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Learn About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

Tactic #11 — Using the Children

– Posted in: Children's exposure to abuse Intimate partner abuse Male perpetrators Why does he do it

This is the eleventh of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Using the Children.Power & control wheel #11 Clare Murphy PhDWays men use the children to maintain power and control or to punish their partner or ex-partner include demanding that she do all the childcare, making her feel guilty about the children, telling her he wouldn’t lose his temper if she kept the children quieter. Some men undermine her relationship with the children, for example when she sets clear boundaries he will then tell the children they’re allowed to do the thing their mother had said ‘no’ to. Some men also undermine her parenting by telling her she’s a bad parent and by purposefully belittling her in front of the children.

Some men use the children by threatening to take them away or kidnap them if his partner leaves him, or they threaten to have the children taken into care of child protection services or they threaten to harm the children, or actually do harm the children.

Women with children are more likely to be abused by their partner than are women without children.1 When men do abuse their partner this increases the likelihood he will abuse the children — physically, sexually, psychologically. And the more frequent the abuse towards their partner, the higher the chance the children will be abused too.2

Many men who coercively control their partner use children as weapons to get at her, control her, and keep her in her place.

Quite soon after starting her relationship with Luke, Heather did not want to be with him because he was abusing her. She wanted to leave and do her teaching degree, however she got pregnant, but did not want to share a child with Luke, so she told him she was going to have an abortion. However, fitting with his possessive attitude, he did not want her to have an abortion so he served High Court papers on her to prevent her from having an abortion. However, as Heather said, “He actually dropped the court case. I just got to read the papers recently through the hospital because he tried to sue the hospital as well. I thought he was so powerful and I just couldn’t mess with him. Even when I had our son he said in one of the affidavits that ‘she’s going back to work, that she obviously doesn’t want our son, so I’ll have him those times’. So if I went back to any work of any sort of description where he thought I was neglecting our son he would be on me. I never went out because he’d say, ‘you’re not going out leaving our son with your parents’. Yet he would never offer to look after him while I went out.”

Despite Luke seeming to want to have a child, this was not his actual motivation for trying to prevent the abortion. Many men with possessive attitudes use the children to maintain power and control over their partner. Heather discusses Luke’s attitude after they separated: “He made comments like ‘I wish you loved me like you love our son’. If I went to town he would grab the pram and say, ‘I know that when I’ve got our son you won’t go far away.’ He’d say, ‘If I had our son you’d come and live with me because you wouldn’t be away from him.’ I went and said to the counsellor, ‘I don’t want to be with Luke’. I said I want it so we have smooth running, we’ve got this child now, I want to get on with my life and Luke to get on with his and sort out some sort of arrangement until our son’s older, whether he comes and visits him at my place, or we meet on a Sunday afternoon until he’s old enough to be taken on his own. I want to remain friends so it’s easier for our son. But then Luke had me on his own and said ‘there’s no way we can be friends. I’m not going to be friends with you if you’re not going to live with me’.”

Pauline describes how Chris used the children to manipulate and maintain control over her, claiming that he could not spend time with his children because he’d rather spend time elsewhere. Pauline said Chris wouldn’t agree to an access order for the children, so when they were in the Court, “he said, ‘No court or judge is telling me what to do.’ So we had it on agreement and he walked out of court and he turned around and said, ‘Stick your fucking agreement.’ He said, ‘I can’t have the kids, I want to go to Rotary gatherings.’ Contact with the children has been very much to his timetable.”

Many men use the children in an attempt to punish their partner. And the children are negatively impacted as a result.

