Family Dynamics During a Cult Crisis

ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2011, 2-5

Family Dynamics During a Cult Crisis

Douglas Agustin

There is a great deal of information and material about the problems that affect individuals who are recruited or indoctrinated into, or who exit cultic or other undue-influence groups. There is considerably less information available regarding the difficulties and reactions of, and options for families in relation to the problems created by a loved one’s involvement in such groups. This paper attempts to give affected families and professionals to whom they may turn for help insight into the problems and, hopefully, assistance in dealing with those challenges.

Stage One: Introduction

Initial family reactions to a loved one’s involvement in cultic or other undue-influence groups are usually mild. If no information about the group is readily available for the family, rationalization is often their first response:

“It is good that he has found something to believe in.”

“It’s just different from what I am used to, and better than having nothing to believe in.”

Often, some denial is mixed in:

“It’s a campus organization, so there cannot be anything wrong with it.”

“(The loved one) would never get caught in anything controlling or abusive.”

“His company would not get him involved in anything unethical.”

If the loved one is living out of the area, or schedules keep the family from having regular interaction, this stage may last for some time. Indeed, rather than the family, a friend who is in regular contact with the individual may be the first to recognize that something is wrong, and the friend may contact the family.

Stage Two: Awareness

The loved one begins to exhibit different behavior (from past behavior) and talks about views that are entirely new and usually in conflict with views she formerly held.

New terms and phrases show up.

Alarms begin going off within the family:

“There is something wrong, (The loved one) always enjoyed a good steak—this sudden change to being a vegan is weird.”

“(The loved one) is telling us we are not Christians because we don’t go to that church. …doesn’t make any sense.”

“(The loved one) is cutting off old friends, just because they don’t belong to the group.”

The loved one has no time for family and old activities. It appears all of her time is being monopolized by the group. She has possibly broken off personal relationships because her partner will not join the group.

The loved one is using new jargon—insider dialect that means little to those on the outside. Some words seem to have new meanings.

Family and friends note that it almost seems there is someone else inside their loved one because of her new and different way of talking and looking at the world.

Panic or a high level of anxiety begins to grow within the family and close friends. Often the term cult comes up, which is not helpful because almost no one has an understanding of what it means and knows even less about what to do about it.

Should the family react in a typical fashion, and tell the loved one she is being stupid and used, and that the group is a cult and abusive, the victim may sever contact with family for reasons dictated by the group. This can plunge parents/spouses into despair and feelings of helplessness.

In some instances, there can be relationship implosion. Parents may begin blaming themselves or each other for the loved one’s involvement in the group, and this process sometimes has led to divorce.

Sibling children may begin to feel neglected as all of the parents’ attention becomes focused on the person with the cult problem. The siblings may develop bitterness toward the victim. In most families, however, this difficulty tends to pull families closer together, as they set aside differences and work toward helping the affected member, with the goal of helping her out of the group and back to a regular lifestyle.

Stage Three: Education

The search for information begins. Some families go to their clergy for help; and while they get some empathy and support, they seldom find much assistance in the form of good information. Some clergy may say, “It is a mental health problem.”

Some families go to mental health practitioners and, except for a relative handful of cult specialists, find little help there either. If the cult is religious in nature, the professional may say, “It is a religious problem.”

We are fortunate at this time to have the Internet as a research tool. If the group/leader is known, there may be a wealth of information available, both pro and con. However, if the group is new or obscure, the family may be left with little information to work with. Given some luck, they may find sites, such as, that have good information about how the process of undue influence is implemented, what the effect is on the victims, and how a family might deal with it. This way, the education of the family can be brought to a level from which they can make informed, positive choices about how to deal with this problem and get their loved one out of the group and back to a regular lifestyle. The better educated the family is, the more stabilized the situation will be.

Just understanding what they are dealing with is empowering and gives most families hope to replace their confusion and despair. They may contact a consultant, who is likely to be a former cult member, or a knowledgeable professional or family member. These individuals can be invaluable in providing deeper insight into how the process of undue influence works and how it has affected the group member and his family.

Stage Four: Strategy

Most parents just want their loved one out and away from the group. They want him to return to pursuing life on his own terms. When the family’s education gives them the insight needed to make informed decisions, they often hold a family meeting to discuss what they have learned and to then try to figure out what to do.

