We modify our usual social work practice approach in the context of a measles outbreak to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Measles and immunisation

Page URL: https://practice.orangatamariki.govt.nz/our-work/assessment-and-planning/assessments/specialist-topics/working-effectively-with-families-impacted-by-violence/coercively-controlling-violence/
Printed: 22/04/2024
Printed pages may be out of date. Please check this information is current before using it in your practice.

Last updated: 28/07/2023

Coercively controlling violence

We notice when a person uses a range of behaviours or actions to dominate, exploit, control and trap another person and we consider the impact on parenting and the oranga of tamariki and rangatahi.

What is coercive control

Coercive control is a deliberate, strategic pattern of behaviour that aims to limit another person's autonomy, self-determination and liberty. Coercive control is not an isolated incident. Sometimes the victim-survivor does not recognise when coercive control tactics are being used on them because they have been deliberately undermined and disempowered, no longer trust their own judgement and decision-making, and feel they are to blame or it's their fault when life is impacted negatively.

Language used in this guidance

Te Aorerekura: The National Strategy to Eliminate Family Violence and Sexual Violence has developed specialist family violence organisation standards that include a shared language:

  • 'Victim-survivor' is used to acknowledge the strength of people who have survived family violence.
  • 'People who use violence' replaces 'perpetrator' unless it's being used in a legal context.

Specialist Family Violence Organisational Standards | Te Puna Aonui

Ngākau whakairo

We use ngākau whakairo in practice to consider what rights, values and professional obligations directly influence our work when considering coercive control. It asks us to establish a foundation on the why behind our mahi. This grounding helps us navigate the complex dynamics.

Ngākau whakairo

Recognising coercive control

We shift our focus off discrete incidences of violence and instead try to understand the context and pattern of behaviour. This includes how patterns of control affect the ability of every individual in a family, whānau, hapū, iwi, family group and community to support the victim-survivor.

The rights and mana of victim-survivors experiencing coercive control have been trampled on by the person who is harming and controlling them. When Oranga Tamariki becomes involved, we risk continuing this victimisation, especially when we hold the victim-survivor responsible for keeping their tamariki and rangatahi safe from the violent, controlling person. Parents who are victim-survivors need our support to manage risk when living with an unpredictable, unsafe person.

The person causing harm puts their own needs and wants above others. The use of power and control to dominate underpins their actions and how they will present to us. When we intervene, we are destabilising their control, which increases the risk for members of their whānau or family. They will use tactics to keep us out and expect their victim-survivors to also do this.

Our professional obligations require us to understand coercive control within the context of wider social issues within a patriarchal society. This includes same-sex and other non-binary relationships. Consider how victim-survivors are dependent on the violent person, so leaving can generate other issues, such as homelessness, poverty, uncertainty due to possible stalking and increased threats from the violent, controlling person.

Coercive control is adaptive – generally a person who uses violence will change tactics in response to how their partner reacts. They often threaten the victim-survivor's social position – for example, they may:

  • threaten to 'out' the victim-survivor to their extended whānau or family, school or workplace if they are in a same-sex relationship
  • make threats about visa status if the victim-survivor is a migrant
  • threaten the victim-survivor's social standing if they live in a conservative, rural or isolated community.

Other examples include:

  • financial abuse of the victim-survivor by ensuring insufficient money is available for basic necessities
  • use of social media and/or technology to track, monitor and control a person.

What they have in common is the impact of the behaviour – in building our understanding, we should be thinking about how it limits the victim-survivor's ability to be self-determining and to parent safely.

Coercive control is most often used against an intimate partner but may also be used by a parent in relation to their tamariki or rangatahi. For example, wider family may raise concerns that a parent is making decisions about their tamariki or rangatahi that seem contradictory to what is in their best interest, such as a parent organising for their tamariki to stay with friends even though whānau or family are willing and able, and are questioning this parenting decision. We should explore the context in which these decisions are being made, remembering that coercive control can be hidden, subtle and seem appropriate. We need to consider the impact of a parent's decision-making, and talk with and listen to what tamariki, rangatahi and extended family are saying.