Raewyn also discussed how her husband Brian would use the children as a tool to prevent her from getting her needs met. Raewyn said, “Once I’d left he would play games about having the children because he knew I wanted a break and he would almost bribe me and say ‘Raewyn let’s talk about marriage and why this has happened and then I’ll see if I want to have the children’. He’s still doing it now. He’s using the children to get at me and they suffer. I suffer because I don’t get my break, but they suffer the most because if he’s not happy with me he doesn’t have them. It’s not so bad but he doesn’t have them very regularly. He could go a whole school-term and not see them. I know he does this because he told a mutual friend of ours because she asked him ‘why don’t you have the children regularly every second weekend?’ He said, ‘No way I don’t want to make it easy for her, so she can have a nice weekend with her lover.’

Susan said, “I had applied for a protection order, but my lawyer was so slow and didn’t think there was anything to worry about. But Anthony had left a suicide note and he left it to the kids. I read it before the kids saw it. I was a nervous wreck. Imagine if the kids had seen this and what it would have done to them. Anthony doesn’t give up. I ended up going to a women’s refuge because I didn’t feel safe at all. I spent five days at women’s refuge. I had to take a week off work. The kids were so confused about things. They weren’t happy being there. I said to him I can’t go on, I’ve found myself a house to rent.” But Susan lived in a rural area and had no transport, so the new house was close which meant Anthony could see it. Susan said, “it was the only empty house there and I had that thing that I had to have the kids close to him because he’d say, ‘My kids have to be with me or else I’ll fight you for custody’.

Men who use coercive control against their partner, know the woman’s vulnerabilities. The love and protection that many women have for their children is one area that those men use after separation to continue coercive control.

After Raewyn left Brian, “He actually went away, overseas, for quite a while, ten months, so it was all pretty quiet. I didn’t realise how blissful that was.” However, when he returned, Brian would use conversations about the children as opportunities to abuse Raewyn.  Raewyn said, “if I rang him up to see if he wanted to have the children, he’d always have a go at me, every time. A lot of the time I was crying at the end of the phone conversations, or I’d get so mad at him. I don’t know how he does it, he just makes you feel bad. I just can’t stand him, and then it would happen the next time and the next time, because he would never say, ‘yes I want to have the children and I want to be a father’. No, no, it would be ‘Oh, you’re just using me for a babysitter.’ So the abuse was just as bad as when we were married. It was revolting. The children are still something he can get at me about, although I’m trying to not get sucked into that one.”

Some men who engage in abusive, controlling, or violent behaviours towards their partner also directly maltreat their children.

Raewyn said that although her husband never really had that much respect for her, the abuse and coercive control got worse once they had children. Raewyn said, “When the eldest boy Paul was two years old, suddenly I felt something different, I thought what’s happened? He’d stopped bugging me and he was abusing Paul. I got scared. I thought at that time, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go.’ He was really horrible. That’s probably the most scaredest and the most I ever wanted to leave was at that point. When my son Paul was about five or six, I said to my sister, she was visiting, I said, ‘I’ve got to leave him for Paul’s sake’. She even agreed with me there, for Paul’s sake you’ve got to leave him Raewyn. And again it was like I was locked into it I couldn’t go, I just didn’t know if I had it in me to go.”

Other men who abuse their wives, may also control the children.

Raewyn gives an example of how her husband favoured one child over the other. For some children, this can create rivalries between them. Raewyn said that after she and Brian separated, “he went back to picking on me and he was also picking on Paul. And his abuse went a little bit further, because he would dote on the youngest boy, which would make it even worse for Paul. I would just be crying inside for Paul because it was so obvious. That was horrible. I think what he was doing with the children really pushed me most to get out. The way he was treating Paul, he would know that it affected me badly. I got to the point where I used to say ‘stop picking on him’, and he knew it affected me. I think it made him do it more.”

Women with children are at higher risk than childless women, of being abused after separating from a man with a history of controlling behaviours.

When Adriana and Steve separated he threatened to kill her and he used their daughter as a pawn to control Adriana. As a result of the threat to kill her, Adriana worried how that threat would affect her daughter. She believed her daughter may be at some level of danger when she was in his care.