A knowledgeable consultant can assist the family in evaluating various options and identifying what strengths/weaknesses they have in relation to those options.

Families attempt to develop action plans. Some plans are passive, an approach that requires patience and trust that the victim will eventually leave the group and return to a normal life. It is very helpful if the families can find ways to improve or reestablish communication with their loved one. This not only helps them manage stress but also sends the message they still care about the individual even though they may disagree with him.

Some plans are more interactive; for example, the family tries to create a dialogue with their loved one to share what they have learned about the group and similar groups.

Then there are assertive plans, in which the family attempts to gain an agreement with their loved one that he will listen to information about undue influence and how it is used by other groups and by his group. This approach is known as exit counseling and requires hiring exit counselors, who are usually former members.

Stage 5: Action

Families may take one of four different action approaches:

They may take a passive role, preferring to wait (and hope) that their loved one will decide to leave the group and the family will be there, waiting to help him return to normal life. This approach may take an ever-increasing toll on their emotions over time. There is little closure, and if they have been cut off from the loved one, the experience is similar to the loved one’s having passed away; but there is no funeral and the situation does not end. Increasing communication, educating themselves about the group and its differences (from their beliefs), finding points of agreement, and attempting to find a level of tolerance are very helpful steps toward reestablishing the strained relationship.

Some will take a semi-active role, both questioning and providing information to their loved one whenever they are in contact, but making sure their approach is a passive one so as not to drive him away. This level of action can be productive, but it requires the family to exercise considerable self-control and to constantly be aware of the tone of communication so they can back off or down before a situation can escalate and cause a disconnect or cause their loved one to retreat from interaction.

Some will try to get their loved one to look at a video or read written materials with the hope he will absorb the data and leave. Unless there is good evidence showing that the loved one is in an accepting frame of mind, this method is often explosively counterproductive. The loved one is likely to share the information with the leader/group, who will neutralize, devalue, or demonize it; and then, because the family was the source, they share the same fate as the information.

Some will engage an exit counselor (usually a former member of a group) to talk with their loved one after they have gained a verbal contract with him to stay and hear the data. Part of the agreement is that the loved one can do what he will with the information. If the family and friends have become well educated about what they are dealing with, and they have located a knowledgeable exit counselor, they may succeed in helping the loved one choose to exit the group and its environment. Key to preparing for this event is the family re-establishing communication and gaining trust with the loved one.

Stage 6: Family Reconciliation or Ongoing Vigil

If the family is successful in bringing their loved one out of the group, there is a great deal of initial joy and celebrating. As that phase passes and normality returns, if everyone has solid information and understanding of the reintegration/rehabilitation/healing process, the family can be a major key to the loved one’s eventual return to normalcy.

Over time, if the family is not successful, they may give up. Or, they may disown the loved one. Or, they may fall into perpetual despair. Or, they may work out a compromise that enables them to maintain a relationship, even if it is not all that they might want.

Some families will continue to hold vigil without overt action, waiting and hoping the loved one will leave the group for any reason. Time and the hypocrisy of the group’s actions and words often cause the member to become disaffected and to walk away. Or she may become dysfunctional and therefore nonproductive to the group and be kicked out.

If the disconnection from family has not been overly hostile and hurtful, the loved one will most likely return, in most instances looking for answers about what happened to her. She may search for a similar organization, without understanding she is doing it. She is looking for a feeling similar to that which her former group could generate.

All former members need information about undue influence and how various groups—including their group—use it.

Successful families learn and understand that it is counterproductive to push the loved one toward any particular path, such as what church she should now attend, or what job or school should be in her future. Being supportive but not directive works and is the opposite of how the group operated.

Understanding the typical process after the loved one leaves the group helps family members to be supportive: for example, that it often takes up to 2 years or longer for the individual to feel she has returned to being herself; and that former members often exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms—panic attacks, indecisiveness, inability to concentrate, nightmares, insomnia, voices, and relationship difficulties during the healing time. It is helpful to keep in mind that there are no clear “winners,” that returning from a cult or cult-like situation is a process, and that families also may need to do some changing in order to allow the survivor space to heal.