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Free Content Coercive control of women as mothers via strategic mother–child separation

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This study extends existing research into abusive men’s use of children as part of their strategies to undermine mothering roles: target women as mothers, damage mother–child relationships and cause mother–child separations. It is the first British study into strategic mother–child separation to be conducted with mothers who were actually separated from their children. The purpose of the study was to illuminate the tactics used in this type of coercive control, to assist women and practitioners to address this problem using recent UK coercive control legislation. Qualitative accounts of six women who described having their children turned against them by abusive ex-partners (who were also the children’s fathers) were examined. Thematic analysis identified eight themes as perpetrator tactics of strategic separation: 1) Lying to and manipulating children; 2) Sabotaging children’s contact with their mothers; 3) Weaponising children; 4) Conditioning children through reward and punishment; 5) Exploiting women’s vulnerability, particularly as mothers; 6) Threatening mothers with taking their children from them; 7) Actively employing mother-blaming by exploiting mother-blaming institutions and practices; and 8) Denigrating mothers and elevating themselves in order to supplant mothers as children’s primary caregivers and attachment figures. Because service responses fail to address this aspect of men’s violence against women and children, the article is positioned to inform policy, practice and service provision. Limitations are outlined and areas for further research highlighted.

Key messages
  • Abusive men’s strategic interference in the mother–child relationship is achieved through: the direct and indirect use and abuse of children, undermining mothers via mother-blaming; exploiting professionals, and capitalising on patriarchal institutions and mother-blaming theories, systems and practices.

  • Recognising this form of abuse as a criminal offence could be addressed using the recent UK coercive control legislation.
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Keywords: abusive men/fathers; coercive control; domestic violence and abuse; gendered abuse; violence against women and children

Affiliations: 1: University of Nottingham, UK 2: University of Worcester, UK

Appeared or available online: July 16, 2020

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