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Psychological abuse

What is Psychological Abuse? 

Psychological abuse includes ‘emotional abuse’ and takes the form of threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, rejection, blaming, controlling, intimidation, coercion, indifference, harassment, verbal abuse (including shouting or swearing), and isolation or withdrawal from services or support networks. 

Psychological abuse is the denial of a person’s human and civil rights including choice and opinion, privacy and dignity and being able to follow one’s own spiritual and cultural beliefs or sexual orientation. 

It includes preventing the adult from using services that would otherwise support them and enhance their lives. It also includes the intentional and / or unintentional withholding of information (for example information not being available in different formats / languages and so on). 

The Safeguarding Adults Board’s objective is to protect vulnerable adults at risk from abuse in Havering. 

If you are concerned about an adult at risk of psychological abuse 

Report a concern 

Adult Social Services Safeguarding Adults Team 
Telephone: 01708 433550
Fax: 01708 432497

  • Enforced social isolation – preventing someone accessing services, educational and social opportunities and seeing friends 
  • Removing mobility or communication aids or intentionally leaving someone unattended when they need assistance 
  • Preventing someone from meeting their religious and cultural needs 
  • Preventing the expression of choice and opinion 
  • Failure to respect privacy 
  • Preventing stimulation, meaningful occupation or activities 
  • Intimidation, coercion, harassment, use of threats, humiliation, bullying, swearing or verbal abuse 
  • Addressing a person in a patronising or infantilising way 
  • Threats of harm or abandonment 
  • Cyber bullying 
  • untypical ambivalence, deference, passivity, resignation; 
  • person appears anxious or withdrawn, especially in the presence of the alleged abuser; 
  • person exhibits low self-esteem; 
  • untypical changes in behaviour (for example continence problems, sleep disturbance); 
  • person is not allowed visitors / phone calls; 
  • person is locked in a room / in their home; 
  • person is denied access to aids or equipment, (for example glasses, dentures, hearing aid, crutches, etc.); 
  • person’s access to personal hygiene and toilet is restricted; 
  • person’s movement is restricted by use of furniture or other equipment; 
  • bullying via social networking internet sites and persistent texting. 

Coercive control is exerted by a range of individual behaviours that can add up to a cumulative effect. A pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour can be well established before a single incident is reported. In many cases the conduct might seem innocent – especially if considered in isolation of other incidents – and a victim may not be aware of, or be ready to acknowledge, abusive behaviour. The consideration of the cumulative impact of controlling or coercive behaviour and the pattern of behaviour within the context of the relationship is crucial.

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. The offence carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a fine. The legislation closes a gap around patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships between:

  • intimate partners
  • former partners who still live together
  • family members.

This does not relate to a single incident. It is a pattern of behaviour that takes place over time, in order for one person to exert power, control or coercion over another. The perpetrator knows, or ought to know, that the behaviour will have a serious effect on the victim.

Further assistance can be obtained from the Statutory Guidance published by the Home Office pursuant to section 77(1) of the Serious Crime Act 2015.  Building on examples within the Statutory Guidance, relevant behaviour of the perpetrator can include:

  • isolating a person from their friends and family
  • depriving them of their basic needs
  • monitoring their time
  • monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
  • taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  • depriving them access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
  • enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  • forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
  • financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
  • control ability to go to school or place of study
  • taking wages, benefits or allowances
  • threats to hurt or kill
  • threats to harm a child
  • threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
  • threats to hurt or physically harming a family pet
  • assault
  • criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods)
  • preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
  • preventing a person from being able to attend school, college or university
  • family ‘dishonour’
  • reputational damage
  • disclosure of sexual orientation
  • disclosure of HIV status or other medical condition without consent
  • limiting access to family, friends and finances.

This is not an exhaustive list and a perpetrator will often tailor their conduct to their victim, and that this conduct can vary to a high degree from one person to the next.

Coercive control has been described by many experts as the most damaging and risky form of abuse, whereby victims describe losing a sense of themselves and becoming trapped in a false sense of reality.

This type of abuse is less likely to be reported to the police as victims often feel they won’t be believed and prefer to lean on friends and families .

The statutory guidance framework Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship is published by the Home Office on their website at

The guidance states that controlling or coercive behaviour should be dealt with as part of adult and/or child safeguarding and public protection procedures.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships (section 76). The new offence closed a gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour in an ongoing relationship between intimate partners or family members. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, a fine or both.

