Skip to Content

Coercion Theory and Coercive Cycle | In A Parent-Child Relationship

Patterson coercion theory | What is coercive cycle | Causes | Impacts | How to break the cycle

Parent-child coercive cycle in early childhood can have a major impact on a child’s development of social relationships and behavior​1​. Decades of research has found that early conduct problems and harsh parenting can lead to a child’s adjustment difficulties later in life​2​.

Patterson Coercion Theory

Patterson’s Coercion Theory describes a process of mutual reinforcement in which parents unintentionally reinforce their children’s problem behaviors and children reinforce their parents’ coercive parenting.

The increasing hostility, aggression, and negativity between parents and children result in the Coercive Cycle​3​.

What Is Coercive Cycle

What does the “coercive cycle” refer to?

The parent-child coercive cycle is a cycle of harsh discipline and negative parent-child interactions leading to the development of conduct and antisocial behavior in the child.

A coercive cycle typically begins when a child disobeys the parent’s directive or request. The misbehavior provokes anger and hostility in the parent and the parent reacts punitively, which provokes the child’s aggression, which raises the parent’s hostile response even more. As the exchanges continue, the level of coercion intensifies and escalates to create a vicious cycle​4​.

Alternatively, parents may initiate the process by engaging in harsh discipline. Parental coercion leads to higher levels of child disruptive behavior and fuels further anger and hostility from the parent.

The cycle continues until one of the participants “wins.” If the child finally gives in, the parent “wins” and coercive parenting is reinforced. If the parent disengages, the child “wins” reinforcing the aggressive behavior​5​. The parent has been shaped to back down when the child’s behavior becomes aversive the next time the parent tries to discipline.

As a result, parental behavior unintentionally reinforces difficult child behavior; similarly, aversive child behavior amplifies parental negativity. Negative reinforcement of the child’s misbehavior and parent’s coercion creates a positive feedback cycle. Coercive parent-child interaction becomes increasingly challenging over time, leading to an escalation of aggressive behavior.

father son engages in argument in a coercive cycle - coercive discipline definition

What Causes The Coercive Cycle

Both the parents’ and children’s behaviors contribute to the creation of the coercive cycle since it is shaped, reciprocated and maintained by both.

The Child’s Contribution – Temperament

Children and parents often develop a pattern of mutual coercion during the toddler years. In toddlerhood, a child’s body, brain, motor skills, and emotions are developing rapidly. 

With the ability to walk, toddlers start to explore the environment and venture into dangerous or forbidden places. 

The primary challenge for parents during this time is to balance the demands of compliance with the allowance for free exploration.

To protect their children, parents must start using discipline, control, and limit setting to restrict toddlers’ mobility. Therefore, parenting a temperamentally difficult toddler is particularly challenging.

A child’s temperament can influence the parent-child relationship problems. A child with a difficult temperament often shows emotion dysregulation, which is more likely to provoke harsh parenting responses​6​.

The more behavioral difficulties a child has, the more coercive, controlling, and negative the parent’s response will be, which, in turn, stimulates the child’s aggression, resulting in the coercive cycle.

The Parent’s Contribution – Coercive Parenting

Harsh parenting contributes to the coercive cycle in four ways.

First, negative emotional reactions from harsh parents reflect parents’ own inability to control their emotions. Harsh parents don’t model proper emotion regulation for their children. They also use more control and less guidance​7​.

When faced with adversity, children learn to become reactive. 

Second, poorly regulated parents are also more likely to interpret children’s negative emotion as intentional, and therefore initiate coercive interactions with them.

Third, harsh parenting promotes inappropriate regulatory behavior. Rather than diverting children’s attention away from a distressing event, coercive parents increase the focus on it and fail to help the kids ease the distress.

Fourth, in an emotionally charged interaction, the child reacts to the emotions rather than the content of the parent’s requests. Even when the harsh parent has a “correct” request, if the message is delivered with negative emotion, the child will react to the emotion rather than the request itself.

Parents who engage in coercive cycle tend to be authoritarian parents.

Why Is Coercive Cycle Problematic

Noncompliance and aggression are common in early childhood, but ineffective parenting can lead to an increase in conflict, which is a breeding ground for oppositional behavior​8​

By preschool age, children who are defiant at home likely have learned how to shut down unpleasant or unrewarding demands using aggressive behavior.

