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Bridging the Gap Between Family Law and Family Psychology When Dealing with Coercive Control

coercive control

Navigating coercive control in family court proceedings often reveals significant gaps between legal processes and deeper psychological understanding. This is primarily attributed to the different approaches of law and psychology. Both disciplines offer valuable perspectives; however, when considered independently, they often result in large disconnects, leaving children and co-parents in vulnerable positions.

Most of the time co-parents come to us with frustration because no one is seeing the signs from a legal perspective. It’s not to blame family law since their training isn’t focused on detrimental psychological patterns, but rather we need to connect attorneys with those who have a psychological background and expertise in coercive control to best support families and the next generation. Understanding each other is the start of this process.

Here are ten of the most notable differences between family law and family psychology: 

  • Definition and Recognition: Family court professionals are trained to recognize the signs of coercive control as a form of domestic abuse, often focusing solely on physical, sexual abuse, or neglect. However, coercive control stretches far beyond physical injury. 

Many are stripped away of financial support, threatened, silenced daily from doing what is best for their children, stalked through electronics, have their parenting time infringed upon, or the children are weaponized against the compassionate co-parent, and the list goes on. The long-term effects of psychological and emotional abuse outweigh physical violence and the rates of children with trauma responses are skyrocketing daily. 

  • Assessment Tools: Family court may rely on legal evidence and testimony rather than psychological assessments to evaluate coercive control dynamics, potentially overlooking subtle forms of manipulation and intimidation. Law tends to concentrate on explicit evidence, while psychology delves into nuanced indicators of manipulation and long-term patterns of maladaptive behavior. 

While law interprets evidence from documents or images, psychology uncovers underlying motivations by analyzing the personality traits associated with manipulation and harm. Experts in coercive control are skilled at identifying threatening language and psychologically harmful tactics that may evade detection by those lacking training in psychological manipulation. 

  • Trauma-Informed Approach: Family court procedures may not adequately consider the long-term impact of coercive control on victims' mental health and well-being, leading to decisions that fail to prioritize the safety and recovery of survivors. Unfortunately, many children are left in the hands of abusers. The children quickly develop trauma responses to safeguard themselves from the abuse and often mirror the abuser, which is why it becomes deceiving that the child is safe. From a law perspective, this is generally overlooked as a child loves their parent; however, from a psychological perspective, these are blaring red flags that the child is in danger and often fearful of the repercussions of their abuser. The child may develop ticks, control or lose the ability to manage their bowels, eating disorders, self-harm behaviors, hives, frequent illness, developmental regression for prime milestones, lying to appease their abuser, substance usage to escape, isolation, refusing to speak in front of one parent, etc. 

  • Power Imbalance: Family court may overlook power imbalances inherent in coercive control dynamics, inadvertently perpetuating the abuser's control over the victim and weaponizing the system during legal proceedings. 

Psychologically, power imbalances often are one of the greatest determining factors in domestic abuse. When one person is the breadwinner they can use finances as a way to control the whole family to meet their deep-rooted insecurities, creating enmeshed dynamics. This leaves children and compassionate coparents voiceless, homeless, or without resources to survive, and get proper representation and support. Many times family coalitions are formed by the abuser by triangulating the children and using them as pawns (or flying monkeys) against the safe parent. They know that triangulating the children into the discord will hurt the compassionate coparent the most, as the coercive controller is nothing short of vengeance. 

  • Child-Centered Approach: Family court decisions may prioritize parental rights over children's safety and well-being, failing to recognize the detrimental effects of witnessing coercive control on the children's development and mental health. While a parent may hire a legal team that wants to “win” for them, children generally lose with this approach and can be left in the hands of a dangerous personality. 

We are nothing short of open and honest with our clients and thoroughly explain what is best for the children long-term. If a parent cannot see what is best for their children, then are they respecting the rights of the child? Children have voices, boundaries, and rights regardless of age. The first seven years are prime development and need to be weighed heavily in decision-making, as children already know by age two whether their parent is trustworthy or not. While they do not have the vocabulary to speak or fear the repercussions if they do, they are fully aware of who is safe and who isn’t based on their behavioral expressions. 

