuser was there, there was so much that couldn’t be said that it was dangerous to say.
Obviously not all the mums and children could communicate openly with each other because sometimes with family court that’s not possible because you’re just simply not allowed to. And if you, particularly as a mother, if you communicate too openly with your child, the family court will take a dim view of that. Sadly. And perhaps accuse you of alienating the child when you’re simply telling them the truth about their own lived experiences but where they could do where this wasn’t an issue.
And it wasn’t always an issue. They were communicating openly with each other. They were also spending lots of time together, which again, they often hadn’t been able to do under the coercive control. So this was a wonderful change for them to be able to hang out together in a relaxed way, in a fun way with no threat looming over them, being able to show each other affection. Again, the abuser had often really curtailed that. So being able to show each other affection was really new and exciting, and they were really enjoying that. They were being attentive and considerate when the other was upset or tired, and they were just giving each other the strong impression that they were there for each other. And they really valued the sense that their mother or the child was there for them and loved them and supported them.
I have so many different little quotes that I could share with you. There’s a few that particularly spring to mind around some of this really positive behaviour.
So one mum described how she said – I think the most helpful thing I’ve said to the children is that it’s not their fault and it’s not my fault. Either their dad chose to do what he did and it didn’t matter what we said or did. It wouldn’t have changed him. He would’ve carried on doing it. And the best thing for us was to stay away and to keep him away basically.
And that it wasn’t us that sent him to prison, it was a judge and that he’ll always be their dad and it’s okay for them to love him –
So obviously, you’ve got a circumstance there where the abuser had spent some time in prison, which is pretty rare because in many cases they don’t.
One teenage girl said ‘when I think that mum’s worrying about the past now, I’ll ask her if she’s okay, I’ll make her cups of tea. I’ll sit with her. Talk about everyday things. It’s just really nice.’
Another mother said: my daughter always says that she thinks I’m brave. She’s so proud of me for the volunteer work that I’m now doing. She obviously thinks I’m a very important person. I am important in her world and it’s just lovely.
And another mother described how her son would say things to her like, ‘you know, you should do this mum because it’ll be good for you’ And the mother said, it’s really important that he says that to me because when you’ve had so many bad things happen, it does make you doubt. You doubt yourself a lot on what you’re capable of doing. But she said, my son gives me encouragement to do things and tells me I can do them and tells me it would be good for me.
So they were just doing so much which nobody was even noticing they were doing or thanking them for saying well done for, to support each other’s recoveries.
If you are in the position to say well done to a mum or a child who’s acting in this way, please say it because they are doing so well to support each other in this manner, after everything they’ve been through.
I think it’s amazing.
Sally: It is, as you say, the breadth of different strategies that mums and children are using. Although the perpetrator may not be living with them, we’re not necessarily talking about during a time where the perpetrator is out of their life. So they may still be going through the family court or perpetrator coming back and trying to rekindle a relationship or prevent children from seeing grandparents, whatever impact it is that they’re having on their life. Because leavings not an act is it, it’s a process, a very long process.
In chapter eight I found it really interesting because you talk about four patterns of the levels of context and impact of the support between mums and children. And I think this really showed the need for post separation support, which we we’ve mentioned briefly before for both mum and for the children, something that is currently missing from so many areas of the UK.
Can you describe what you mean about these four patterns around levels of context and impact of support?
Emma: Yeah. So what I found was that post separation mother/child relationships, in my particular study, the 15 families, had followed one of four patterns.
The first pattern was the most positive one.
And it’s the one that I’ve been speaking to the most in my answers and I call this Positive Supportiveness Positive Recoveries. And this pattern was describing mothers and children who were at quite an advanced stage of their recoveries, that they managed to get to a place where their mother child’s relationships were close. And just had ordinary levels of conflict, typical parent child conflict, but not like a highly conflictual relationship. And they were giving each other mutual support. Importantly, in pattern one, the children’s support for the mum was quite low stakes because the mum was in good mental health or coping well with her mental health struggles, the mental health felt manageable. And so children were supporting their mum, but they weren’t especially worried about her and the mothers and the children felt really positive about this kind of mother child relationship. They were really enjoying it. So that was the most positive outcome. And about half of the families were experiencing that, which was great. Although they hadn’t got there overnight, I mean a lot of work to get there.
The second pattern, recovery had got less far. There were still some significant struggles to recover, mothers were still really struggling with their mental health in the aftermath of coercive control. The mother/child relationships in these families were close, but they were also had a lot of conflict going on. There was a lot of anger and resentment and unexpressed feelings that were bubbling up into these, these frequent conflicts. The mums and the children were really supporting each other a lot, but because the mums were struggling more with their mental health in these particular families, because they haven’t had the right support, they had not had the right supports to rebuild their mental health.
