What Do We Need to Know About Being Born or Raised in a Cultic Environment?
Cult As Family
Father, mother, and children typically comprise the traditional family system. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends of the parents may also be involved to varying degrees. There also is some form of structure or hierarchy, typically with parents deciding and implementing child-rearing practices.
There is much variability in the thousands of groups associated with the term cult, although in general the role of the leader becomes central in the cult family. The leader takes on the role of father and/or mother, deciding how children will be raised. Parents function somewhat as middle managers in the rearing of their children.
Severing of Family Bonds
Parents become relatively powerless within the structure of the group.
In some groups, the bonds between parents and children are actively severed by the leader removing children from parents and sending them to cult-run schools or giving them to other adult members to raise. Shaming of parents in front of their children serves as another way to weaken the family bond.
And as Whittset and Kent have noted:
A common observation about cults is that leaders usually go to great lengths to destroy dyadic bonds among members. …Viewing many high-demand cult leaders as narcissistic, clinicians are likely to state that leaders have insatiable needs for attention and admiration. … Coming to similar conclusions, sociologists emphasize the threat to group cohesion generated by family attachments.
Effect on Children
Children raised in these environments often have a distorted view of family.
Children also tend to develop a divided identity, one outwardly compliant with the cult’s rules, an identity the child is taught is good; the other inwardly rebellious, an identity the child is taught to consider is evil.
Cult As Socializing System
The cult environment may be viewed as a socializing system, which is much more influential on children than adults because children in this setting are in the process of developing their sense of self, their view of the world, and their identity, while adults who join a cult have an identity formed outside of the cult.
There is a consensus in the cultic-studies literature that adults who join cults bring with them a pre-cult personality and identity that they can then reconnect to when they leave the cult. In contrast, the very personality of SGAs (second-generation adults—people born or raised in a cultic group) is constructed within the cult.
High-demand groups vary in degree of isolation from mainstream society.
Some groups limit all interaction with outside society: living in isolated communities; homeschooling their children; refusing outside medical care; eliminating access to mainstream news, television, books, music, and so on.
Other groups allow members to live, work, and go to school in mainstream society; however, they still exercise a high degree of control over how members interact and interpret their experiences outside of the group.
Physical vs. Psychological Isolation
Although the degree to which children are physically isolated from mainstream society may vary depending on the group, the degree of psychological isolation for children in the group often does not.
Children are taught that the world inside the cult is good, while the world outside is evil.
Even when children do come into contact with outsiders, their behavior is often scripted and dishonest.
While adult cult members have also been indoctrinated to fear and distrust the outside world, the impact of the indoctrination is magnified in children because they have no pre-cult identity or experience.
Lack of Multidimensional Influences
Children raised outside of cults come into contact with many different individuals, personalities, and belief structures.
In contrast, children in cults are raised in a restricted environment that limits the amount of contact outside the group and fosters a sense that there is only one way of being and believing.
In many cultic situations, however, where children receive punishment for questioning adults (not to mention leaders), they quickly learn to suppress autonomous thinking. As a consequence, children’s cognitive development is stunted”.
Further, Furnari stated, “Children who are naturally striving to accomplish normal developmental tasks such as identity, safety, and independence, are labeled ‘possessed,’ crazy, or bad”.
And according to Langone and Eisenberg, “They are socialized into an environment that denigrates independent critical thinking, maintains members in a state of dependency, and fosters a private insecurity by attacking members’ while demanding that they not protest and show a positive front to the world”.
Cultic groups dictate what emotions are acceptable and what emotions members will express, with anger and grief typically not tolerated. Therefore, children have little experience with self-regulation of emotions and effect.
Suppression of emotions is as important and potentially harmful as cognitive suppression because the two are intimately connected and have a tremendous impact on each other. People can more accurately observe precisely when they are emotionally involved—that is, reason works better when emotions are present.
Creativity remains a somewhat elusive idea. However, in general, it can be agreed that creativity has to do with freedom of thought and emotion, combining and recombining information/knowledge in unique ways, and the creation and use of symbols.
Symbols are a mechanism through which one can communicate, but they are also used to represent and enable one to cope with emotions.
The expression of emotions is coercively denied within the cult environment, which interrupts the individual’s process of creating symbols and meaning. A former member recounts the following:
A child in a cultic group experiences the loss of her mother. In an attempt to grieve and cope with the loss, she uses drawing as a creative medium through which to explore her emotions. A person in leadership finds the drawings, shreds them in front of her, and punishes her for (1) feeling sadness for something that was obviously God’s plan and (2) indulging in selfish pursuits that do not further the needs of the group. Her creativity, her ability to process difficult emotions, and make meaning of the experience have been denied.