The legislation means that victims who are subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour can bring their perpetrators to justice, with incidents that stop short of serious physical violence but amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse will now be recognised as a crime within the domestic abuse framework. For the first time perpetrators who control their partners through threats or by restricting their personal or financial freedom could face prison in the same way as those who are violent towards them.

Behaviour included under the new legislation includes (but is not limited to):

  • isolating someone from their family and friends
  • monitoring someone via online communication tools such as social media
  • taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  • depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
  • enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  • forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
  • preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

There is a growing awareness around the signs of coercive control – the emotional and psychological abuse of a partner, through threats and restrictions, as well as physical violence. This raised profile has resulted in a number of stories (real and fictional) in the media as discussed in this selection of articles:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and de-legitimise the victim’s belief.

Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred; up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent. Gaslighting may occur in parent–child relationships, with either parent, child, or both lying to the other and attempting to undermine perceptions. It can also occur in other types of relationship.

An abuser’s ultimate goal is to make their victim second-guess their every choice and question their sanity, making them more dependent on the abuser. A tactic which further degrades a target’s self-esteem is for the abuser to ignore, then attend to, then ignore the victim again, so that the victim lowers their personal bar for what constitutes affection and perceives themselves as less worthy of affection.

There are two characteristics of gaslighting:

  1. the abuser wants full control of feelings, thoughts, or actions of the victim; and
  2. the abuser discreetly emotionally abuses the victim in hostile, abusive, or coercive ways.

Warning signs of gaslighting include:

  • withholding information from the victim
  • countering information to fit the abuser’s perspective
  • discounting information
  • verbal abuse, often in the form of ‘jokes’
  • blocking and diverting the victim’s attention from outside sources
  • trivialising the victim’s worth
  • undermining a victim by gradually weakening them and their thought process.

The three most common methods of gaslighting are:

  1. Hiding: the abuser may hide things from the victim and cover up what they have done. Instead of feeling ashamed, the abuser may convince the victim to doubt their own beliefs about the situation and turn the blame on themselves.
  2. Changing: the abuser feels the need to change something about the victim. Whether it be the way the victim dresses or acts, they want the victim to mould into their fantasy. If the victim does not comply, the abuser may convince the victim that he or she is in fact not good enough.
  3. Control: the abuser may want to fully control and have power over the victim. In doing so, the abuser will try to seclude them from other friends and family so only they can influence the victim’s thoughts and actions. The abuser gets pleasure from knowing the victim is being fully controlled by them.

The act of gaslighting is not specifically tied to being sexist, although women tend to be more frequent targets of gaslighting compared to men who more often engage in gaslighting, as a result of social conditioning that says “it’s part of the structure of sexism that women are supposed to be less confident, to doubt their views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions, more than men. And gaslighting is aimed at undermining someone’s views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions. The sexist norm of self-doubt, in all its forms, prepares us for just that.”

It is important to understand the difference between the offences of controlling or coercive behaviour and those involving stalking and harassment.

Like controlling or coercive behaviour, offences of stalking and harassment can involve a course of conduct or pattern of behaviour which causes someone to fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or which causes them serious alarm or distress to the extent it has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. Indeed the behaviour displayed under each of these offences might be exactly the same.

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour has been introduced specifically to capture abuse in an ongoing relationship where the parties are personally connected (as defined in section 76(2) of the Serious Crimes Act 2015).

Where there is an ongoing relationship then the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour should be considered. Stalking and harassment offences may be appropriate if the victim and the perpetrator were previously in a relationship but no longer live together. These offences can also be in relation to activity that takes place between people who do not know each other and may never even have met one another.

There may be instances where the relationship status of the victim and perpetrator change a number of times  – it is the status of the relationship at the time the offending behaviour takes place which is relevant.

Psychological abuse can be damaging and often taps into earlier patterns in a person’s life. It is important to seek help and support to prevent the abuse from becoming entrenched.

  • Acknowledging that a relationship is abusive can be a useful call to action – visit the website for more advice on where to find help.

Barriers to seeking help may arise from the emotional and psychological impact of violence and abuse, as well as practical, social or cultural reasons. Many are also similar to those preventing people from seeking help about other safeguarding issues. They may include:

  • fear of the abuser and/or what they will do
  • lack of knowledge/access to support services
  • lack of resources, financial or otherwise
  • love, loyalty or emotional attachment towards the abuser
  • feelings of shame or failure
  • pressure from family/children/community/ friends
  • religious or cultural expectations.

The 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge) is a specialist domestic abuse support service and can be contacted by calling 0808 2000247.

To contact your local domestic abuse unit call 101 – in an emergency where there is an immediate threat to life or property always call 999.