Cults and Children

Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 76-85

Cults and Children: The Role of the Psychotherapist

David Halperin, M.D.

Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Department of Psychiatry

Mount Sinai School of Medicine New York, New York


The interface of religion, psychotherapy, and the law remains an area of controversy and concern especially when children are involved. A bitter confrontation may ensue when one parent remains or becomes a member of a cult. This paper examines the role of psychotherapists in clarifying relationships in this conflictual area. Questions of custody and visitation are illustrated in an examination of the transference and countertransference issues that arise as psychotherapists attempt to reconcile their concern over children with the freedoms granted by society.

Affiliation or membership in the unusual and often eccentric organizations that have proliferated in the aftermath of the Vietnam war creates a complex and confusing interaction between the mental health professions and the law. While it is difficult to define cults with exactitude, cults have usually been defined as hierarchal organizations subject to the totalistic control of a charismatic leader who exercises his authority under the guidance of his individual spiritual psychological or political revelation (Halperin, 1983). Adult cult members are encouraged to adopt life styles in which their gender roles may be rigidly defined, educational opportunities, limited dietary restrictions aggressively enforced, access to orthodox medical care limited if not actively discouraged and extended meditation encouraged. There is often involvement in quasi-therapeutic relationships with cult leaders and contact between the cult member and his biological family is frequently proscribed (West and Singer, 1980).

The potential impact of cult involvement on the children of cult members is particularly marked because children are usually unable to defend themselves against the possibly destructive impact of their parents' cult affiliation. Thus, children may not be able to receive appropriate medical care or eat balanced diets. They may be restricted in their contact with their parents, may be segregated from the customs of the surrounding society vis-a-vis participating in birthdays or other holidays, and may be subject to extraordinary corporal discipline. Children may be subject to restrictions in every area of their life and may be taught belief systems - that make it difficult for them to accept fundamental beliefs and values of the mainstream culture because they run counter to the leader's received truths.

This paper examines the role of the psychotherapist in working with cult members and their children. It examines the impact of cult affiliation on children and the role of the psychotherapist in addressing the possible conflict between the rights of parents to direct their children's growth and development and the role of society in acting in the “best interests” of the child (KandeL 1988).

These cases are quite capable of eliciting an intense countertransference response from the psychotherapist. The therapist must always be alert to his working between the Scylla of impassioned advocacy and the Charybdis of detachment and ostensible objectivity if he is to help the child realize his potential.

One third of those who died at Jonestown were children (Wooden, 1981). This tragedy stands as a menacing backdrop when considering the potentially destructive impact of a cult on its members. The potentially destructive impact of a cult on a child usually presents itself in less dramatic settings and with less potential risk.

Divorce and Custody Issues

Religious differences of parents and the question of the child's religious identity have become significant issues in divorce and custody proceedings even when both parents are members of mainstream religious denominations. Thus, it is hardly surprising that religion will be injected into custody proceedings particularly when the parents were initially married within a cultic organization or the actual divorce was precipitated by a parent's cult affiliation. The court's concern with “best interests" of the child can lead it to examine the membership of a parent in an eccentric group as an aspect of whether or not the total environment will be conducive to the child's growth and development (KandeL 1988).

These issues are presented in a particularly dramatic light in the case of Ophelia A:

Ophelia A. sought psychiatric consultation as part of her effort to regain custody of her two children, Norman and Dierdre. Mrs. A. had joined a quasi-Christian cult at the age of 17. The product of a “fundamentalististic” Christian background, she had joined because she believed that the group was a particularly committed evangelical organization. At age 18, she met and married Tim, a member of the group. They rose to positions of leadership within the cult. Two children were born. Gradually, Mrs. A. became disenchanted with the group because of the sexual and financial manipulations that characterized the relationship between the cult's hierarchy and its members (the group encourages the female members to engage in “flirty fishing” i.e., using prostitution as a form of recruitment). She was able to persuade her husband to leave the group with her and their two children. However, her husband was unable to find employment or function in the non-cult world. Eventually, he rejoined the group. They separated. One day, while Mrs. A. was working in the garden, her husband appeared and demanded the children. Without waiting for an answer, he ran to the house and snatched them away. Mrs. A. has not seen them in ten years. Through contacts with former members of the cult, she believes that the children are now living with their father in Asia.

The issues of this case are typical of those which arise when one parent is a member of a cult group. Both parents regarded one another in completely polarized terms. Mr. A. related to Mrs. A. as a defector/apostate/heretic. This justified his “rescuing” his children from “Satan”. Moreover, he made no effort to work out any realistic arrangement for visitation with her. In other cases, the non-cult parent will regard the cult member as a totally unfit parent to maintain viable contact with the child, even when the parent who is a cult member does attempt to abide by court regulations, e.g., returning the child on time and not using the visitation for recruitment purposes.

Polarization creates a difficult role for the psychotherapist. It is extremely difficult for the psychotherapist to work in an environment in which both parties are absolutely convinced of their ”truths”. Yet, it is important for the psychotherapist to help both parent and child to see that while one of the parents espouses unusual ideas, this does not mean that they will necessarily relate to the child in an irresponsible fashion.

These issues may be particularly confusing for children who in the aftermath of a divorce are forced to deal with family separation and the additional discovery that a parent may be "disturbed.” The -psychotherapist can play an important role in facilitating communication between parents to work out appropriately respectful relations.

Dr. P. sought psychiatric consultation because of his concern about his former wife's planning to take their 17-year-old son with her to attend an “educational seminar” conducted by her guru in India. She anticipated staying at the retreat for about two months but would not give a precise date for her return. Dr. P. was concerned that his son would be subject to 'brainwashing' and that his ex-wife might choose to continue the retreat indefinitely.

During the course of brief psychotherapy, Dr. P. was encouraged to deal with the reality that although his wife was a devoted follower of the guru she had always acted in a responsible manner in allowing contact between Dr. P. and his son. He was encouraged to fully discuss her traveling plan with her. As a result of this classification, he was able to obtain a firm commitment from his ex-wife to return with their child. She returned as specified. However, at the termination of the summer, the son was quite angry at his father for having allowed him to waste his summer in an un-air-conditioned cottage in India far from other teenagers! The son reported that the trip had reconfirmed his lack of interest in meditation and vegetarianism.

Fear of Child's Becoming Affiliated with Cult

Children are not passive clay which will inevitably be molded by the cult to serve its needs. Nevertheless, a parent's fantasy that cult exposure will inevitably serve to entrap a vulnerable child does have a realistic basis. Cult members often do use personal relationships in the service of recruitment. However, neither the message offered by these groups nor the character of the members is such that affiliation is an inevitable result. These issues are presented in a more therapeutic context in the following:

Mrs. N. sought psychiatric consultation because she was concerned about the amount of contact she should allow her daughter to have with her father. Five years before, Mrs. N. had divorced her husband after he had joined a group headed by a prominent Asian preacher. The ex-husband had remarried within the group, and now had a second family with three young children. He had been away on missionary work for the past four years. However, he had now returned to Mrs. N.'s city as an official within the group and sought contact with his daughter.

Both mother and daughter were seen in ongoing psychotherapy. Mrs. N. was concerned that her ex-husband planned to use his contacts with their daughter to lure her into his group. She harbored doubts that he merely intended to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Thus, the work with Mrs. N. consisted primarily of supporting her in establishing negotiations as a framework for the father's visitation with the child. Issues for negotiation included restricting discussion of controversial religious matters, having the visits conducted on neutral territory (his parents' home), and emphasizing individual contact between father and daughter. Ongoing psychotherapy with the daughter presented more complex problems. The daughter was quite fearful of the father's intentions and extremely angry at his having deserted her. During the course of treatment, she verbalized her anger and could see that her father's action did not constitute a rejection of her but reflected his own needs and that he was now attempting to act as a concerned parent.

The case of Mrs. N. illustrates that visitation may provide an arena for conflict in which both parents act out their anger and contempt for each other. Mrs. N. was appropriately concerned about the possibility that her former husband would utilize visitation in the service of a cultic agenda. Her interactions with him were tinged with the contempt she felt towards him as an official in a cultic organization. Similarly, while their daughter was uncomfortable with her father's religious involvement, the primary focus in her therapy lay in the anger she felt towards a father who had deserted her to worship after “strange gods.” Psychiatric intervention enabled both mother and daughter to clarify their feelings and work out a reasonable modus vivendi.

Conflicts Concerning Parental Lifestyles

Parental concern about visitation between a child and a parent who is the -member of a cult may not be limited to a concern over potential recruitment. The ideology of a group and the demands it may make upon its members can make visits between the cult-member parent and a child an extremely confusing, painful and contentious experience.

Mrs. B. sought psychiatric consultation because of the problems that were arising around her children's visits with their father. The B.'s separation was a product of Mr. B.'s increasing involvement in a group headed by a flamboyant radio-evangelist. As a result of his affiliation, Mr. B. demanded that his wife stop cooking a wide variety of foods and that she no longer observe Christmas, birthdays, and other holidays because they were 'pagan' festivals. He even censured her for observing Mother's Day because it was a secular holiday. In addition, he demanded that she defer to his authority because 'the Bible demands that wives defer to their husbands.' He also became increasingly critical of her taking their son to an internist to treat his asthma with medication rather than prayer.

After their separation, the children would visit their father at his parents' home. During the course of these visits, he would criticize them for giving him a Father's Day card or for giving him birthday or Christmas presents. He would only grudgingly give his son appropriate medication. He would consistently criticize their mother for her refusal to cook meals which were consistent with group practices. The children would return from these visits confused, anxious, and depressed because of their father's judgmental comments and attitudes.

Additionally, the father claimed he was no longer able to make adequate contributions for the support of his family because of his donations towards the support of his church.

Mrs. B.'s case illustrates a number of significant areas of conflict between the cult and the non-cult parent. Mr. B. placed a very high priority on providing financial support to his cult. He provided only minimal child support. The psychotherapist must be wary of being drawn into this battle and must attempt to be objective in a situation which can easily foster intense countertransference.