They’d been really let down by systems that had not provided them with the support that they needed to rebuild their mental health. So the children were supporting their mums and being supported by their mums. I felt that the children’s supporting these families was much more high stakes because the children were really aware of how much the mum was struggling.
Indeed, they were aware that the mum was possibly even suicidal and so their support for her was much more high stakes. And obviously we want to avoid situations where children are having to give that kind of high stake support, but in these families they were having to, because the systems that should have been helping the mother, they had not stepped up. So it was left up to the children to try to help the mother with her mental health as best as they could.
Of course it was really important to the children to help her because they relied on her. They depended on her and they loved her but they should never have been put in that position of having to support a mum through suicidal feelings, because that’s not what children should need to be doing.
So in these relationships, the mums were still supporting the children, make no mistake about that. They were being very supportive, even though they were really struggling themselves, but I just felt like it was concerning that the children were having to support the mums through quite severe mental health struggles. And that system should have been in place to help the mums with that. And it was really problematic that those systems were not stepping up.
And then in pattern three, this was where the relationships between mums and children were really still struggling post separation. The children still have a lot of behavioural difficulties as a result of the father’s abuse, the children still really didn’t understand the coercive control. They didn’t get what had happened. They perhaps were still blaming themselves, perhaps still blaming their mum and the mother/child relationships were described as being still really strained and like stressful on a daily basis.
And the mums were trying to support the children in these circumstances, but, but it was, it was difficult. The problems were so big and the mums didn’t know what to do. And again, there was nothing in place that would’ve helped them in the way that they needed. What they really needed was expert help in repairing a mother/child relationship, post coercive control. And that was just not available.
The children in these families sadly, were not being very supportive of their mums. It didn’t seem to occur to the children in these particular families to support their mums. And I think both the mothers and the children in these families reported in their interviews, that they wanted these relationships to get better.
They talked about trying, they were making efforts, particularly the mums were making efforts to try and make the relationships better and they hoped they were get better in the future. So they were just crying out for someone to offer the kind of support that they needed to make it better.
And then the final pattern is sadly the, sort of the grimmest, one of all and I described it as ‘broken relationships, blocked recoveries’ and in these families. and this was only in a very small number of cases in my study, but I think it’s quite prevalent in the population of survivors, generally.
In these families, the children have really sided with the abuser. The children may be living with the abuser. The mums are therefore struggling to recover possibly just unable to recover because the children are still with the abuser. And of course the children are not able to recover because they are still with the abuser and they’re still being coercively controlled.
These mother/child relationships might have broken down. Mothers may be out of contact with children, or the contact they do have is very small and very stressful. And the children are showing a lot of hostility with them while they’re having that contact.
These mums wanted to support their children desperately, but they couldn’t, it was completely out of their hands.
The perpetrator really had the child like a puppet on a string. And the children were hostile to the mothers and did not wish to support them. And these mothers were really desperate to improve their mother/child relationships. For the children, their views were clouded by the fact that they very much aligned with the abuser and were just not liking their mothers.
So that is a situation which again, is crying out for trained expert help with somebody who understands properly the dynamics of coercive control.
A lot of professionals claim they understand that, but they don’t and so I think that in the research literature, I have seen ideas for how relationships like this could be supported. And again, chapter eight goes over some of that and what could be done, but at the moment, we’re completely failing to make that support available to mothers and children, sadly.
There’s this huge range in the mother/child relationships, post separation, some were functioning wonderfully, and some were struggling and some were broken in the aftermath of coercive control.
But the ones that were functioning wonderfully, they had not started out that way for the most part. They’d started out struggling. The ones where they got to the place where it was really functioning well is because they had received the right help at the right time. And they’ve been able to work through some of the issues.
So if we could only roll that out more, that would be so beneficial.
Sally: And again, it really shows that providing that support at the right time, support with the correct understanding and knowledge around coercive control. It works, it makes a huge difference and thinking of next generation, you know, the life chances for those children having had that support and then had a period of time where they’ve lived in a home with a supportive parent and a loving parent is going to make so much difference, literally.
Emma: Just so much difference to their life.
And of course, that mother/child relationship will also continue to work well for the children as they become young adults and even into middle age, they’ll still be turning to that mum who loves them and supports them throughout all their struggles.
So it makes a difference, not only in terms of what happens in their childhood, but also how the whole adulthood plays out.
Sally: Absolutely. And I think one of the great things about this book is it really has broken new ground in describing these aspects of mutual support and how this bi-directional care leads to positivity about the future.
How did mums and children describe those positive relationships?
Emma: I think one thing that I did in this study that so few other researchers have done. I mean, I could count them on one hand, the other researchers who’ve done this, is I asked the mums and children what they thought about their post-separation mother/child’s relationships, what was good about them? What was working about them? how they felt about each other post-separation and I was able to gather this really interesting data about what post-separation success looked like to the mothers and children. I think it’s really important that mothers and children get to define that for themselves because this is their lives.
So what they talked about, the ones where things have gone well, they talked about having a strong relationship with each other, feeling as though they had a close bond with each other, being able to talk to each other about anything and many children brought up that it was important to be able to talk to each other about anything. They said that was a key element of positive mother/child relationships that you could just talk to each other about anything.
They said that they knew a lot about each other and that, that was important. They really valued that they felt like they knew each other inside out. They talked about it being important that they supported each other and that they were there for each other and they were very positive about the relationship staying strong like this in the future, they said, I have a great relationship with my mum or my child now. And I think we’re going to have this forever.
One little girl said, she was only 10. And she said, when I’m older, I’m going to be a success thriving with my jobs, and I’m going to move to Ireland and I’m going to move with mum and we’re going to live together and have lots of horses, that was her vision for the future as a 10-year-old. So they were very passionate about how this was going to stay good in the future.
So the children valued their mums being honest. They said that it was really important to them that they knew their mum was honest with them. They valued that their mum set boundaries with them. They felt safe in that. They valued the relationship being fun, and they really valued being able to approach their mum with their feelings and any problems they were having and get a positive response. Basically they had a strong sense that they could go to their mum with any problem, she wouldn’t be cross with them. She wouldn’t yell at them. She would just help them out in a constructive way. And they really valued that.
The mums valued being able to be devoted mothers who were there for their children, because that’s what they’d wanted to do all along. But the perpetrator had been sabotaging it so they were really pleased they could do that now.
They valued having lots of fun together, which again they couldn’t really do during the coercive control. So it was all the more important now. They valued having loving relationships that were high in trust. They could trust their children and their children could trust them. And that was important.
And they valued being able to set healthy boundaries. And the mums were also pleased that the children were thriving in their relationships with their peers. And not only did they have a close relationship with their parent, but also that they were getting on well in school that they had good close friendships.
The mums were really pleased about that so again, there’s so many different quotes I could share with you, but I just picked out a few that, that kind of explain some of this in their own words.
So one mum said of, of her current mother/child’s relationship.
‘I say we are considerate of each other. We’re sensitive to each other’s feelings and emotions, and we have fun.’
And another mother said:
‘We’ve been supportive of one another. We encourage each other, you can do it. We try to bump each other’s confidence up, you know, which is important. We give each other space and we don’t judge one another.’
And the children were also saying really positive things about the mother/child relationships.
So again, I think it’s just so important that mums and children who’ve got through the very dark tunnel of what they’ve been through. And they’ve got to the light at the end of the tunnel that, that we ask them, what does this look like? What does a happy outcome look like for you? because it doesn’t necessarily look quite the way that we might imagine it. And we’ll never know what it looks like to them and the children, unless we ask them, especially with children, I think many people wouldn’t necessarily guess that children would say that it’s really important to them, that they support their mum, as well as their mum supporting them. They wouldn’t guess that they think that it’s good that the mum supported the children, but they wouldn’t guess that for children, the feeling that they are there for their mum and that their mum trusts them and that their mum can talk to them about anything that was important to her, to the children. We would never know that unless we asked them because it’s not necessarily what we would assume.
Sally: So important. And I think for practitioners as well to be able to kind of like actually hear some of the things that families are looking for because as we’ve mentioned, several times, we walk away from these families so swiftly don’t we. The immediate danger as such is over he’s left he’s moved away or whatever. And, and so, the relationship has ended off you go.
We don’t put the time and the resource in to support these families to then recover from this often years of traumatic experiences.
And obviously for some of those children, their entire lives living within this traumatic environment and we somehow expect them to just like move forward and everything’s fine.
Emma: Yes, absolutely. We expect them to just move forward, get on with it. Everything’s fine. But it was so much more complicated than that.
] I mean, the mums and the children who were talking so eloquently about these very happy close relationships. In the first year or two post separation, their relationships were nothing like that. There was anger, there was resentment. There was silence. There was secrecy, there was blame.
One mother said, you know, that the children need to be able to say to you, look, mum, I’m really angry with you. You’ve done this, this and this. And for the mum, already feeling horrendously low herself. And she’s already blaming herself far more than she should be, because none of this was her fault. And so to hear that from the child is almost unbearable and the mum said you need so much support to get to the place where the children can express how they used to feel about you, that they can change how they feel about you because, you know, very often the children began the post separation process, blaming their mum for a lot of the stuff that had happened, not being able to see that it was the abusive father’s fault and that he was responsible for the whole situation that he created.
So, with time and support and some of the mums have been through these mother/child relationship recovery programs that I mentioned, I think should be rolled out further. Things had turned around and trust had been built. Blame had been let go of, anger had had been let go of and positivity and fun had started to come in. And it was a year’s long process and it did need support and the more that the relationship had been harmed by the perpetrating father, the more support that it needed.
And I think as I’ve said, the mums and the children whose relationships were still very broken years later the ones experiencing pattern three and four, they had not had the right support at all. And it’s just so important that we do offer that support because the difference it makes between having a mother who you are angry at and who you blame and who you don’t understand and having a mother who you trust and that you feel that you can have loads of fun with and that you are confident will always be there for you. This was the same mother, but the children’s perceptions had changed so much with the right support to recover from coercive control.
And it makes such a difference because then the children were going to their mum with their problems and the mum was able to help and years earlier, they wouldn’t have even gone to her with their problems. So it really is transformative. It’s building in resilience into the mothers and the children’s lives, and it’s taking away an enormous source of stress and distress when we help them to get their relationships to that healthier place.
Sally: As you say, making an absolute, huge difference to the rest of their lives.
The lots of new areas of research that you uncovered and were able to highlight in the book and you indicate also that we need, of course, further the research starting with the visibility of the perpetrator and also the language that we use around perpetrator behaviours.
What are some of the things you’d like to see examined?
Emma: Interestingly on the language issue, Professor Jane Callaghan looked at the terms that were most frequently used in the children in domestic violence research from 2002 to 2015. And what she found was that the term mother was the fifth most frequently occurring term, woman was the 24th most frequent, maternal was the 38th. By contrast, father was the 147th most frequent term. And the terms men, stepfather and paternal were used so little, they did not appear in her results at all. Like her results had the most 300 most used terms or something like that. So they were used so little, they didn’t even appear on that list at all.
So something is going very wrong there because studies on children and domestic abuse which is predominantly male perpetrated although I’m not in any way minimising the experience of male survivors and sometimes females are perpetrators, but for the most part, we’re talking about male perpetrators. They’re not being named; they’re not being talked about. Which is really problematic. The reason why they’re not being named is because the studies are simply not focusing on them.
There’s this strange practice in many children in domestic abuse studies to look at how, well it’s assumed by these studies that the children might be harmed by the domestic abuse by the father’s domestic abuse. Although it won’t be named as such, it’ll just be called the domestic abuse as though it’s like a force of nature or something, not something that’s being deliberately done by someone. And they might be harmed by it, the children, but how much they’re harmed by it depends on how well their mother copes in the face of the domestic abuse. Again, not attributing it to anyone causing it. And then there’s this scrutiny of the mother’s parenting. How well is she held up under this strain and then there’s an attempt to link that to how well the children are functioning.
And I find that a really bizarre approach because I think we need to be looking at what the abuser is doing and how that is affecting the children. And we certainly need to be linking the abuser to the abuse because the abuser is causing the abuse so we shouldn’t present it as some sort of abstract force of nature as though it’s something that just sort of happened. The abuser brought it all into being spent huge amounts of time and energy malevolently bringing it all into being.
I would like to see studies that look at how the association between how much the abuser sees the child and the children’s functioning, or how much hostility the abuser shows towards the children and the children’s functioning, or how much the abuser attacks and undermines the mother/child relationship and the children’s functioning.
There’s so many different things we could look at that the abuser is doing that I think will be having a relationship to how the child is functioning. But we don’t, we’re not doing that at the moment. We’re just endlessly scrutinizing the mother’s parenting and linking that to how the child’s functioning. But we’re not even asking the questions about how the abuse is affecting the child, which is very concerning to me.
I think linguistically, what we need to do is, is we need to bring abusers to the fore of our sentences. So for example, you could say ‘the children became socially isolated when mothers were prevented from seeing family and friends’ but that’s not good enough because who is preventing them? So what we need to say in fact is: ‘children became socially isolated when the abusing father prevented the mother from seeing family and friends’ and then you have brought the abuser into the sentence.
So I feel it’s very important to stop this invisibility of the perpetrating fathers in the literature and in a small number of cases, of course it will be a perpetrating mother because sometimes mothers are the perpetrators.
But we need to name them in the sentences and constantly reinforce in the reader’s mind or in the listener’s mind that it is the abuser who is responsible for the harms cause to the children. It is not the victimised adult who’s responsible for the harms caused to the children.
Sally: It really recognises then that the abuse is part of a parenting choice by the abuser. It’s not something that just happens by the way. It’s a decision that the abuser makes, this is the way in which they wish to act either knowing the consequences and wanting those consequences to occur or just not caring what the consequences are.
Emma: Exactly. At best, they don’t give a damn about how their actions are harming their children. And at worst, they are deliberately harming their children, but either way, it’s not good.
Sally: And you mentioned other research, what sort of other areas do you think would be really worth exploring?
Emma: Yeah. So I think that what we need to do is look more at the similarities of the mothers and the children’s experiences because the abuser tends to use the same tactics of emotional manipulation against the children that they do against the mother.