  • Evidence Requirements: Family court may require tangible evidence of abuse, such as physical injuries or police reports, making it challenging for victims of coercive control to substantiate their claims and seek legal protection. Coercive control abusers are usually more covert in style and know how to fly under the radar. Their abuse is sneaky, calculating, and subtle leaving little evidence or a trail of proof. Moreover, coercive controllers who have a victim mentality may resort to extreme measures to fabricate evidence against the non-threatening parent. Psychologically, these behaviors are often identifiable through careful examination of their communication style and behavioral patterns. Therefore, analyzing their communication and behavior is crucial in assessing the safety of children and should not be disregarded.

coercive control

  • Legal Remedies: Family courts may offer limited legal remedies for addressing coercive control, focusing primarily on protective orders rather than comprehensive interventions aimed at breaking the cycle of abuse. Coercive control is a criminal act but very few states or countries recognize the harmful damage it causes. 

For co-parents who are dealing with coercion, legal remedies have often fallen short for the children and survivors. It can take years of contempt and abuse before anything is done in these types of cases. Families can endure years of no child support, infringement of parenting time, invasive calling and stalking, taking children out of the country without travel provisions, etc. And, often the coercive parent is only given a slap on the wrist if they are in contempt. Where is the integrity?

Psychologically, the coercive parent needs to be held accountable. They are weaponizing the system to their advantage and making healthy parents and children feel powerless in dire situations. Most coercive parents value what's in their pocket more than their own children. Perhaps, hefty child custody bonds for coercive control could begin to shed light on seeing the true color of these individuals because many coercive coparents wouldn’t pay the fine or change their ways to spend time with their children.  

  • Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration: Family court proceedings may lack collaboration between legal and mental health professionals, resulting in disjointed responses to coercive control cases and missed opportunities for holistic support. And, we will be the first to say not all mental health professionals are trained in coercive control. It is a very small niche. 

From a psychological perspective, we’ve seen cases go four years or more without a parenting plan. This is unacceptable for children to live in the chaos of the controller when they thrive on stability and safety. While the family court can be slow and overburdened, a detailed parenting plan is a must and should be considered an urgent measure upfront. A detailed parenting plan, without loopholes, reduces conflict and manipulation long-term and outlines a plan to hold the coercive parent accountable for decision-making procedures that benefit the children. 

  • Educational Resources: Family court personnel, including judges, lawyers, and court-appointed professionals, may receive limited training on recognizing and addressing coercive control, perpetuating misconceptions and biases in legal decision-making. While family law professionals and psychological professionals have very different training, at the end of the day family law is family psychology. The more the system recognizes this the greater collaboration can occur and the truth of these situations can be revealed. 

We collaborate with lawyers on many of our cases to help bring light to the coercive control dynamics and how to best position the evidence to support the well-being of the children in the long run. 

  • Victim Advocacy: Family court may not adequately prioritize victim advocacy and support services, leaving survivors of coercive control feeling unsupported and vulnerable throughout the legal process. We’ll be the first to say it’s not a lawyer's job to provide emotional support for clients, but also leaving them in the dark isn’t doing a client justice either. Many clients feel blindsided by the process of family court and need additional resources to feel supported. 

While talk therapy is frequently suggested, it often falls short of revealing the full extent of the harm caused by coercive control. Many of our clients express regret, wishing they had discovered our services earlier, but were unaware of their existence until their frustrations drove them to seek solutions and deeper insight into their experiences. Feeling heard and understood is paramount, as it contributes to establishing a sense of safety for children transitioning between homes.

Coercive control is a major epidemic in the family court system. Addressing these gaps requires a multidisciplinary approach that integrates legal expertise with insights from family psychology and trauma-informed care. By bridging the divide between family court and family psychology, more effective strategies for identifying, responding to, and preventing coercive control in family settings can begin to help protect those impacted by it. 

If you’re looking for guided support, analysis of your case and collaboration with your attorney, or a detailed parenting plan, please sign up for a discovery call here. 


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