Learning about a common enemy

Coercion by direct physical abuse or threat is a crime and a terrible experience. But psychological coercive persuasion is also seriously harmful.  Building on what we know of coercive control found in domestic abuse and in cults, momentum is gathering in the fight against harmful coercion in all its forms. Alienation is always a key feature: taking you in and cutting you off. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to define this common enemy? Then we can all join forces to spot it and not get taken in by it. Read this, then do the survey yourself (revised version from 6 Jun 2016).    Here’s that good idea in a nutshell:

A simple idea

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Learning about the enemy!

Last time we boldly launched a big idea, a pattern that is always an alienating experience. Here it is again with added detail:

  • The pattern of harmful psychological coercive persuasion has various names and guises but
  • it has much the same features across a wide variety of family and non-family situations
  • from cults and extremist terrorism, to bullying and gangs, to domestic and child abuse and parental alienation.
  • Constructive or ‘ethical influence’ can be distinguished from harmful or ‘undue influence’.
  • Undue coercive influence has these key features
    • Highly controlling people with overwhelmingly strong authoritarian and charismatic personalities,
    • as individuals or in small or larger groups,
    • with fairly obvious aims and intentions
    • or just because that’s the way they are,
    • recruit other human beings explicitly or along the way,
    • righteously dominate them and
    • persuade them it’s for their own good when it’s not,
    • expect unquestioning loyalty to their own set of absolute ideas,
    • may (but don’t need to) use physical violence or threats of it,
    • use outside powers or inside lieutenants to impose their regime,
    • target ordinary human openness, attachment needs and vulnerabilities,
    • isolate the followers from other safe normal relationships with their family and friends and outside world, 
    • make followers feel bad about themselves, and 
    • undermine their ability to think critically.
    • Outer obedience may go with privately knowing you’ve been taken in
    • or you may become a convert, a keenly active supporter of the cause.
    • A hidden or gut feeling may be the only sign that something is wrong
    • but that unease is easily silenced without more knowledge or support (e.g. this description).
    • Contrary to all appearances this exclusive system is no good for the followers or the controllers
    • but the followers are needed to serve the self-centred needs and purposes of the leader/s.
  • Using this checklist as our tool, everyone can learn about this harmful pattern
  • so we can all spot it and walk away from it rather than be taken in and cut off … aka alienated.

Use the idea right away

That summary is a melding of the features of coercive control in couples and families, and of cult-based approaches. Real stories like this (gas lighting) and this (grooming) – without pundits giving their angle on it – can be the best  way to see coercion in action.  Steve Hassan’s broad and inclusive Freedom of Mind and BITE model as presented in this video of a talk, and like Alexandra Stein’s warning signs, or Lifton‘s, list the similar features in cults. The melded checklist above aims to accommodate all the different guises in which coercive persuasion appears.

Although it is harder to get to grips with, it is the coercive persuasion of emotional abuse that is the key factor in all kinds of harmful abuse. In this true story, the survivor says: “… the grooming is almost worse than the abuse itself. You can get over the physical stuff but mentally grooming affects everything. It will affect me for the rest of my life …”  

Emotional abuse needs to be sustained over a period of time for lasting harm to result. But many features of the list above apply to something as simple as a phone call scammer. Read about or have a look at this 2 minute video to see some of the simple techniques used to coerce anyone at all into being a victim.

When the list has been tested out, the simple idea behind it should stand on its own without any extra packing or unpacking.  So, the invitation can be, right away, to do something of your own with this simple picture of coercive persuasion. Options might include:

  • Think about whether it makes sense to you?
  • Does it fit any experience of your own in your family, friends or your work?
  • Try sharing the summary with a friend or family member or a work colleague.
  •  Try out the list by doing the “Tick-box those who box you in” survey.
  • If you have special knowledge of the contexts it is found in, does this general summary match that well enough?
  • Which items in this list are more important features, which less so? Are there any missing?
  • If you’re a parent or a teacher, try bringing it in to teach it e.g. in PSHE classes.
  • At least, on your own, think about it, research more about it, use the links given,
  • Comment or ask questions here in the box below, and
  • Share this blogpost widely in your social media and networks.

How I used the idea right away

Here’s my own attempt to do something right away with this idea – as well as writing this blogpost about it.  I have applied and shared this checklist afresh around my own life experiences. New light has been thrown like this:

  • I’ve seen how many boxes on the list I tick (or not) when applied to difficult characters I have known in my family, in my community, at work, and in family cases I’ve worked with. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to live more closely with them.
  • Clients I’ve shared the list with have seen it as instructive and helpful in making sense of what they’ve been through.
  • When at boarding school, I now see how my social isolation and low esteem was the soft spot in my recruitment to be an unhappy by-standing member of a trio of bullies. The leader also somehow got me to invite him as a ‘friend’ to stay with my family during a holiday. Throughout I was privately miserable and only persuaded on the surface. But I felt trapped and unable to tell anyone the truth. The coercive ‘friend’ can’t have been happy or loved either.
  • Discussing these ideas, showed some cult-like features in a non-mainstream religious group that two of my siblings had been members of for years. The story has become more public recently. And a 1998 account of what happened shows clearly the phase it went through of being a local cult before the parent body intervened to ethical functioning. The group has changed since, but then my siblings experienced its denigrating  attitude to family life – having babies was ‘lower evolutionary’ – which led to the break up of relationships. Many women and men deprived themselves of having the children they had wanted. On the outside, I often complained that my siblings were unavailable – a loss to me and my family too.
  • Sharing the checklist idea with my wife we saw how a harmless elderly relative, a widower, foolishly married a woman who physically abused him … she once broke his arm with a pan. We saw how that domestic violence was also a coercively controlling relationship, ticking all the boxes.  (Note that domestic violence and abuse is not always gendered in the way that some insist it is.)
  • And I’ve realised how, in a chosen un-coerced career, the mainstream church to which my father dedicated his roving life of ministry, meant that our parents’ priority could not really be with us, their children. My father’s ultimate boss-to-be-obeyed was the church and God. As a result, we, the now ageing children – like our late parents themselves, I think – have all had more limited and challenging roads to travel through our lives than we might have hoped for.

These personal examples may not all tick all the boxes of coercive persuasion above, but they were all significant experiences and harmful to a degree. This simple framework has been helpful and enlightening to me, a basis for new constructive discussions.

Questions the idea raises

There are indeed some less simple issues to tackle in running with this simple idea. There will be improvements to make. Future posts will work through the following things. Your comments are welcome too:

  • We will underline the obvious attractions of prior prevention being better than cure after the event.
  • We will put more flesh on the bones of the summary picture and see if it still fits across the board.
  • We will look at a couple of closely related public and statutory recent developments – the law against coercive control, and the website to educate against extremism and hate.
  • We will compare our general checklist of coercive persuasion with other more particular descriptions, checking how far it fits with them all.
  • We will explore common coercive experiences – like falling madly in love, or like healthily authoritative parenting or teaching – and natural membership of coercive groups – like being a child in a family, or in a job where obedience is required – to see if we can tell the difference between the recruitment or start of what are going to be healthy and ‘happy ever after’ relationships and what are going to be ‘harmfully coercive ever after’ relationships.
  • In teaching about this pattern, we want to avoid making everyone even more scared than they already are of other people – familiars or strangers.
  • We don’t want this idea to undermine in situations where there are good reasons, for example, to NOT see certain ex-family members or ex-friends.
  • This simple idea has powerful generalised uses. But proper understanding and help in any particular case requires us to look in deeper detail at how each individual situation, each leader and follower, works in unique and complex ways.
  • Finally we will look at important related versions of coercive persuasion such as groupthink and overly-coercive ideologies.

Meanwhile, don’t wait! Please do something with this idea yourself. And please share your ideas here, so you help develop the idea and improve it.

Maybe use a tag or hashtag like: WAnti to stand for: Walk Away not taken in.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

PS Please tell us in the comments below – or here with a one click vote – what you thought of the checklist above.

PPS  Here’s another quick 5-minute BBC news story and video – about a highly lucrative Skype sex-scam that Arab men in Morocco have been using on Arab men elsewhere – that shows the key features of Undue Influence. (Undue Influence is the general name for all harmful coercive patterns – see OpenMindsFoundation.org  for much more on that.) The point here is PREVENTION.  If you can learn about this specific damaging and criminal pattern – or about Undue Influence in general – in 5 minutes, you can prevent a life time of misery by spotting it and walking away.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. Nick,
    I commend your efforts to catch Parental Alienation Syndrome and other abusive relationships before they develop. It is, however, a rare parent who sees Parental Alienation Syndrome happening until it’s too late. Those who have been burned sometimes do pick up red flags in future relationships and protect themselves – but even these victims sometimes fall prey again.

    As for children, their innocence and dependence on parental guidance makes them more vulnerable.

    On the other hand with enough “public service” announcements and public awareness about children “thinking for yourself”, maybe we can make some headway. But I am not sanguine about this. It would seem to require indoctrinating children to go against a hard-wired neural program to listen to one’s parents – a program that has survival value and has been evolutionarily selected because it has survival value.

    There is more hope, I believe, for educating adults.

    Anyway, I love your enthusiasm and your intentions.


    • Les, thanks for your equally enthusiastic interest and response in sharing this field and thinking hard about it. Great!

      I agree with your reservations in relation to PA – I signposted that there are complications to tackle in the last section of “matters arising” from a simple idea. But I am genuinely concerned about ALL the coercive situations mentioned – it is not just a strategy to sort PA out as if the others didn’t matter.

      I wonder if all those entrapped by any kind of coercive persuasion would experience it as a totally overpowering position, in effect as impossible to get out of as for a PA child? … Discuss!!