Another area of particular importance is the question of whether or not parents must provide appropriate standards of medical care. Mrs. B. immediately raised this as a primary issue. Indeed, cults are often skeptical of mainstream medical approaches, and members may be somewhat reluctant to provide standard medical care. In the past, judges have been reluctant to penalize parents who have refused to provide standard medical care for their children. There now appears to be an evolving body of law which holds that parents do not have the right to impose their “medical” judgments on their children because of the occasional fatal consequences (Rubenstein, 1981). Fortunately, even the cult parent often is amenable to outside pressure, particularly when the possibility of impeded visitation is raised. In this area of concern, the author has noted groups which have modified their child-care practices when faced with the threat of loss of custody or visitation.

Cults may have idiosyncratic or unusual views on education based on the primacy they accord religion (Robbins & Anthony, 1982). Mr. B.'s group felt that deference by women to men was sufficient. However, other groups such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna) emphasize the importance of women's assuming “traditional sex roles” and “may appear to stand as no more than sexism” (Rochford, 1985). Thus, female members may be given very limited educational opportunities. Yet, other groups may impose requirements such as having children spend significant parts of the school day in meditation. The non-cult parent may be legitimately concerned that his/her child is being directed towards a world view which is incompatible with the child's participation in mainstream society (and ultimately diminishing the opportunity for forming reasonable relationships with either the non-cult parent or other non-cult adults). The role of the psychotherapist in this regard is not clearly defined. The psychotherapist does have a responsibility to help the parents evolve a reasonable relationship around the issue of education, if this is possible. But if he is seen in a forensic capacity after the non-cult parent has explored efforts at compromise, the psychotherapist has the responsibility of bringing to the attention of the court that a cult parents' depriving the child of a mainstream education, may well not be in the child's best interest.

Mistreatment of Children

Cults may have eccentric and extremely harsh attitudes towards child discipline. The recent Ecclesia case in which the cult leader’s child was beaten to death illustrates that harsh and brutal treatment of children may occur under the guise of quasi-Biblical sanction (Spare the rod and -spoil the child') (Child's beating death, 1988). Unfortunately, this case is not unique (Markowitz & Halperin, 1988). The psychotherapist may face a very difficult task in deciding whether or not tales of child abuse represent a realistic concern.

Why do loving and caring cultic parents sometimes inflict bizarre and drastic discipline on their children? Some cult groups regard children born within the group as symbolic of the group's aspirations towards a spiritual perfectionism or as an effort towards the creation of an “uebermensch” (cf., the efforts at the creation of a “Homo Sovieticus”; Halberstadt & Mandel, 1989. Hence, any deviance by the child from group norms or goals is seen in particularly harsh terms. Additionally, parents may project onto their children ideas and desires which are unacceptable to them as cult members. Thus, the normative play of children is subject to criticism and they may be subject to harsh and unrelenting punishment as the parents attempt to exorcize their own unacceptable fantasies from the child (Markowitz & Halperin, 1988).

Mistreatment of children within a cult may include brutal discipline as well as neglect. The group leader may actively discourage parents from involvement with their children because it detracts from their own spiritual exercises. Rajneesh stated that parents should pursue their own karma. Or, parents may be absent for long periods on cult-related business, leaving children in the care of communal babysitters. Such positions because they are directed towards the member's need rather than towards directly advancing the cult's activities, are often given low status within the cult group, and the children are the recipients of the caretakers' dissatisfaction with their own status.

The cult leader may decide that the group's goals can be realized only if the children are reared in a communal setting in which the biological parents are essentially excluded from playing a significant role in the child rearing process. In this context, the psychotherapist's role may often be a forensic one in which he or she must work with the non-cult parent (or even grandparent) to see that the child receives appropriate nurturing. The presence of the psychotherapist as an active participant in the legal process may parenthetically provide enough support to the parents to prevent them from pursuing extralegal approaches. Throughout the course of any legal proceeding, the psychotherapist should caution parents against taking matters into their own hands. The psychotherapist can provide a valuable note of reality by helping the anxious parent appreciate the potential legal consequences of such maneuvers. Even in -forensic activities, the psychotherapist's participation can provide a holding environment which may enable the parents to contain their fears of losing contact or custody of their child.


Child's beating death reveals abuse in Oregon cult. In Cult Awareness Network News, November 1988, p. 1. This article summarizes material from the Washington Post, The (Portland) Oregonian, and Time.

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Robbins, T., & Anthony, D. (1982). Cults, culture, and community. In F. Kaslow & M.B. Sussman (Eds.), Cults and the family. New York: Haworth.

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West, LJ., & Singer, M.T. (1980). Cults, quacks and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, & B. Sadock (Fds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry. 111. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

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The author would like to express his appreciation to Arnold Markowitz, CSW; Shelley Rosen, CSW and Jay Marson, CSW, and to the staff of the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services of New York, Inc.

David A. Halperin, M.D, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is the editor of Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect and cult. He is also the Director of the Group Psychotherapy Program, Roosevelt Hospital St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City and a Consulting Psychiatrist to the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services of New York City, Inc.