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Patterson’s Coercion Theory and Coercive Cycle

Parent-child coercive cycle in early childhood can have a major impact on a child’s development of social relationships and behavior​1​. Patterson’s Coercive Theory suggests how 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 how ineffective parenting in early childhood sets the stage for adolescent antisocial behavior later through association with deviant peers. In early childhood, mutual reinforcement starts when a child’s problem behaviors reinforce their parent’s coercive parenting, which unintentionally reinforces the undesired behavior. When the child reaches adolescence, this cycle of coercive behaviors propels the teenager into association with deviant peers who further reinforce deviant behavior that often ends in delinquency.

What Is Coercive Cycle

When a child disobeys the parent’s directive or request, the misbehavior provokes anger and hostility in the parent. The parent then reacts punitively, which provokes the child’s disruptive behavior, which raises the parent’s angry response even more. As the exchanges continue, the level of coercion intensifies and escalates to result in a coercive cycle​3​.

The parent-child coercive cycle is a cycle of negative parent-child interactions leading to the development of conduct and antisocial behavior in the child. The increasing hostility, aggression, and negativity between parents and children form a positive feedback cycle of aggressive behaviors​4​.

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 even more aversive the next time the parent tries to discipline.

Consequently, parental behavior unintentionally reinforces difficult child behavior; aversive child behavior amplifies parental negativity. Negative reinforcement of the child’s misbehavior and the parent’s coercion creates a positive feedback cycle. Coercive 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 Patterson Coercive Cycle

According to the Coercive Theory, a coercive cycle typically begins in infancy.

At birth, a baby instinctually cries (aversive events) to get caretakers’ attention to meet their needs​6​. The baby learns that when they cry, the parent will pick them up.

Depending on the child’s temperament, the time it takes the parent to react may be the first step in teaching the baby to use aversive behavior to receive what they need.

Most families teach their children gradually to meet their needs using words and positive behavior to replace the use of coercion. However, if the coercive threat persists beyond infancy, then it becomes the early phase in the development of the coercive cycle.

Both the parent and the child may be responsible for creating the coercive cycle since both shape, reciprocate, and maintain it.

The Parent’s Contribution – Coercive Parenting

Parents who engage in coercive cycles tend to be authoritarian parents. They contribute to the escalation in several ways.

Harsh parents use more control and less guidance​7​. They often neglect to patiently teach children specific behaviors they need to get what they want.

Not only that, but their negative emotional reactions are bad examples of emotional regulation for their kids. When faced with adversity, children who haven’t developed self-regulation also become reactive. 

Poorly regulated parents tend to interpret children’s negative emotions as intentional, and therefore use more coercive forces. Rather than diverting children’s attention away from a distressing event, harsh parents increase the focus on it instead of helping kids ease the distress. They promote inappropriate regulatory behavior.

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 legitimate request, if the message is delivered with negative emotion, the child will react to the emotion rather than the request itself.

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 think that they must start using harsh discipline, control, and limit setting to restrict toddlers’ mobility. Therefore, parenting a temperamentally demanding toddler poses difficult challenges.

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​8​.

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.

Negative Effects of Coercive Cycles

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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 or odd symptoms in children​9​. Conduct problems often develop in families where coercive interactions are common.

Bullying or victims of bullying

By preschool age, children who are defiant at home likely have learned how to shut down unpleasant or unrewarding demands using aggressive behavior. They then carry this learned behavior over into interactions with others outside the family, such as peers and teachers​10​.

Reseearchers have found that having authoritarian and hostile parents are a salient characteristic of bullies and victims of bullying​11​. Poor emotional regulation also contributes to antisocial behavior at school.

Physical abuse

In the absence of positive interactions, the relationship between parent and child further deteriorates. Often, parents who assign negative attributes to the child will resort to harsh physical punishment as a means of controlling their children.

Harsh discipline may eventually escalate into physical abuse​12​. In the eyes of physically abusive parents, violence is the only thing that works with their children (incorrectly).

Poor emotional regulation and social skills

When parents are hostile, they model poor emotion regulation and do not teach their children how to interact with their peers cooperatively and socially​13​. Children who cannot regulate negative emotional arousal are likely to experience social problems with peers in school​14​.


Problem behaviors that have been formed at home are usually maintained at school by coercive exchanges with peers​15​. Children with antisocial behavior and poor social skills are often rejected by their normal peers, leading them to drift to deviant peers who reinforce their conduct problems.

The development of conduct problems in early childhood often leads to more serious delinquent​4​ and criminal behaviors​16​ later in life. Researchers have also found a strong correlation between coercive parenting and subsequent early arrest​17,18​.

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

Nevertheless, if the pattern of conflict has been in place for years, it would be difficult to change it on your own without professional help. School counselors and psychologists can provide help to parents who wish to break the 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 grownups, parents need to take the initiative to break the harsh parenting practice and help kids learn adaptive relationship skills.


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