So for example, the abuser will use crying, apologising for the abuse, gift giving sometimes behaving in a fun way. These are all very emotionally abusive tactics. And they’ll do this on the children just as much as they do the mother. The children, as well as the mother will have to have habitually constrained and modified their behaviour to avoid angering the abuser. And many abusers do seem to expect the same constant obedience from their children that they do from their partner.
So I think we need to look at the similarity of the children and the adult victims’ experiences because it’s much more similar than we tend to think.
I think that we also need to focus on what is not happening in the child’s life, as well as what is happening because there’ll be so many elements of the child’s life that that should be there that are missing such as being able to see their grandparents, being able to hang out with their mum’s friends, being able to go to the park, be taken to their friend’s birthday parties. So often mom can’t do these things because there’ll be some negative backlash from the abuser. He’ll accuse her of having had an affair with one of the dads at the parties or something.
We need to look at these elements of the child’s life that are missing as well as the things that are happening, that shouldn’t be happening like the abuser directly hitting or sexually abusing the child.
We also need to explore the many different ways that the children and the mothers pursue agentic resistance and attempt to protect and support one another.
We need to get away from this notion of the mother as failing to protect if they were unable to stop the abuser’s most recent use of violence. because actually if we look beyond the incidence of violence, the survivor parent may be continually resisting, continually attempting to maintain the child’s wellbeing. And the children may be doing the same for the victim survivor parent through cuddles reassurance, brief moments of attention and enjoyment shared when the abuser is not present, they may both, the adults and the children, may be doing what they can do at this everyday level, within the very narrow space for action left for them by the father. So I think I’d love to see more research into that, into all these everyday little things that the mums and the children might be doing to boost each other’s wellbeing.
We need to just get away from the notion that if the mother couldn’t stop the children from witnessing the latest incident of violence, then she’s failed to protect them because there may be several hundred little ways that she’s protected them that very week and if we don’t ask about them, we don’t see them. We are missing all of that.
I think also of course, if we’ve talked about this so much, we need to research better how children and mothers may be best supported both together and separately to recover after breaking free because there’s so much that we don’t know about the kinds of support that might be most helpful for mothers and children as they break free, as they try and re-establish autonomy, as they face post separation obstacles. So I’d love to see more of that as well.
Sally: So lots, lots of work to do.
Because of the work that you’ve been involved in, you’ve made some really important recommendations as a result of this research and I have to say here at FiLiA we’d absolutely endorse them.
Can we talk a little bit about what some of that might look like in practice?
So firstly, it’s enabling children to break free from distorted ways of thinking.
Emma: Yeah. So I think we are really used to the idea of doing this for the adult victim and survivor. So for example, we’ll send the adult victim and survivor to the freedom program, which is a group program designed to educate survivors about the tactics used by perpetrators and help them make sense of their experiences.
We are used to identifying distorted ways of thinking in adult victims. For example, if the adult victim says something like ‘it’s mostly my fault, he’s a great person, merely he just has a short temper’, then anyone who knows a little bit about domestic abuse should be able to notice that that’s a distorted way of thinking and that the abuse is imposed upon the adult victim.
I think we’d all agree that that should be challenged and that the adult victim should be helped to break free of that distorted way of thinking. But we are not yet really thinking about how to equip children with the equivalent knowledge and skills to break free of the distorted ways of thinking. And yet they’ve been subjected to them too.
Sometimes for children. The problem is that they’re blaming themselves. Sometimes the problem is that the abusers encourage them to blame the victim parent so the abuser might have said things to the children, like ‘everything would be okay if she just let me come home, she’s stopping us being a family. Your mother doesn’t love me anymore. And she’s kicked me out.’
These were all things that perpetrated that apparently said to the children who took part in my study. And obviously these ideas can leave the children really confused and can leave them uncertain and not knowing what the truth might or might not be. And of course children depend on being able to trust adults, especially their parents. And it’s especially upsetting for children to hear different conflicting accounts from adults that present an incoherent picture of reality.
So I think it’s really important for any survivor children to be given age appropriate knowledge of coercive control and domestic abuse and knowledge that will help them to break free of such distorted ideas.
Obviously this needs to be done in an age appropriate way, but I would love to see children taught to recognise healthy and unhealthy parenting behaviour. So they know what to expect from a parent and they can pick out the healthy behaviour from the unhealthy behaviour. I’d also like to see, of course, children taught about healthy and unhealthy behaviour in a romantic relationship and about the dynamics of coercive control.
And obviously you go into that in different ways, depending on the child’s age. I think if children were given that knowledge then this might help them to reject some of the ideas that they’re probably walking around with. Like the parent who buys them the most gifts is the one that loves them the most. Sometimes children can think that way or that the parent who is upsetting them during each and every contact visit is a loving and faultless parent because sometimes there’s this real cognitive dissonance where they see the parent as faultless and fun and loving. But then after every contact visit, they’re really upset and riled up and you know, their behaviour is really impacted and they’re not able to put two and two together and realise actually if my parent is having this kind of negative impact on me, maybe there is something amiss with what they’re saying and doing with me.