      Hence the interest here is in a broader meaning of “alienation” than just PA … Note the name of the blog and read About and Not sure about pages to see that broader aim set out.

      And as I note, all these coercive patterns can also come under the broad name of “alienation”.



  2. Nick, for someone who has seemingly had little difficulty in accepting the term ‘Parental Alienation’ as an all encompassing reference to the specific phenomena associated with high conflict separation and ensuing alienation of one parent from the child/ren, I am surprised at the extent to which these different terms and their meanings are freeing me to think more broadly and away from being confined to a more limited context and to limited categories of behaviours.

    Your challenge for us to attempt to experiment with these terms in practice has led me to consider a case where the court has ordered a father to engage in family meetings so that the children could re-engage with their mother. They had been alienated form some 2 years. What emerges is the father’s sadness at the loss of his wife who on her own admission had behaved unfairly to the children. Now in her attempts in the therapeutic meetings to comply with his requests, the father is urging the children to attend contact meetings as a way to re-build trust. It is the children who continue to show fearfulness of contact given the ‘undue influence’ from their elder sibling who continues to protect their father’s heartbreak by refusing to see their mother. The perspective here allows for (as les Linet proposes above) the educating of the parents to follow the position taken by the children hoping that the parents understandings will enable the countering of the children’s loyalty confusion.

    Another client is planning to leave her marriage of 20 years. Her potential new partner has not yet informed his wife of his intentions to leave his family home until such time as my client offers a substantial financial promise to him. He refuses to contribute any of his monies to their living and is insisting that she pay his alimony; purchase them a home together and offer him the income from the purchase of a second property to be gifted to him. Needles to say her already fragile mental health has deteriorated significantly and being vulnerable to ‘undue influence’ has led to my collaborating with her wider professional network as a way of protecting her from what she recognises is ‘coercive control’ but believes she has to accept if she wishes to be with him. Coercive persuasion in the name of love.

    The shift in terminology and a shift to a set of complex meanings that are more resonant with unacceptable and dangerous behaviours enhances my vigilance and my willingness to show rigour in arenas to which I may previously have been less attentive.

    These terms as described in your blog and in the PASG position statement are new ‘eye-openers’ not least of which to use as a tool not only for ourselves but in communications with wider professional networks of our clients ‘so that everyone can learn about this harmful pattern’.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Myrna, thanks as ever for your engaged thinking and case examples.

    It is good to find confirmation of the personal and clinical usefulness of what otherwise seems to be my somewhat pie-in-the-sky thinking … a seemingly way-too-grandiose idea that a simple formula can somehow prevent all the miserably coercive relationships in the world! I hope it is clear that I know it’s not that easy.

    People are enjoying filling in the survey that is intended to make the ideas real to them right away. Maybe I can do an interim feedback of the data soon.

    The more exciting news I have to share here is the discovery – the mutual discovery – of a big and established international network that has precisely the same idea as I have set out in the post above!! Because they are not ready to “go live” yet, it is not right to share details here yet.

    After a lifetime of my maverick thinking – with by-standers looking at me as if I was at least a bit crazy – now I find a whole body of folk welcoming me into the body of their “kirk”. I am contributing to help ensure they present a more clearly “broad church” that includes the family versions of undue influence / coercion etc. (The quotes are there because their organisation, of course, is definitely NOT a “church”!!)



  4. lottehendriks1967l

    I do agree with you that PA can and should be prevented and not cured. Here is a task for Domestic Violence .I like your list, maybe this should be taught to children in school. Just like you tell them not to take any sweets from a strange person. i don’t know about the term ‘undue influence,’ though. I feel it isn’t strong enough. Maybe ‘malignant influence’ would be a better choice. But I do certainly see your aim in putting this list together and making the jump out of clinical psychology focusing on the individual into a broader view which includes society at large. I still run into people like this, you make it clear what I should be looking for if I want to protect myself. So I will read it again and try it out on new people I come across. I have a lot of respect for what you are trying to do. Thank you!


    • Hi Lotte. I’m glad you like this idea and the list. If you go to the OMF site you will see all the other words that are used for it – I’m not sure if “malignant influence” is among them, but that’s good too. The choice of “undue influence” is because that is already a known legal term. And, yes, the bigger idea is to educate everyone so they can spot the signs and walk away. It is important to find ways to prevent bodies being pushed in upstream, not always focus on pulling the bodies out downstream.


      • lottehendriks1967l

        I am not sure there is a similar concept in the Dutch Legal Sytem. I see why you would use this strategically. Good point!


  5. Many thanks for all of this Nick. I’ve been applying it in the last few days in a situation I’ve been dealing with – where a young man, aged 21 and autistic and living with paid carers, has not seen his mother for six months. There were previously two young men living in the household – the other one (now left) stopped seeing his mother (co-incidence ???). Hopefully, resolution of the issue is imminent but it would be interesting to follow up with research into issues about workers in the care sector who see themselves as superior to / better than natural families.


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