One powerful way in which children use creativity and symbols is through play. Many cultic groups discourage play in children, labeling it “foolishness” or “distraction.” High-demand groups may also label creative expression as self-indulgent.
Personal talent is often utilized by cultic groups; however, it is exploited to further the group and leader.
There is an important difference between using one’s creativity to create something and using one’s talent to create something. In a creative endeavor, the output is the unique expression/understanding of the person who created it. In contrast, the output in cults reflects the expression/understanding of the cult.
Creative Suppression: Effect on Children
Those who study child development agree that creativity, especially play, is essential for healthy cognitive and emotional growth in children. Play increases attention span, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, recognition of emotions in others, and bonding between parent and child.
Play is defined as “any activity freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and personally directed. It stands outside ‘ordinary’ life, and is non-serious…. These are all things that are not allowed within cultic environments.
Looking at play through the lens of neuro-science, play increases neural connections and brain growth. Therefore, children who do not have the opportunity to play show impaired brain development.
Studies indicate that lack of play impacts the ability of children to develop self-control, to internally regulate emotions and behavior, and to experience joy.
One prominent feature of cultic leaders is a pattern of behaving unpredictably. This unpredictability tends to trickle down from the members to the children.
Consistent with trauma theory, this unpredictability creates hyper-vigilance in children and interferes with their ability to develop a sense of safety and security.
Structure of Cults As Conducive to Abuse/Neglect
Most concerning when one examines abuse and/or neglect within cultic groups are
How the structure of these groups is conducive to abusive dynamics
The physical and psychological isolation of these groups
The normal avenues through which abuse may be identified are frequently not available (e.g., doctors, teachers, friends).
Because children have been taught that the world outside the group is bad, they might not disclose abuse to outsiders (Note: This is an important consideration for those professionals, such as social workers, family lawyers, and scholars, who may come into contact with these children).
When SGAs Leave the Cult/High-Demand Group
SGAs (those born and/or raised in cults) leave high-demand groups in one of three ways:
Leave on their own without their family
Leave with their family (either voluntarily, or involuntarily because of age)
Forced by the group to leave
The manner in which SGAs leave will have an impact on their recovery.
Often, children raised in cults are isolated from family members who are not in the group. As a result, if SGAs leave on their own without their family, they may not know anyone outside of the group.
Even SGAs who leave with their family are often leaving the only people they have ever known outside the family.
Additionally, SGAs are not only losing an entire relational support system, they are in many ways losing an entire world. They are losing the only belief structure/world-view they have ever known.
Selected Practical Concerns
Children raised in cults may not have a Social Security card, driver’s license, or high-school diploma.
They may have no one outside the group to use as a reference for a job or for school.
They may have little or no experience with use of currency.
Grief and Loss
Personal losses including their sense of self, childhood, and their family
Loss of spirituality and a loss of meaning in life
Feelings of Shame and Isolation
Relational Adjustment, Dependency, and Boundaries
SGAs have been raised in a strictly controlled environment, where individual, independent thinking has been suppressed, and where they have depended on a strong leader to direct their lives.
Children raised in cultic environments have come to depend on outside reinforcement; thus, their ability to develop a sense of independence and internal validation has been severely hampered.
When leaving these environments, SGAs may find themselves in relationships that mimic this high degree of control.
For example, in the case of the Branch Davidian children, Perry and Szalavitz (2007) observed,
But none of the children knew what to do when faced with the simplest of choices: when offered a plain peanut butter sandwich as opposed to one with jelly, they became confused, even angry. Having never been allowed the basic choices that most children get to make as they begin to discover what they like and who they are, they had no sense of self. The idea of self-determination was, like all new things for them, unfamiliar and, therefore, anxiety provoking.
In her work with SGAs, Lorna Goldberg identified what she terms the “harsh conscience” as a clinically significant recovery concern:
Within cults, there is often a demand for absolute perfection.
Consequences for lack of perfection are unpredictable and often harsh.
There is a lack of consistent modeling of non-manipulative compassion and negotiation.
Children internalize the harsh views of the cult and the leader.
This combined experience results in a lack of a loving conscience that acknowledges and accepts the inherent imperfection of being a human being.
