Dr Neha Mehta, RCI-registered psychologist, certified relationship counselor, and a well-known child psychologist, explains the effects of coercive control and psychological abuse on children. “Most parents and teachers threaten and pressurize children to think or behave in a manner which they feel is right,” says Dr Mehta. “In turn, it takes away the opportunity from the child to go through the various stages of development. When parents compare their children with others and use the hard way to school them and taunt them, picking on their incapacities and belittling them, pampering one sibling and ignoring the other or demotivating them, it takes away a child’s confidence, resulting in emotionally underdeveloped children with no decision-making skills or self-esteem. They also show abusive and anti-social behavior among other mental health disorders.”
Dr Mehta insists that no matter what the reason, scolding your children by saying things like, “Why don’t you study?” “I’ve to work so hard on you” etc. is a big no-no and does more harm than good to a child’s psychology. In fact, if a child even witnesses coercive abuse on someone in the family, the child may adapt such behaviors in their own selves.”
What is coercive abuse?
Dr Vidhya Nair, holistic psychologist, explains how to identify coercive abuse. According to her, coercive abuse involves a person’s attempts to frighten, control or isolate another. “It’s in the abuser’s words and actions, and their persistent behaviors by using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame or manipulate another person,” says Dr Nair, who’s trained in psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, neuro-linguistic programming amalgamating psychology, study of subconscious mind, neuroscience and biology to heal an individual.
Unfortunately, as per Aarathi Selvan, a clinical psychologist and founder and director of “Pause and Perspective” (a Hyderabad-based mental healthcare organization), coercive control can be difficult to identify sometimes.
“In a typical patriarchal system where cis–heteronormative ideas of relating are most profoundly pervasive, even media romanticises such coercive control,” states Aarthi, who uses the 2017-movie Arjun Reddy as an example. “The film is a good example of coercive control in intimate relationships. Possessiveness, acting out from a place of jealousy, which includes insisting on keeping phones unlocked, snooping into partners’ phones, constantly doubting the partner to be dishonest or not transparent about the people they are with outside their relationship are some examples of coercive control. It’s also coercive control when partners don’t engage in healthy separation.”
Aarathi Selvan further points out neglected forms of coercive control. “In such cases, in cis–heteronormative relationships, the man (gender used only for ease of explanation) may know the woman is not interested in him, but he still pursues her, flirts with her, pushes one-night-stands at her, etc.,” says Aarathi. “People who indulge in such coercive behaviors may look charming and even have a way with words. In such cases, the coercive behavior may seem innocent because of socialization.”
Even so, Aarathi emphasizes, it’s important to understand that pursuit, while romanticized, is stalking when there is no clarity from either people about what it is they want for themselves or when they want to be in a relationship or leave it.
“Honest communication and respecting where people are, although difficult to digest in the short-term, can really enhance the hope we bring to relationships and build secure and loving relationships over time,” she adds.
Victim-blaming and targeting weakness
Dr Nair, the holistic psychologist, also points out that very often the abused tends to deny the abuse or hopes to fix it.
“This is mostly because the abuser tends to make them believe that it’s their fault and make them feel low (attacking their self-esteem) or even control them by attacking their weakness,” explains Dr Nair. “For example, if the abuser knows that one is scared of public-shaming, he/she can threaten to shame the latter publically if he/she didn’t listen to them. Also, often there’s confusion, fear, hopelessness, shame and self-blame. The victim feels stuck in such circumstances and such emotional turmoil can result in behavioral and physical side effects.”
Effects of psychological abuse
Dr Vidhya Nair shares that the abused may experience difficulty in concentrating, moodiness, muscle tension, nightmares, racing heartbeat, various aches and pains. “This, in turn, tends to debilitate them even more,” she adds. “Studies show that severe emotional abuse is as impactful as physical abuse. Over time, both can contribute to low self-esteem and depression. Individuals tend to lose their identity and sense of self, also developing anxiety, chronic pain, guilt, insomnia, social withdrawal or loneliness. Abusive relationships also tend to develop co-dependency, making it difficult for one to get out of it. In certain cases, long-term emotional abuse also leads to PTSD.”
Break the cycle of abuse
Dr Vidhya Nair, holistic psychologist, shares tips on how one can break free from the mentally and emotionally draining cycle of perpetual psychological abuse “If you feel like you’re being emotionally and mentally abused, trust your instincts and act upon them. Know that you don’t have to live that way. If you fear physical violence, inform the emergency services. Even in case of abuse that doesn’t involve physical abuse, one may call counselling services/helpline numbers nearby,” says Dr Nair.
Accept that the abuse isn’t your responsibility: Don’t try to reason with your abuser. You may want to help, but it’s unlikely that they’ll break this pattern of behavior without professional help. That’s their responsibility.
Disengage and set personal boundaries: Decide not to respond to abuse or get sucked into arguments and stick to it. Limit exposure to the abuser as much as you can.
Exit the relationship or circumstance: If possible, cut all ties. Make it clear that it’s over and don’t look back.
Seek help: Reach out to supportive friends and family members. Seek a therapist to help your recovery.
Give yourself time to heal: Make yourself a priority and be kind and compassionate with yourself. Start with small steps of self-care.