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Manipulation and coercion

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This page was updated on 19 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

Understanding the impact on the child

To work with children who are at risk of sexual abuse, develop an understanding of the way in which the suspected abuser has or is likely to manipulate and coerce the child, including how this has shaped their identity, their view of the world and their view of others. This information helps professionals understand how abuser tactics influence the child, and how they affect the child’s ability to speak out about the abuse and to continue to speak out.

Coercion and manipulation occurs when patterns of controlling behaviours result in:

  • social isolation
  • silencing/secrecy
  • increased fear and anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • increased distress or numbing to emotional or physical harm.

Specifically, coercion and manipulation may involve physical and emotional trickery, flattery, bribery and intimidation, threats of harm or loss of power or safety (McGee and Buddenberg, 2003). Coercion and manipulation involve a power imbalance between the alleged abuser and the child. Power imbalances may relate to age, intellectual ability, knowledge, relationship to child, experience and gender. Children are taught to respect and obey adults and that adults are wiser and have authority over them. Coercion can also be more forceful, involving intimidation by the alleged sexual abuser’s physical size and strength or use of physical force (Levenson and Morin, 2006). Coercion and manipulation can also be used by older children to sexually abuse younger children or children of a similar age with less power.

The below table is based on research around the manipulation and coercion process, especially the work of Lang and Frenzel, (1988).

These tactics can be used interchangeably, depending on what is required to maintain a child’s secrecy. Switching from non-violent tactics of manipulation to violent tactics of intimidation can distress and confuse children.

Abuser tactic:

Building trust and connection

The impact on the child:

Disconnection and confusion

This tactic can be very difficult to distinguish from a supportive and healthy adult-child relationship. The abuser develops a relationship with the child by:

  • spending extra time with them
  • giving them gifts
  • offering support and encouragement
  • making statements about how much they care about them
  • singling one child out of a sibling group and treating them as ‘special’.

The abuser may develop strong relationships with family and community members by:

  • becoming indispensable
  • supporting the child and family financially, emotionally or practically
  • discrediting the child to decrease the likelihood the child will be believed if they do disclose.

Connection and the trust of adults is crucial to emotional and physical development.

Child sexual abuse changes a normal and healthy connection into one that is harmful and confusing. This can have a profound effect on the child’s identity and sense of reality. The child may hold two realities. They may love and idealise the abuser and not want them to leave their life. At the same time, they want the abuse to stop.

The child’s experience of closeness is strongly linked to their experience of abuse which can create confusion and distress. It may cause the child to believe the abuse is normal and acceptable or to believe they enjoyed the abuse.

When the child is aware of the abuser's connection to their family and community, they may feel isolated, confused and doubtful that they will be believed. They may believe the abuse is normal or permitted by their family.

Practice prompt

Threats and tactics of intimidation are likely to increase once Child Safety becomes involved with a family. Develop an understanding of manipulation tactics and maintain an acute awareness for these when assessing harm and risk of harm, and working with the child and family.

Abuser tactic:

Secrecy

Impact on the child:

Isolation

The abuser may desensitise the child to the abuse by gradually moving from normal physically affectionate touch to abusive sexual touch.

The abuser may confuse the child’s ability to recognise the abuse by:

  • telling the child that the abuse is normal
  • forcing the child to talk about how much they enjoy the abuse
  • telling the child that other people know about the abuse or that other people ‘do these things’ to children.

The abuser may isolate the child by:

  • belittling or discrediting the child
  • blaming the child for ‘bad behaviour’
  • preventing the child from spending time with friends or protective adults.

 

The process of isolating and stigmatising the child means that they become alienated from those people they may have otherwise disclosed to. The child may believe that:

  • their parents or people in the community think that the abuse is acceptable
  • no one will believe their disclosure.

Abuser tactic:
Responsibility

Impact on the child:
Guilt and self-blame

The abuser tells the child that the abuse is their fault because they:

  • ‘led them on’
  • ‘benefited from the abuse’ and therefore are responsible.

The abuser tells the child they are responsible for protecting:

  • their parents and siblings from the distress and shame of the abuse
  • their parents from relationship breakdown or community retribution
  • the abuser from criminal proceedings
  • their brothers / sisters from abuse.

The child believes that the abuse is their fault.

The child believes that they are responsible for the wellbeing of others and is fearful of the consequences of disclosure for themselves, their family and the abuser.

Abuser tactic:
Power and control

Impact on the child:
Powerlessness

The abuser uses tactics of power and control such as:

  • threatening the child
  • telling the child that no one will believe them
  • threatening people who are close to the child
  • increasing the abusive acts against the child.

These threats and intimidation tactics may be quite difficult for the outside observer to notice and may be as subtle as a glance or a code word that only the child understands.

The child may become so fearful of the abuser that they believe they cannot change or stop the abuse. They become worried about the consequences of disclosing the abuse, both for themselves and others.

Maintaining an awareness of manipulation and coercion

The following key points can support practitioners to remain aware of manipulation and coercion when working with children:

  • Ask other people about how they view the child / parent / alleged abuser and ask them where these views have come from.
  • Watch for signs of favouritism, for example, special gifts for one child.
  • Watch for signs of alienation and isolation.
  • Watch how the child responds when you mention the alleged abuser and ask the child about these responses.
  • Observe the child’s relationships with the parent and other family or community members. Look for subtle cues and be curious about the child’s connection to these people.
  • Talk about manipulation and coercion, where developmentally appropriate. For example, “Sometimes kids can feel really worried about talking to me. Can you tell me about your feelings? Where do those feelings come from?”
  • Monitor your reaction to the alleged abuser and engage respectfully with them. Remember that many children also have positive experiences with the alleged abuser.
  • Reflect on how you can acknowledge the child’s connection with the alleged abuser while remaining aware of risk.
  • Be prepared for the child or others to talk about or acknowledge the positive experiences the child has had with the alleged abuser, and for these experiences to be highlighted by the alleged abuser, parents, community members and child.
  • Use the alleged abuser’s name when talking about them to children, parents, community members and in the office.

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