One former member gives an inside glimpse of this “harsh conscience”: From the outside she was a driven, successful young woman. She excelled in school and at work. She had a good marriage and good friends. However, she reported feeling plagued with feelings of inadequacy and failure. Every correction on a paper, every missed phone call, every mistake was a monumental failure. She expected at every turn a catastrophic consequence for each misstep. She was unable to internalize any success, instead believing that it was only a matter of time before she made a mistake and was revealed to be the failure that she knew she was.
Children Raised In High Control, Destructive Groups
The issues faced by children born and/or raised in a destructive group tends to be all-pervasive, particularly if the group experience was communal. These issues, while similar to those faced by adults (former members) who had a “prior life”, are far more consuming. Therefore, the resolution of these issues require a different approach and understanding
1. Identity Issues. The child/adolescent/adult has no other identity than the one “imposed” by the group. Usually this person is developmentally delayed
— Destructive groups ignore the stages of human development/maturation. They seek to “create”/make the perfect disciple, and use verses like “Raise a child in the way he should go…” Proverbs 22:6
— Young adults who leave destructive groups frequently attempt to regain their childhood. They may comment, “I was never allowed to be a child. I never could do the things other kids could do.”
— In the “world” maturation is guided by parents. It is prevented or controlled or stifled in high control groups. So when the child/adult person goes out into the world, chronologically they are beyond the age of “guidance” by society, yet they are expected to act and respond as an adult.
— Self determination and individuation is diminished preventing normal decision-making for their age.
2. Ethical Issues.
— Often the child/adolescent/adult person has no moral compass or internal boundaries and there is confusion at the deepest level. Typically, the ethical framework was built on a religious world view that has been abandoned.
— In the group beliefs and rituals were externally imposed. There was no real opportunity to determine or begin to “own” a personal belief system.
— Thus, the child/adolescent/adult person often gets involved in circumstances not healthy for them. They have inadequate decision-making skills.
3. Social Identity/Isolation Issues.
— The child/adolescent/adult person is frequently afraid to tell anyone of past because of stigma of “cults.”
– It is often difficult for them to speak about their past due to the ‘stigma’ of cults
— Because of issues of inconsistent or abusive authority it is difficult for the child/young person to trust.
loneliness and isolation has been very much a part of a child/adolescent/adult’s life
4. Emotional/ Psychological Issues.
— The child/adolescent/adult frequently feels intense guilt for having left (or been taken) from the group.
— Fear is also a large part of the child/adolescent/adult’s life. The group has told them that to leave is to invite God’s wrath. The world is also a scary place to the child/adolescent/adult . Strangers, authority figures, the organized church are all feared at some level.
— The child/adolescent/adult may also feel intense anger at the group for “ruining” their life and family, or they may be angry at God for “allowing” this to happen to them.
5. Social /Cultural Issues.
— Bible based destructive groups create their own culture ( practices, rituals, music, dietary “laws”, ways of worship, etc.) and world view ( a way to look at the world and society) that is often radically against any culture outside their context.
— Children/young people born and raised in such groups are particularly unprepared to function within a world they do not understand or comprehend, even though they speak the language fluently. They don’t understand social cues (respecting positions of authority, personal space, standing for older folk, etc.), socially “appropriate” actions (thank you’s, respecting other’s property, knocking, etc.), culturally determined abstract concepts (politically “correct” language, “rites” of passage, equality, etc.).
— The child/adolescent/adult frequently does not know how to set up a bank account, how to handle money, credit, large purchases, etc.
6. Education Issues.
— Education is usually woefully deficient. Frequently, the child/adolescent/adult will be behind their peers educationally.
— At school, the child/adolescent/adult is often fearful of others, yet desperately wants to fit in and be accepted. This is more so than with others raised in the “world.”
— Often, education is approached in one of two ways. Either the child/adolescent/adult is extremely motivated to succeed, work hard, and do exceptionally well, but at the expense of dealing with issues (they are like time-bombs internally). Or they may give up on school feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. The group has told them they won’t do well because they left the cult. This is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
7. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Issues.
— Many child/adolescent/adult who leave high control, destructive groups suffer from PTSD. This presents a whole host of issues that must be addressed individually with each one.
— They need to learn social skills (appropriate attachments, follow through, using others financially, etc).
— They need to learn skills to think critically and wisely.
— They need to learn appropriate boundaries, reasons for them, and then internalize them.
— In many instances life skills will need to be taught to the child/adolescent/adult.
They young adult needs to deal with the spiritual dimension.
— They have been living in a “supercharged,” black and white spiritual environment. They have been told what to believe, who to believe, when to believe, etc., in a context (the group) with clearly defined boundaries. Now they are in what seems to be a totally open-ended environment. Spiritual issues can be addressed at the child/adolescent/adult persons own speed.