In a family where coercive interactions are prevalent, a child’s conduct problems arise.

In the coercive cycle, children learn through the coercive family patterns of behavior. They then carry this learned behavior over into interactions with others outside the family, such as peers and teachers​9​.

Poor emotional regulation also contributes to the formation of conduct issues at school.

When parents are hostile, they model poor emotion regulation and do not teach their children how to interact with their peers cooperatively and socially​10​

Children who cannot regulate negative emotional arousal are likely to experience social problems with peers in school.

Problem behaviors that have been formed at home are usually maintained at school by coercive exchanges with peers​11​.

The development of conduct problems in early childhood often leads to more serious delinquent​3​ and criminal behaviors​12​ later in life. Researchers have also found a strong correlation between coercive parenting and subsequent early arrest​13,14​.

Breaking The Coercive Cycle

To break the coercive cycle, both the parent and the child need to learn to regulate their emotions to avoid escalated hostile exchanges.

Interventions targeting coercive parenting practices can prevent escalation of conduct problems​15​.

Educating parents and children about proper regulating strategies is another way to break the coercive cycle.

Final Thoughts On Coercive Cycle

Although both the child and the parent contribute to creating and sustaining the coercive cycle, there is only one adult in this interaction. As the grownups, parents need to take the initiative to break the harsh parenting practice and help kids learn adaptive relationship skills.


  1. 1.
    Waller R, Gardner F, Hyde LW, Shaw DS, Dishion TJ, Wilson MN. Do harsh and positive parenting predict parent reports of deceitful-callous behavior in early childhood? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online April 10, 2012:946-953. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02550.x
  2. 2.
    SHAW DS, OWENS EB, GIOVANNELLI J, WINSLOW EB. Infant and Toddler Pathways Leading to Early Externalizing Disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online January 2001:36-43. doi:10.1097/00004583-200101000-00014
  3. 3.
    Loeber R, Dishion T. Early predictors of male delinquency: A review. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1983:68-99. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.94.1.68
  4. 4.
    Frick PJ. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Published online 2003:457-470. doi:10.1023/a:1023899703866
  5. 5.
    Patterson GR. The early development of coercive family process. In: Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents: A Developmental Analysis and Model for Intervention. American Psychological Association; :25-44. doi:10.1037/10468-002
  6. 6.
    Hartup WW, Van Lieshout CFM. Personality Development in Social Context. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online January 1995:655-687. doi:10.1146/
  7. 7.
    Braungart-Rieker J, Garwood MM, Stifter CA. Compliance and noncompliance: the roles of maternal control and child temperament. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online January 1997:411-428. doi:10.1016/s0193-3973(97)80008-1
  8. 8.
    Smith JD, Dishion TJ, Shaw DS, Wilson MN, Winter CC, Patterson GR. Coercive family process and early-onset conduct problems from age 2 to school entry. Dev Psychopathol. Published online April 2, 2014:917-932. doi:10.1017/s0954579414000169
  9. 9.
    Granic I, Patterson GR. Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach. Psychological Review. Published online 2006:101-131. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.113.1.101
  10. 10.
    Denham SA, Zoller D, Couchoud EA. Socialization of preschoolers’ emotion understanding. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1994:928-936. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.30.6.928
  11. 11.
    Dodge KA, Coie JD, Pettit GS, Price JM. Peer Status and Aggression in Boys’ Groups: Developmental and Contextual Analyses. Child Development. Published online October 1990:1289. doi:10.2307/1130743
  12. 12.
    Murray J, Irving B, Farrington DP, Colman I, Bloxsom CAJ. Very early predictors of conduct problems and crime: results from a national cohort study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online July 13, 2010:1198-1207. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02287.x
  13. 13.
    Patterson GR. Performance models for antisocial boys. American Psychologist. Published online April 1986:432-444. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.4.432
  14. 14.
    Patterson GR. Coercion as a basis for early age of onset for arrest. In: Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives. Cambridge University Press; 1995:81-105. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511527906.005
  15. 15.
    Dishion TJ, Patterson GR, Kavanagh KA. An experimental test of the coercion model: Linking theory, measurement, and intervention. In: Preventing Antisocial Behavior: Interventions from Birth through Adolescence. Guilford Press; 1992:253-282.

Was this article helpful?


* All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *