Adverse impacts of childhood exposure to interparental intimate partner violence (IPV)


Coercive control (CC) is a core facet of intimate partner violence (IPV) and involves asserting power, dominance, and control over another person.

Although the adverse impacts of childhood exposure to interparental IPV have been well documented, the outcomes of childhood exposure to interparental CC have not been systematically examined.

Domestic abuse (as gender-based abuse), can be perpetrated by partners or ex partners and can include physical abuse (assault and physical attack involving a range of behaviour), sexual abuse (acts which degrade and humiliate women and are perpetrated against their will, including rape) and mental and emotional abuse (such as threats, verbal abuse, racial abuse, withholding money and other types of controlling behaviour such as isolation from family or friends).

Research evidence suggests that the psychosocial impact on young people of witnessing domestic violence and abuse can be severe:

  • Higher risk of mental health difficulties throughout their lives
  • Increased risk of physical health difficulties
  • Risk of educational drop out and other educational challenges
  • Risk of involvement in criminal behavior
  • Interpersonal difficulties in their own future intimate relationships and friendships
  • More likely to be bullied and to engage in bullying themselves
  • More vulnerable to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation and to becoming involved in violent relationships themselves
  • Lasting neurological impacts that can have far reaching implications for children’s lifelong well-being

(Callaghan et al. 2015)

Research indicates that children witnessing domestic violence is at least as impactful as being directly physically abused (Moylan et al., 2010; Sousa et al., 2011), and the NSPCC considers witnessing domestic abuse to be child abuse in itself. They state that long term effects of abuse and neglect include:

  • Emotional difficulties such as anger, anxiety, sadness or low self-esteem
  • Mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders,

post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self harm, suicidal thoughts

  • Problems with drugs or alcohol
  • Disturbing thoughts, emotions and memories that cause distress or confusion
  • Poor physical health such as obesity, aches and pains
  • Struggling with parenting or relationships
  • Worrying that their abuser is still a threat to themselves or others
  • Learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
  • Behavioural problems including anti-social behaviour, and criminal behaviour (NSPCC 2018)

However, due to the complex nature of the problem, there is a lack of clarity about what forms of violence and abuse lead to what specific negative outcomes. Fowler and Chanmugam’s (2007) critical review of five quantitative meta- and mega-analyses on the effects of childhood exposure to domestic violence concludes that there are many methodological flaws in the body of literature and areas with inconclusive results, as a result of design flaws, issues around definitions, and the heterogeneity and complexity of the population. Problems of defining psychological and emotional abuse have posed particular challenges (Allen 2013; Hamberger et al. 2017). These limitations within research that has been conducted so far mean that although there is wide consensus that childhood exposure to domestic violence is associated with negative emotional and behavioural outcomes, it is not possible to clearly identify the specific mechanisms through which exposure influences outcomes.

The impact on young people of witnessing non-physical domestic abuse such as coercive control is even less clear. One complicating issue is that it is not only the severity or frequency of abuse that influences impact (and the complexity of measuring these when coercive control does not occur in isolated incidents at individual times) but it is also related to children’s perceptions of conflict and the degree to which it is seen as threatening (Jouriles and McDonald 2014).

The Early Intervention Foundation (2018) reports that children who witness severe and ongoing parental conflict can have significant negative outcomes for children:

When conflict between parents is frequent, intense and poorly resolved, it puts children’s mental health and long-term outcomes at risk. Children of all ages can be affected by destructive interparental conflict, from infancy to adulthood, but they may be affected in different ways.

Children as young as six months show symptoms of distress when exposed to interparental conflict, infants up to the age of five display symptoms such as crying or acting out, and children in middle childhood (six to 12 years) and adolescents show emotional and behavioural distress. Children who witness or are aware of conflict between parents, or who blame themselves, are affected to a greater extent.

Children who witness severe and ongoing parental conflict can display:

  • Externalising problems (such as behavioural difficulties, antisocial behavior, conduct disorder)
    • Internalising problems (such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety)
    • Academic problems
    • Physical health problems
    • Social and interpersonal relationship problems

In the long term, the above poor child outcomes are associated with: mental health difficulties, poorer academic outcomes, negative peer relationships, substance misuse, poor future relationship chances, low employability, and heightened interpersonal violence. The impact of interparental conflict on children can therefore be varied and long-lasting, as well as the risk that relationship behaviours and problems are repeated across the generations, as evidence suggests these children can go on to experience destructive conflict in their own future relationships. (EIF 2017)

Humphreys and Horton (2008) highlight the potential inadequacy of the division between direct child abuse and witnessing domestic abuse, and emphasise the importance of understanding witnessing and experiencing domestic abuse as being part of a holistic issue in which children may be more involved than observing from a distance:

[T]here are problems which arise from drawing ‘false’ distinctions between exposure to, or witnessing domestic abuse and direct abuse, rather than responding holistically to the child’s experience (Edleson et al., 2003; Mullender et al., 2002). Research is now showing that children are involved in a myriad of ways when they live with domestic abuse. For instance they may be used as hostages (Ganley and Schechter, 1996); they may be in their mother’s arms when an assault occurs (Mullender et al., 2002); they may be involved in defending their mothers (Edleson et al., 2003).

Stanley and Goddard (1993) and Kotch (2006) also refer to violence within the community of people surrounding the family which may also instil fear and may contribute directly to the abuse of the child and the impact on well-being. Irwin et al., (2006) point out that describing this range of violent experiences as ‘witnessing’ fails to capture the extent to which children may become embroiled in domestic abuse.

Coercive and controlling behaviour

Domestic violence and abuse is:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse.

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. (Home Office 2015)

A non-exhaustive list of coercive and controlling behaviours from the Home Office (2015) includes:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family;
  • Depriving them of their basic needs;
  • Monitoring their time;
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware;
  • Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep;
  • Depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services;
  • Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless;
  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim;
  • Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities;
  • Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
  • Threats to hurt or kill;
  • Threats to a child;
  • Threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone).
  • Assault;
  • Criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods);
  • Rape;
  • Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

The diagram below was produced by the Duluth domestic abuse intervention program to illustrate the various manifestations of power and control in domestic abuse:

Image from Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (2017)

Jeffries (2016) discusses how non-physical coercive and controlling domestic violence, which she argues is common, can have extremely negative impact on victims:

In reality many perpetrators never use physical violence. Some may use what is best described as minor assaultive violence such as pushing, grabbing and/or getting “up in a victim’s face”. Others may threaten physical violence. Some may follow through on these threats, but only when they are losing control over the victim. The largest predictors of intimate partner homicide, for example, are, in fact, emotionally abusive and controlling behaviours and

victim-instigated relationship separation (Stark 2007, pp. 276–77).

Universally, victims of domestic violence report that it is the

non-physical elements of abuse that causes them the most pain and trauma both in the short and long-term.

Citing Hart’s (2011) analysis of family court judgements in Australia, and other research, Jeffries (2016) discusses how there may be a lack of adequate consideration of domestic violence, and coercive control in particular, when making judgements on family cases. She describes the difference between framings of ‘parental conflict’ and the realities of coercive control:

Coercive control was frequently reconstituted as mutual parental “conflict”, and it was this, rather than exposure to what was often extreme acts of domestic violence by fathers against mothers, which impacted adversely on the children. While it is the case that children from high-conflict families can experience adverse effects, their experiences and needs are different from those living within environments characterised by coercive control. High conflict relationships are characterised by mutual distrust and disagreement. This is fundamentally different from contexts where a perpetrator’s intent is to wield power and control over their victim/s via numerous tactics aimed to intimidate and incite fear (Hart 2011, p.37; Meier 2003, p.191; Stark 2009, pp. 294–95).

Research conducted on judicial decision-making in family law matters (Hart and Bagshaw 2008) argues that perpetrator/child relationships can be maintained by invalidating consideration of the perpetration of coercive control through “discourses grounded in normative misconceptions of gender and domestic violence” (Jeffries et al. 2016).

In response to the evidence needs from the Outline request, this review focuses on the impact of non-physically violent coercive and controlling behaviour between adults in a household and the impact it may have on young people within the household, rather than the behaviour of an adult towards a child aged under 16.

In the context of the impact on young people, coercive and controlling behaviour can include intimate partner violence (IPV) that involves use of the victimized partner’s children or the children in their care, and their role as a parent or carer. Some of the tactics that are referenced in the literature on IPV overlap with child maltreatment.

Where IPV involves children, examples of tactics or behaviour include:

[M]aking threats to kidnap, harm, or kill the children; making threats to report the mother to Child Protective Services (CPS) and have the children removed from her care; making threats to leave the children without a mother by deporting or killing her; criticizing, degrading, and humiliating the mother either directly to her when her children are present or as comments to her children when she is not present; requiring the children to keep track of their mother’s activities, relay threatening messages, or harass her; physically abusing, kidnapping, or otherwise putting the children in danger as a means to intimidate, threaten, or punish the mother; limiting or withholding resources so the mother can not meet her children’s needs; expressing jealousy of the mother’s attention toward her children; preventing the mother from comforting and caring for her children; forcing the children to participate in abuse of their mother;

and abusing the mother in front of her children or while she is pregnant, thereby undermining her value as a person, her role as a mother, and her ability to protect her children. (Ahlfs-Dunn and Huth-Bocks 2016)

The context of abuse, and of coercive control, is often not understood by practitioners, which Watson (2017) suggests can result in inappropriate demands being placed on women by social workers. Katz (2016) identifies the following as key messages for practitioners:

  • Children experiencing domestic violence may be affected by more than the physical violence perpetrated by one parent against the other
  • Children may be harmed by non-physical abusive behaviours inherent to coercive control-based domestic violence, including continual monitoring, isolation and verbal/emotional/psychological and financial abuses
  • Responsibility for the impacts on children of coercive control-based domestic violence should be placed with the perpetrator (usually fathers/father-figures) and not with the victimised parent (usually mothers)

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