Adriana said her ex-husband tries to get their daughter to make a choice between them. She said it must be very very hard for her daughter to cope with his slurring at her and the family. Adriana said, “I have no control over it. There’s no way I can do anything about it, except, again be the rock, be the person who does things the right way. Being the rock means supporting her in what she wants to do, being consistent with my parenting, to be consistent with her, living ongoing in a predictable way, loving her — for me all the normal parenting things. Not saying negative things about him in front of her.”

Adriana said her ex-husband, “was a great father when we were married, but after the divorce he fails to be a father or role model to our child. He fails to be consistent about seeing her. He doesn’t support her on any level I can detect because he doesn’t support all her interests, he jeopardises all her interests. He doesn’t support her financially in any way. He uses her for his own purposes which I think is the lowest of the lowest. For example he uses her as a negotiator between us, he buys her presents and does not let her bring them home or use them.”

Many coercively controlling men (especially if they have money) use children to battle for contact or day-to-day care in the family court.

Research shows that many of those men are able to put on a charming façade when outsiders observe their fathering. Adriana said, “The court system is quite steadfast on any access. The court believes any relationship with the father is better than no relationship — even if it hurts the child. Not necessarily physically because he hasn’t been physically violent. We had a couple of psychologist’s reports and the psychologist looked at the way he behaves towards her for an hour and made an assessment of that. The report showed nothing like the reality. It didn’t show things like the fact he calls her up and asks whether she’s slim or not. But again I had no control over that because he is her parent, he is a guardian so he has amazing power not only over her, but over me and it is given to him by the legal system and by the structure. There’s the hard bit because there’s no way as an individual that I can fight it. He’s got the right to make decisions for her, which obviously influences my life.”

Elizabeth said that, David “took out custody proceedings yet there was no way he could look after the kids” because as Elizabeth said, she had “looked after them all the time that we’d had them. They were little children.”

Using the children in this way to maintain control over Elizabeth was despairing for her. She said that David “had these people he called nannies, they were just girls that he had picked up wherever he picked them up that he called nannies. I remember one holiday I dropped the girls around there so that he could pay a teenager to look after them while I went out cleaning. The whole thing was just so back to front. I would say, ‘I’ll look after the kids. I’ll have the kids.’ ‘Oh no no.’ There was no way he was going to let that happen. We went to mediation, we went through the whole legal process, and to mediation for custody of the kids, and the kids had lawyers and the kids had psychological reports and that whole business — which was very hair raising. And he has this wonderfully charming persona, he is very proper and very charming and of course he’s got his professional life and his lovely home and here I am scraping to stay alive.”

Many men who abuse their partners, show a lack of responsibility as fathers.

These fathers lack interest and involvement and do not fulfill the huge range of parenting tasks required. Instead, the mother often has to take up the slack and do all the things for the children that the father neglects to do, such as organising school camp, all the equipment and logistical arrangements that go along with that, organising school uniforms, medical appointments, ensuring medication is administered on schedule, ensuring children have a balanced healthy diet, and so forth. Many men who control their partners just want the public kudos of being a father, but not all the hard work that committed healthy parenting requires.

Elizabeth said,When I left, I stayed at my girlfriend’s. The children were living in the house where he was living. I used to come in at seven o’clock in the morning to seven at night to look after them, as we had four children at that stage and the youngest was three. He used to leave me lists of things to do, I had to do this and I had to do that. If I went to the supermarket to buy food he wanted to see the receipt to make sure that I hadn’t bought anything for myself. I couldn’t get onto a benefit because even though I was looking after the kids 12 hours a day, because they were sleeping at his house, I couldn’t claim a benefit, because technically they were in his care. Not that I was really into looking at benefits at that stage, because I never saw myself as someone who should be going on a benefit. I couldn’t claim child support because again they were in his custody, that is where they spent the night is the thing that counts.”

Children are impacted in a variety of ways when their father uses them as a tool to control their mother.

How children are impacted depends on their age, the kind of control and manipulation they experience, the strength of bond they have with their father, mother and siblings and the degree to which their father undermines those bonds. Children’s needs for psychological and physical safety may be diminished, their ability to focus and enjoy school may be impeded and some children may develop physical illnesses. Children may try to stop the abuse, while others may feel powerless to change anything. Some children become confused, anxious or depressed. Yet other children may be very resilient — especially if they have good stable supports and they are able to talk to trusted family, friends or people in the wider community about what they are experiencing.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Economic abuse
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse


  1. Humphreys C. Domestic violence and child protection: Challenging directions for practice. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse: Issues Paper 13. 2007.
  2. Baker LL, Cunningham AJ. Helping children thrive: Supporting woman abuse survivors as mothers. London, ON, Canada: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System, London Family Court Clinic, Inc., 2004.

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  • steph 7 October 2015, 3:11 pm

    Wendi, I’ve been and still there, and it’s a joke and about money. After woman’s rights, now men’s rights to be equal, it’s the trend. Most cases nothing will be done until something bad happens. Very sad but he gets rights. My first lawyer said it’s not against the law to be an asshole. 10 years later of abusive awful hell and still fighting I’ve realized that was about finding the right lawyer. Someone who shuts it down immediately. I finally found one after ten years and $80,000 in lawyer and court fees. He knows his type and helps! To be honest the only one who can help you at this point is God himself because nothing will change. I feel your pain. God bless!

  • Wendi 8 June 2015, 7:01 pm

    I have dealt with an abuser for 10 years. He has used my kids as tools to isolate me and alienate me. He has used the courts since 2009 to try to take my son from me with limited visitation. He has verbally, physically, emotionally abused me and my young son. He has abused my older children also. I have had 3 protective orders against him that I included my son. I currently have one as he was abusive at an exchange for our son in February this year, screaming sexual slurs towards me including askin me if I remember how he sexually violated me severely. He is going to court on the charges of domestic violence and disorderly conduct this Tuesday. I have an attorney that says don’t add my son to the protective order. He tells me to wait until court. I went to councelors, CPS, the police, the courts begging to help us. The father has shown some type of sexual content to my son, which is in a police report and my son told a councelor. No one is doing anything. My son is terrified to go for visits. He has behavioral issues, diarrhea, nightmares, headaches, stomach aches. I don’t know what else to do. His attorney has filed every fraudulent case against me, even claiming I don’t know my child exsits. She has lied to me, harassed me through emails, filed fake documents. I have called the bar association and asked what I can do. I have to gather everything she has done which is hard to find in court documents.
    Please help me with any advice you have that will help me help my son. We have been divorced since 2010. The father has even kidnapped my son taking him out of state. The father is a pain pill user of opiates for over 20 years. He is bi polar, narcisstic psychopath.
    Thank you for your time!

  • Clare Murphy PhD 24 January 2015, 10:25 am

    Hi Trevor, I have written elsewhere throughout my website that I am writing about, and from, the perspectives of my Masters research, my PhD research, and related experiences in my consulting work.

    I know that men living with female partners experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as do men and women living with same-sex partners. In due course I will write in-depth based on research from these other perspectives. This website is not about generalisations.

    That means I am currently discussing two main issues:
    1. Heterosexual men who perpetrate emotional abuse and control against their female partners, and
    2. Heterosexual women who have survived these same behaviours.

    It takes time to research and write about every possible angle of abuse.

  • trevor 23 January 2015, 12:33 am

    I think it’s so unfair to just blame men. Women use the kids all the time. I don’t want to be in a relationship with my daughter’s mother and she uses our daughter against me for that. Just because I don’t love her doesn’t mean I don’t love my daughter. She has very bad control issues.

