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Teaching your child to avoid one of the most subtly dangerous character types: The Coercive Controller

There is so much focus on identifying explicitly obnoxious bullies in schools that parents seem to be lulled into the false comfort that if their child is not being pushed around verbally or physically, in an obvious way, then all is well and our child is safe.

Unfortunately, a bully that is as dangerous and usually even more manipulative is the “coercive controlling” kind of bully, not the kind of bully who is loud and obnoxious and pushy in an outright way.

The coercive controller works through stealth and even charm, and their ability to control someone like your child is not because they have physically superior strength, but rather because they know how to exert their influence in very subtle yet effective ways. Their modus operandi is to be sneaky and yet over-controlling nonetheless.

While most kids, and most adults, may be manipulative at times, to get what they want, the coercive controlling kind of behavioral style operates this way in general – and even – quite often.  Those who are coercive controlling do not need to raise a hand or be physically threatening, rather they use psychological intimidation in order to reach their goals.

They each have their own deck of psychological tactic cards that they know how to play quite well — so well in fact that observers of their behavior question their own observations.  If you want to look at a great example of a coercive controller, watch the film, “The Girl on The Train”.  In that movie, the husband is able to convince the wife that she has a drinking problem and is the root of many family problems, whereas what is actually true is the husband is a serial cheater and is verbally and physically abusive to the wife.  But the husband does this in a way such that the wife does not even trust her own memories, and/or created memories that were not even accurate representations of the actual nature of the situation.

In my experience as a forensic expert who does court ordered evaluations, I have assessed over 30 people I would say were coercive controllers.  However, if I was not extremely detailed and systematic in terms of the assessment approach I use, the fact that they are coercive controlling would not be discoverable or provable.

One of the most common problems of those who are victims of coercive controlling people is by the time the coercive controlling person is done with them, they are a psychological wreck.  The reason is the coercive controller works in a very stealthy but chronic manner to undermine the psychological stability of their targeted person.  They seek to make the self-esteem of that targeted person be dependent on how the coercive controller feels about them, rather than based on anything else in the targeted person’s life.  They do this by slowly limiting the access that targeted person has to outside sources of self-esteem.  The result is the person who is targeted is more and more isolated, and thus more and more cut off from others who might be able to observe the psychological deterioration of the targeted person.

There is no one tactic coercive controllers will use, rather, they are creative enough to use a set of tactics that will compel their target to comply with their wishes.  Common wishes of the coercive controller can include limiting the activities of another (e.g., you cannot do things with other people, only with me), limiting the relationships or contact that their target has with others (e.g., you can only be friends with me – I need all of your affection), and/or other behaviors designed to over control their target (e.g., you cannot spend money on other people except you can spend it on me).

But they do this in a way that is not necessarily observable.  In other words, they are effective because their coerciveness occurs behind the scenes.  They can be particularly effective when they have higher levels of charm or physical attractiveness, and/or when they combine a coercive controlling style with a tendency to at times let their target do whatever they want.  That allows their targeted person to see the coercive controller as a typical kind of person.

Coercive controllers often target, based on my anecdotal experience as a forensic and clinical psychologist, those with lower self-esteem, or those who have significant amounts of depression or anxiety, or those who have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused.  It is these kinds of people who are more vulnerable and may view what to others is over control as simply being a good and attentive partner.

Left unchecked, children with this kind of behavioral style end up manifesting a pattern of intimidation, isolation, and control of others where the main goal they have is to restrict the other person’s basic liberties. But, while they may exhibit physical aggression at times, they will tend to far more often use subtle techniques that will fall “under the radar.”

Scientific studies thus far indicate that males are much more likely to be coercive controllers than females.  It appears to be true in my anecdotal experience that even though we live in so-called “modern times”, females may still be manipulated into engaging in coercive controlling relationships where they are dominated by a male.  Certainly, males can engage in relationships where the female is coercive controlling as well.

The way you can teach your child to have an extra sensitive radar whereby they can spot even well camouflaged coercive controlling behavior, would be to ensure they have the following skills:

— the ability to understand that in relationships, while you help other people, you should not be caring for them so much that you will sacrifice your own self-esteem in order to ensure that their self-esteem, or goals, are met.

— the ability to understand how in healthy relationships both people make major decisions together, versus one person “driving the bus”

— understand that in healthy relationships neither person should be dictating what the other person can do

— understand that in healthy relationships neither person should be jealous if the other person has other deep and meaningful relationships

— understand that in healthy relationships neither person will try and limit how much contact the other person has with friends and family

— understand that in healthy relationships one does not feel like they constantly have to justify why they want to do basic things such as spend money on things that they like.

— understand that in healthy relationships neither person is trying to consistently have greater control

Meet Doctor Brunner

Dr. Thomas (Tom) Brunner is a Tucson based psychologist and published expert who has a 20 year track record of clinical excellence, scientific research, teaching, publications, awards and podcast interviews.  He is the senior author of a psychological measure adapted into 14 languages worldwide, and has written over 250 blogs, many of them have gone viral.  He is revolutionizing the field of career guidance with his fresh and trademarked approach that is spreading like wildfire. Sign up here to be notified of soon to be published book, Find Your Real Me: Career Guidance Making You Truly Free.