So I don’t think we should be afraid to educate children in these ways. I know that there’s this urge to protect children’s opinions of their abusive parents, uh, because we don’t want to upset them by acknowledging that their parent is abusive, but then we’re setting them up for a world of problems if we do that, because then we are encouraging them to think that an abusive parent is a loving parent and more fundamentally that abuse is love.
And how is that going to affect them into their adulthood it’s not going to be positive.
So I think very sadly we do need to get real with them that their abusive parent is not behaving the way that they should be and that they don’t deserve to be treated like this. And this is not a normal way to treat a child and that their abusive parent is a very, very flawed parent. I think we do need to get real with children about that.
when I say we, I mean society, professional systems, as it’s very often the professionals in the systems who are opposed to the child having a realistic view of their abusive parent.
What I would love to see is children being armed with knowledge that will enable them to make more sound well informed judgments about how the people around them are behaving. So they don’t get confused and they don’t get blown off course, and they don’t end up thinking that abuse is love.
But of course there is one major obstacle to all of this. And what I’m saying is as likely as a manned mission to Mars next week, is because of the family court. So, if we are to help children break free, then it is vital that the door will be open for them to actually exit their relationship with the abusive parent or greatly reduce their contact with them if the child decides that that’s what they want once they understand what is going on.
But if Family Court is involved, then that door is usually pulled shut. Children are not allowed to exit. They are compelled to continue contact with the perpetrating parent and people may or may not realise just how compelled children are.
So if the Court orders the child to see the abusing parent and the child refuses, then the court can and does send the police in the middle of the night, in full uniform to physically drag the child from their bed kicking and screaming and protesting and crying. All their pleas ignored, strapped into the back of a police car and transferred to the abuser’s home to spend time with them and possibly live with them permanently. And this does happen.
And there was a Dispatches episode last year called Family Court Torn Apart or something like that on Channel Four. And it showed the footage of this. And this was not a one off, this is happening regularly, sadly and it’s a huge injustice.
So children are compelled to continue contact with the abusive parent, because for some reason, the family court thinks it is so important for the children to have that contact that it’s worth traumatising them in the present for some perceived future benefit that the abusive parent will apparently bring into the child’s life. Even though we know that abusive parents do not bring that benefit into their children’s life and much research shows that.
However, parents who’ve walked away from their children and don’t want to see them do not find themselves dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, strapped into police cars and forced to sit with their child and spend time with them. No, they don’t.
So there’s a real double standard there that we think it’s appropriate to do that to a child and contact is so important that it’s necessary to do that to a child, but apparently contact isn’t that important because we’re not willing to do that with parents who’ve walked away from their children and gone off somewhere else. So I think that’s interesting.
So what I was going to say just how dire things are in the family courts.
Professor Joan Meier in the United States did a comprehensive study into what is going on in the Family Courts, in the USA and that study looking at a number of cases found that mothers were disbelieved by the family court when they said that the father had been abusive in 59% of cases, it was even worse if the father counterclaimed that the mother had alienated the children from him, then the mother was highly likely to be disbelieved when she said that the father had been abusive.
The courts were especially unlikely to believe that the father had been sexually abusing the children. When mothers reported to the family court, that fathers had been sexually abusing the children 85% of the mothers were disbelieved 85%. And this is despite research suggesting that false accusations for mothers in these circumstances is rare. There are many studies suggesting that this is rare.
So, so summarising these findings, Meier concluded that courts are excessively sceptical of reports that fathers have been abusive or domestically violent.
In the United Kingdom a report called the Harm Report authored for the Government’s Ministry of Justice recommended that we need reform of the post-contact culture of the courts. It found concerns that abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices, not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed, or disbelieved, inadequate risk assessment, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements, abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and threats of repeat litigation.
So in the UK and in the United States, and also in, in most other countries, you would care to name something is going very wrong in the Family Courts.
I would like to see a whole different system brought in that instead of doing what is currently done actually safeguards the needs and the rights of children to be free of domestic violence, domestic abuse, coercive control, child abuse.
But in its current form, Family Court systems tend for the most part to act as a real roadblock to children’s safety and when children are faced with this roadblock, they have little chances of escaping from coercive control because they’re still in it because the control is still continuing and the child is still spending so much unsupervised time with the abuser.
So, much reform is needed there. And I really, really recognise that.
Sally: Absolutely. And it’s, it’s almost, I think to the point where it’s not a case of changing things within the family court, but let’s start again because the system’s completely broken and it’s not safe for children or for mums.
Emma: I would agree. And reforms have been brought in in the last 20 years. But from all the evaluations and reports, it seems that the reforms are just not being followed. So there is something that is fundamentally wrong in the culture of the courts that even when reforms and new processes are brought in, they’re being ignored.
Sally: I think it’s called patriarchy.
Emma: Yeah, I think there’s a big dose of the patriarchy going on there. Certainly Meier found that if a mother says a father’s abusive and a father counter claims, I’m not abusive, but she’s alienated the children from me. He’s believed at least 50% of the time and gets custody.
But if a father claims a mother’s abusive and a mother says, no, I’m not abusive, but he’s alienated the children from me. So the flip situation, she gets custody less than 30% of the time compared to his 50%. So there’s definitely a gender bias there in favour of father’s accused of abuse rather than mothers in those circumstances.
There’s a big dose of the patriarchy. I think there’s also an unwillingness to face up to the reality of child abuse because I think the family courts see their purpose as keeping both parents in the child’s life, especially the father in the child’s life. and see allegations of child abuse as some sort of annoyance and disruption of their desire to keep the father in the child’s life.
So they’re brushed aside as an annoyance and irrelevance. It’s not important sadly.
Sally: It’s very much around parental rights. And when I say parental rights, I mean father’s rights rather than children’s rights to safety and security and a family life.
Emma: Exactly. And children do have rights. I mean, the UK has signed up to the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s been signed up for 30 years. Most people don’t even know that and have never heard of it even though one of the rights in the UNCRC is that children should be taught about their rights. And yet I’m a university teacher. And when my 18 year olds join our degree. I often ask them, were you aware that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, when you were a child, did you know what rights it gave you? None of them. None of them have heard of it, so something’s going very wrong there.
We are not allowing children to exercise the rights that we have signed up for them to have.
Sally: It’s a crazy situation. And one of the other recommendations we talked about the availability of mother and child recovery programs, but also within that the use of strength based and empowering approaches.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Emma: Yeah, so I think it’s so important to work with survivors using strengths based and empowering approaches.
So often we think of survivors as not being strong and as being disempowered, we can have a very negative view of survivors and be quite frustrated with them, I think because we’re not understanding the full extent to which they’ve been entrapped and therefore it looks as though they’re not behaving in a logical way, but they are, if you understand the full extent to which they’ve been entrapped, but at the same time they are survivors and they have a lot of strength that we need to start recognising.
So, one of the mums that I interviewed with, in the interview I asked them about the ways that they’d supported each other. I asked the mums about how they supported their children and the children about how their mums had supported them, but also how they’d supported their mums.
It gave them a space to think about that. And what I realised was that this was probably the first time they’d ever had a space to think about it. So one of the mums at the end of the interview, she was astonished and she said, this is just really weird because it’s so strange to think about all these years and to think about it, like, like I was supporting them like a process, talking to you I’ve realised that it has been kind of like a process, but I never thought it about that way. I never thought about it that way. I thought it was just life. It was just something I was just doing automatically. And she was really amazed at how once she was given the opportunity to reflect on how much he’d help the children. I think it occurred to her for the first time, how much she had helped the children.
I think we need to be doing this so much more because I think mums don’t necessarily put the pieces together and realise the full importance of how much they’ve been supporting their children in the children’s everyday lives and how much they’ve been helping their children to recover. They just see it as normal life.
So I think anything we can do as professionals to point this out to mothers is really powerful. So ask them friendly questions about the ways they’ve tried to help each other, and try to guide them towards perceiving their actions as important and powerful.
I read a really interesting study about 10 years ago, which suggested, and I talk about this in the book, that it really helps survivors if you encourage them to see themselves as somebody with abilities and make them more aware of their personal agency and efficacy, efficacy, is a means effectiveness, make them aware of their ability to positively influence the course of events and take successful actions.
If you can do that, then that they start to have greater confidence and self-esteem as they move forward, because of course the abuser has done the complete opposite to them. The abuser has made them feel powerless, has made them feel stuck, entrapped and has told them over and over again how useless they are.
So if you treat them with respect and you point out to them, small examples, or big examples of where they’ve acted in a way that they’ve shaped events, that they’ve had a positive impact on events, through the choices that they’ve made. I think that’s really powerful, but of course, remembering of course, that there’s a limit to what they can do because first of all, they were entrapped by the abuser and then they were, they were stuck within systems that were not working for them post separation in all likelihood. Such as the Family Court, and perhaps other systems as well.
Also with children, I think it’s so important to treat the children the opposite of how the perpetrator treated them. So any professional should be thinking, how did the perpetrator treat this child and how can I treat them in the opposite way?
So I would like to see us reassuring them about anything that they might have done less than perfectly in their everyday lives, because the abuser will have made a big deal about any mistake that they might make. Reassure them, that you can learn things through a process of trial and error, because again, the abuser will have given them the impression that making mistakes is terrifying and unacceptable.
Make them feel important, worthwhile and intelligent, which is probably the complete opposite of how the abuser made them feel and give them opportunities to explore the world around them and socialise with supportive peers. They were probably deprived of that and try to give them opportunities to express their emotions.
Also watch out for the way you respond as an authority figure if your authority is being challenged make sure you respond in a way that is fair and calm and open, and don’t become like mega defensive or mega aggressive, because that’s
If you are feeling yourself, being challenged, try to respond in a really calm and fair way which will be a really good example for the children.
Try and encourage them to make decisions about their lives. They should be involved in any big decisions about their lives, but they should also be involved in the small decisions as well. Like where would you like to travel to on a day out? what would you like to have for a meal? Just anything you can do as a professional to show the child that their views are important, their decisions are respected and they have some freedom of choice. That’s going to be really helpful because again, this is exactly the opposite of what the abuser will have done with them.
Sally: It leads on actually to your last recommendation that we use child centred approaches when we are interacting with child survivors of coercive control and think about what’s happened to them, what the perpetrator has acted and what they, as a child now need to hear from others around them to help balance and mitigate some of that and learn different ways of reacting.
Emma: Absolutely. Yeah. And professionals have a lot of power in that respect to make those changes. So, we should use that power wisely.
Sally: Absolutely. The whole book, I think has been really interesting to read and lots particularly for professionals to learn, but I think anybody reading through it would, would find, let’s face it, we know someone sadly who has experienced either as a child or adult, domestic abuse and coercive control. So I think anybody would find it interesting.
You leave us in the book with three key things that you want people to remember and to think about and take forward as a result of this work.
So before we finish up, can I ask you to share those three things with us?
Emma: Sure. So I think the three things that I leave you with in the book are the idea of thinking of the adult and the child, victim, and survivor as co-victims and co-survivors. And I like that language because it links their experiences together.
So sometimes I see language like: the adult victim or the adult survivor and their children, which implies that the children aren’t victims and survivors and. also when we call the children, victims and survivors, there’s always the risk that they will turn around and start blaming the victim and survivor parent, the mother, because mother blaming is unfortunately very prevalent.
So I like the language co-victim and co-survivor because it links them together and shows that they were victims and survivors of the same thing. And therefore if you’re calling the mother, the co-victim and co-survivor and the children co victim and co survivor, it makes it more difficult for you to blame the mother because how can the mother be at fault when she is the co-victim and co- survivor of the exact same thing.
That’s my recommendation for the language we could use around that.
I hope that’s helpful. Linguistically, we must bring the perpetrator to the fore of sentences. So, describe who the abuser was in addition to calling them co victims and co survivors, the mother and child.
I think the second point that the book concludes on is that we need to get better at stopping the abusers from carrying on their abuse. Because so many of the families who I interviewed with, and this is, I think this is really common. They were recovering. They were spending the years and years and years and making so many efforts to recover. Meanwhile, the abuser was off somewhere else, abusing new people and creating all new people who one day will need to spend years and years and years recovering. And so many abusers are repeat abusers They go through so many different adult and child victims during their career of offending.
We have to put resources into supporting the current victims and survivors, but we also must put resources into preventing abusers from starting up their abuse in the first place and curbing the ones who have started up. We need to look at doing that and that needs its own funding streams.
We shouldn’t be competing for the same pots of funding for the abusers and the survivors, but the work to prevent abusers from starting up in the first place or continuing, that we desperately need to start doing that because we’ll never get anywhere with reducing domestic abuse until we do that.
And then I think my final point is about how coercive control is all about taking away the survivor’s freedom to make choices about how they want to live and how they want to express themselves. It is about the perpetrator attempting to force and threaten and confuse the survivors into redirecting their lives, shifting away from meeting their own needs and shifting towards continually pleasing and serving the abuser and to live exclusively to please someone else is to be less than half alive and being made to live like that is similarly harmful for children as it is for adults.
So I end on this quote which I think describes this so well from a 12-year-old child, Katie. She explained the transformation that she, her brother and her mum had collectively experienced from dullness to joyful engagement with life after they escaped and regained their freedom. And what she said was:
‘we just love life at the moment, because then we were all dull and we didn’t like life much. And now we’re all happy. We feel we can do anything we want.’
And I think that just sums it up so perfectly, and that is coming from a child, but that could so easily have come from an adult because they’ve been through the same thing and they need the same thing. They need to regain that basic fundamental freedom of choice that the perpetrator’s taken away from them.
They need to feel that they can do what they want to.
Sally: And it’s as simple and as complicated as that, isn’t it? Thank you.
Emma: It is yes. I really hope this has been a useful podcast for people listening and keep in touch with me folks. I’m very active on Twitter. So if you want to keep in touch, the best way is to follow me on Twitter. My handle is DrEmmaKatz.
Keep in touch with me folks and hopefully we can continue to make a difference on this.