  • Karen 15 January 2015, 8:41 am

    I left my husband after 25yrs of marriage. My children were aged 17, 24, and 27. My husband controlled my life from the day I met him aged 18. He told me what to wear what job I could do and when I was allowed out or not. Finally aged 46 I had just about had enough of his controlling ways so I left him for someone else. My husband band my children from seeing or talking to me for a long time. My eldest daughter was seriously affected by her dad’s self pity and violent outburst that she’s been having counselling ever since. The children started seeing me in secret and this has gone on now for four years. He still lives in the family home whilst I’ve been homeless and sleeping at friends on and off.

    I finally filed for divorce and am waiting to attend court very soon. The thought of seeing this man after four long years makes me feel physically ill. I split up with my new partner a few months ago after going through so much pain within both our families. I am now alone and hurting. My husband on the outside is charming and friendly and everyone likes him. He’s managed to turn most of our friends against me telling them I walked out on my children. He told my children I left him suicidal and worried them for months on end. I spent Christmas alone this year for the very first time. Whilst my husband and my children spent it together in our family home. I love my children and I would do anything for them. We do meet up now and I take them out for dinner every week. I help support my youngest daughter whilst she’s still at uni. Me and my husband own three properties, two of which he rents out. He has kept the income from these and saw me broke and homeless. There is no end to his cruelty towards me. His mother passed away last month and he banned me from attending her funeral. I was very close to my mother in law for 28 years and spent a lot of time together. I sit alone most evening wondering when the misery will end and whether my bullying controlling ex husband will ever let it go and let me live a peaceful life. My children are scared of him and will never stand up for me or themselves. It’s sad there are people out there like this. I pray for the day when I have peace in my life.

  • Christine 17 March 2014, 3:05 pm

    Please help me and my children. Ex-spouse of a high ranking Military Naval Officer in a NAVY retired community and politically coersive Family Court and protective of the “good old boys” club. Strong evidence of 13 out of 16 Power and Control wheel abuses.. No accountablility in the local court system and he has used the financial tactic…he is NOT done with me as he clearly makes his moves. I am willing to stand forth and help others in any way .. it is about breaking the cycle and giving our children a chance not model this behavior. Let me share my story of “coming out the back door..” to possibly help other women in bondage of their Military Spouses.

  • M21 11 April 2013, 1:47 pm

    Thank you for this article, it makes sense of the abuse and controlling behavior from my abusive ex that I have been struggling against. Even after I fled the relationship (I was physically assaulted, and leaving meant becoming homeless with 2 young children), the abuse continues… You are right, the only thing he has left to hurt me with is the children.

    I wish Family Court, its judges, Guardian ad Litems, mediators, evaluators, psychologists etc would be better educated on domestic violence and the tactics abusers use against victims even after the relationship has ended. In my case, Family Court ignored numerous allegations of abuse, many documented with medical evidence, and police reports, and reports made by the children – and awarded sole custody to the abuser. I was told that my problem is that I am afraid of the abuser, and it is bad for the kids. I was told that it is wrong for me to be in an ‘address confidentiality program’ for victims of DV because I am “keeping secrets”. And I was repeatedly told not to talk about abuse, that I couldn’t prove abuse, or it “happened in the past”.

    My kids are not safe, no one is listening… and the Court has utterly failed to protect them.

    Since [his] being awarded sole custody, the children continue to struggle and raise allegations of abuse. My oldest children tried to run away from dad’s house – 4 times. After no one would listen to his cries for help, he now believes that he deserves to be hit, spanked and called names because “I am a f — a– kid” and “I am so stupid”. My oldest believes abusive behavior is “safe” because his dad “stops him” from acting out or doing “bad” things by using threats and physical force against him. My second child has trouble making friends, at times she withdraws into herself so deeply that she is almost unreachable. The school fears they “will lose her”. This child drew a picture of herself with huge, frightened eyes and black scribbles all across her mouth.

    Every time I report concerns or ask for more parenting time, I lose in Court. When I fled the abuse, the abuser said that if I did not do what he wanted, he would take the kids… I did not believe such a thing could happen. I do now.

    These threats against mom and children are serious. Why isn’t Family Court listening?