There may be a need to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in extreme abuse situations.
— While the symptoms of PTSD will ease over time, they do not go away of their own.
— A trained counselor in PTSD will need to be consulted to overcome this disorder.
— Usually through counseling (and sometimes medication) the young adult can overcome PTSD.
For the child/adolescent/adult person who still has family in their former group there are a number of things they can do.
— In some instances it will be impossible to have a relationship with any family member still in the group. The child/adolescent/adult person needs to be very realistic at this point. This may be because he/she does not want to have any relationship, or because the group will not allow it.
— It is important to not “bad mouth” the group. This will only create further barriers.
— It is important, as much as is possible, for the child/adolescent/adult person to try to understand where their parents/siblings are coming from, why they joined the group, and why they are so crippled. The group has not only damaged the child/adolescent/adult person’s life, but also their relatives’ lives.
— The child/adolescent/adult person needs to have limits/boundaries set for what kind of interaction they will have with their relatives still in the group. This may involve what can be talked about, where they can meet, etc.
New England Institute of Religious Research.
A neuro-scientist told me that she is pleased by the recent surge of interest in the brain but concerned because sometimes speculative theorizing is passed off as knowledge. This is especially so in the area of cults, where even the traditional psychological research base is limited.
An assumption of modern science is that every mental event is connected to a brain (and/or other biological) process. If so, why bother with neurological speculations, especially in such an under-researched area as cults? Why not restrict our focus to more accessible mental events and stick with familiar psychological models?
The answer is that sometimes psychological models cannot account for what we observe. There was a time, for example, when psychological models tried to explain schizophrenia. Although life events and internal psychological experiences may influence the behavior of schizophrenic, we now know that biologically autonomous processes underlie the disorder. Schizophrenia is not caused by a schitzophrenic mother “.
Are there phenomena within the cultic studies field that we might better understand if we considered brain research and theorizing? Two come to mind: (1) susceptibility to influence, (2) trauma.
We are influenced by a cacophony of external and internal events every moment of our lives. Some forms of influence, however, are systematic and directed by human beings pursuing strategies designed to induce us to behave, think, or feel as they wish, e.g., advertising, propaganda, hypnosis, and some forms of “engineered” cult conversion. Different people will respond differently to the same influence strategy. Even in tightly choreographed influence scenarios, such as the Moonie recruitments of the 1970s, most people do not respond as the influencers would like. Why, for example, do some recruits wind up fund-raising for Reverend Moon after a few weeks of indoctrination, while others don’t? Perhaps an unknown percentage of the “converts” have brains that are wired in a way that makes them less able to resist the indoctrination strategies of the group. There is, for example, a body of research that suggests that hypnotic susceptibility may, to a degree, be an in-born trait. Perhaps that susceptibility has a biological component that must be considered in order to understand fully why A becomes a convert and not B. Perhaps other forms of susceptibility to influence may have biological components, e.g., the capacity to think critically in environments that purposely overstimulate the brain. Some tantalizing research exists. But much more investigation is needed before we will be able to speak with scientific authority.
Another promising area for neurological research is trauma. Trauma, of course, is by no means limited to cult situations. However, those who have worked clinically with former members report significant levels of trauma among former cult members and especially among those born or raised in cultic groups.
Increasing evidence suggests that experiencing trauma affects brain structure and function. These changes may better account for maladaptive behavior, such as persevering in actions that continue to produce painful outcomes, than psychological models, e.g., the person unconsciously “wants” pain and suffering. A forthcoming issue of our organization’s magazine, ICSA Today, will include an interesting essay, “Why Cults Are Harmful: Neurobiological Speculations on Interpersonal Trauma,” by Dr. Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California School of Social Work.
Dr. Whitsett suggests that those born or raised in severe cultic environments may develop maladaptive mental templates, or what attachment researcher John Bowlby called, “internal working models of attachment” (IWMs). These templates, which are thought to be based at least partly in brain structures developed early in life, may affect some cult children throughout their adult lives.
Let me close with a note of caution. Neuroscience is and ought to be a science. Scientists propose theories with empirically testable hypotheses. Theories with hypotheses that stand up under empirical testing gain credibility, but the theories are always provisional and never “proved.” This is especially so with theories of human behavior because so many interacting factors affect everything that we do. “Brain” factors may help account for certain phenomena that psychological theories cannot explain. However, brain-behavior research is still in its infancy. If we are to speculate about neurological factors in cult situations, let us acknowledge from the start that we need to know much more than we know now if we are to help cult victims in practical ways.