Talking with and listening to tamariki and rangatahi

We are not required to diagnose or label tactics used by someone who coercively controls another person, but we need to be aware of what these tactics might look like. Obvious harm like physical assault causing injury, financial abuse, or threatening self-harm or suicide in an effort to control another person can be straightforward, but other tactics are also worth considering, such as love bombing and gaslighting:

  • Love bombing, like the honeymoon phase within the power and control wheel, is an attempt to influence a person with demonstrations of attention and affection. This tactic is usually used at the beginning of a relationship or after an episode of violence so the victim-survivor forgives or minimises harmful behaviour. Victim-survivors may interpret these demonstrations as a sign that their future will improve, and not recognise that it was a tactic used to trap them. Explore with the victim-survivor what happens when they don't do what their partner wants and ask them questions to help them see there's hope for the future (they may need time to process these questions).
  • Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where someone's experiences are turned back on themselves and they're made to feel responsible for all the bad that has happened. It feeds insecurities and can become debilitating. Victim-survivors who experience this tactic have difficulty trusting their own ability to make decisions and parent effectively, and they become dependent on the controlling person. Gaslighting occurs over a period and is not a one-off occurrence. A person who gaslights tends to not take any responsibility and finds ways to blame the other person, especially when it comes to parenting issues. It is helpful to maintain a focus on what the victim-survivor is prepared to do differently and how they will maintain safety, rather than being drawn into what the other person has to do differently.

Working effectively with whānau or families impacted by violence

Whai mātauranga

Whai mātauranga asks us to consider whose knowledge and research we use to build understanding when coercive control is apparent. We can be creative if we understand the context of a person who is using coercive control. Preferencing te ao Māori principles and understanding the impact of colonisation supports us to acknowledge the impact of trauma, abuse and risk, and work in partnership to establish protection, safety, growth and healing. Preferencing te ao Māori principles means understanding the impacts of colonisation on both the victim-survivor (accepting this pattern of behaviour) and the person who uses violence (who has changed from nurturing or fostering to now).

Whai mātauranga

Understanding coercive control in context

Coercive controlling violence has similar foundations to other forms of violence. Victim-survivors and the people who use coercive control can be male, female or gender fluid, old or young and from any culture, religion, or political or economic group.

Working effectively with whānau or families impacted by violence

By considering unique features of coercive control, we can better support whānau or family to break the cycle of violence. Tamariki and rangatahi need protection and an opportunity to heal by holding people who use coercive control responsible for their behaviours and supporting victim-survivors to understand the pattern of harm they have endured.

We need to locate patterns of control within the social environment to understand underlying issues that impact on building safety and managing risk, such as when a parent can't provide for their tamariki or rangatahi because another person controls how the money is spent. 

Cultural context

Coercive control can sometimes be used by men (especially those with financial resources) in a way that is difficult to identify because the control is not associated with physical violence. Rather, they can present plausibly when approached by agencies and they use services, like the Family Court, to maintain influence and control over their partner or ex-partner. Their actions stem from a sense of entitlement, ownership and control over their partner, tamariki and rangatahi.  

Pre-colonisation te ao Māori sources of knowledge defined the roles of tāne (men) within whānau as provider, protector and nurturer. There was a complementary relationship between tāne and wāhine (women). When tāne Māori are using coercive control, it indicates that core cultural values have been severed and they have lost connection to the protective factors within Māori culture. They may have been exposed in their childhood to adult behaviour that normalised and tolerated disrespect and violence, particularly towards wāhine, tamariki and rangatahi. Rather than power and control, violence perpetrated by tāne Māori potentially comes from this disconnection and a diminishment of their mana. Impacts of colonisation can be poverty, loss of identify and culture, urban drift, and loss of community.

Practice for working effectively with Māori

Being disconnected from core cultural values and knowledge is relevant for people of other cultures as well. For Pacific cultures, factors such as colonisation, migration and the consequent influence of western ideologies have had significant impacts on family structure, gender roles and values and practices that traditionally uphold the sacredness of relationships. Others may belong to communities that encourage and reinforce violence as an entitlement, and they are not held to account for their violence. In such cases, the use of violence by men may also be reinforced by their parents (in particular, mothers). Some communities, including some closed religious communities, promote tactics similar to coercive control – members are unable to be autonomous and their rights are secondary to the collective religious doctrine that is designed to maintain control over their everyday life.

Working with Pacific peoples: Va'aifetū

Whai oranga

We use whai oranga to consider how we are going to work with tamariki, rangatahi, parents, whānau or family where coercive control is present. When we understand the unique impacts of coercive control on parenting, we have more space for challenge and creative solutions. Determining what model to use to frame our engagement helps maintain an approach that is respectful and uses the strengths and protective factors found in every culture.

Whai oranga

Whai pūkenga

Whai pūkenga allows us to consider what specific skills we need to work with both the victim-survivor and the person using the controlling tactics and how to keep tamariki and rangatahi at the centre of our advocacy.

Whai pūkenga

Developing relational practice

If coercive control is a feature of our assessment, consider how solutions need to address the power and control, or diminished mana. Research has shown that western models of treatment don't always suit Māori or Pacific peoples because they focus on individual accountability versus a collective response. Oranga looks different for every whānau or family and it's important to invite flexibility and innovation when planning interventions with whānau or family and manage risk during their healing journey.

Relational practice means identifying who we work with to manage risk and build safety. This might be a family violence specialist.

Support available | Are You OK

Whai ākona

Whai ākona helps us test our analysis and understand our own reaction to supporting change where violence, control and harm impact on safe parenting. It recognises that this type of work is hard and supervision and collegial support is pivotal.

Whai ākona

Maintaining a focus when dealing with coercive control

Reflexive supervision will help us understand the impact of working with a whānau or family impacted by coercive control. Trying to build a working relationship with violent and controlling people, who are predominantly men, can feel intimidating, frightening and scary, especially if they turn their violence or threats towards us. Equally, we can find ourselves second-guessing our conclusions if we are working with someone who is charismatic and used to getting their way. Where there is physical violence and overt aggression, there can be a sense of relief when appointments are cancelled or missed, but tamariki and rangatahi living in these environments need support and advocacy, so we need to be persistent and follow up. Supervision will help us develop strategies to manage the personal dynamics impacting our mahi in this space.

Recognising our own reactions helps us test our bias and ensure we don't further victimise the victim-survivor and their tamariki and rangatahi. It also helps us to remain respectful and relational in our work with the person using coercive control. Consider how the impact of coercive control tactics invite us to judge the victim-survivor rather than find ways to uplift them in their own oranga and have a truly restorative approach to our mahi. The person who is using coercive control is usually adept at avoiding responsibility, and we should consider whether we need cultural or even gendered support in this space – some men might need other men to hold them to account and model positive masculine traits that are not harmful to others and themselves.

Consider requesting a co-worker or working closely with a partner agency for a case that indicates coercive control. It is difficult for one kaimahi to hold relationships with both the victim-survivor and the person using violence. Two kaimahi working together:

  • might better manage the complex dynamics and provide consistency as the situation develops and changes over time
  • provides two perspectives that allow for robust discussions that separate facts from opinion during debriefings with a supervisor
  • provides the space to work with victim-survivors at their own pace, with the opportunity to build trust and enhance disclosure while holding the person using violence accountable. This also helps maintain a focus on the tamariki and rangatahi.

Allocating a key worker and co-worker

Building safety is a journey and requires all members of a whānau or family to be responsible for the change. Safety can only happen when everyone is on board and agrees on what people will be doing differently to keep tamariki and rangatahi safe from the impacts of coercive control. The focus is for the violence and control to stop. This is more realistic than a plan that depends on parents separating if that is not what the victim-survivor wants.

Anger management courses may not address the underlying issue. Both the victim-survivor and the person causing the harm need access to restorative services. Whether they do this together or separately depends on where they are in their healing journey. We rely on specialists within the family violence field to make recommendations. Research shows that group work for the person causing the harm is generally more restorative and life changing than one-on-one counselling.

Protect and support the development of tamariki and rangatahi within healthy whānau and families

When decisions about whānau hui, family meetings or family group conferences are being made, we need to understand how the impacts of coercive control affect everyone, including the community. When deciding how to bring everyone together, consider the dynamics, along with past harm and the patterns of abuse. If someone is at the beginning of the healing journey, they may have little to no insight into the impact of their violence or control, and other people may feel too intimidated to address the issues and build protection for the tamariki or rangatahi. Seek cultural advice when considering the protective factors within cultures that can be used to set the kawa or foundations for informed whānau or family decision-making.

Kairaranga ā-whānau