Impact on Children of Being Born Into/Raised in a Cultic Group

ICSA Today, Volume 7, Number 1, 2016, pages 17-22

Impact on Children of Being Born Into/Raised in a Cultic Group

Ashley Allen

The following article draws on two papers the author wrote for ICSA’s New York City Educational Outreach Committee, as part of the committee’s series of model presentations on cultic issues. The committee’s work was presented at ICSA’s 2015 Annual Conference in Stockholm. Illustrative examples used in this paper include some from the author’s own experience and some from experiences recounted to the author by others (details have been changed to protect their identities).

Family Structure

The traditional family system is composed of father, mother, and children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends of the parents may also be involved to varying degrees; and there is some form of structure or hierarchy, with parents deciding and implementing how children are raised. In contrast, cults and cultic groups tend to diminish the role of parents and increase the role of leaders in raising children, often controlling members by breaking down this bond between biological family members.1 Some cults functionally replace the traditional family, placing a cult leader in the role of parent, and relegating parents to the role of powerless peers to the child.

Parenting in cults is dictated by leadership to fulfill the goals of the group without consideration of what might benefit or hurt the child. For example, Perry and Szalavitz (2007) describe the effect of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians on one child’s sense of family and self:

His drawing reflected what he had learned in the group: the elaboration of things that Koresh valued, the dominance of its supreme leader, a confused, impoverished sense of family and an immature, dependent picture of himself (para. 31).

Ultimately, the leader usurps the power from the biological parents and becomes the central, all-powerful figure in the lives of both parents and child (Goldberg, 2006b; Whitsett & Kent, 2003).

In some cults, parents and children are physically removed from each other (Whitsett & Kent, 2003). Some cults require children to enter cult-run boarding schools. Other cults coerce parents to give away their children to other adults within the group. More subtle ways of breaking down the familial bond include shaming parents in front of their children and taking away parents’ control over how their children are raised (Goldberg, 2006b; Whitsett & Kent, 2003; Markowitz & Halperin, 1984). The role of the biological parent becomes greatly diminished as children witness the degradation of their parents by the leader. Members and their children view the leader as omniscient, and therefore the leader as the idealized other becomes a substitute for the parent (Whitsett & Kent, 2003).

Cult As Socializing System

We may view the cult environment as a socializing system, which is much more influential on children than adults. In a traditional family situation, the parents, children, siblings, extended family, and friends exist within and accept the broader society, which consists of individuals in schools, the legal and political system, the economic sphere, and so on. Cults often tend to isolate themselves psychologically or physically or both, and strive for such total control over members’ lives that the cult becomes the society for its members. This tendency toward totalism is especially significant for children raised in the cult. Unlike adults who become involved in a coercive group, a child has no precult identity or experience. The cultic world pervades a child’s experience and perception during critical times in brain growth and development, when neural pathways are being formed, identity developed, and a view of the world established as a safe or hostile environment. The high-control cultic environment creates the conditions for abuse and sometimes even trauma. Herman (1997) explains, “Repeated trauma in adult life erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality” (p. 96).

High-demand groups vary in degree of isolation from mainstream society. Some groups limit all interaction with outside society: They live in isolated communities; homeschool their children; refuse outside medical care; and eliminate 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, these groups also tend to exhibit such high levels of control that children are pressured to project an approved persona, so that even when they do come into contact with outsiders, their behavior is often scripted and dishonest.

Children are taught that the world inside the cult is “good” while the world outside is “evil” and to be feared. Perry and Szalavitz (2007) use the example of the Branch Davidians, relating that “…perhaps the most pervasive fear Koresh instilled was the fear of the ‘Babylonians’: outsiders, government agents, nonbelievers” (para. 5). While adult cult members are also indoctrinated to fear and distrust the outside world, in children this is exponentially magnified.

Lalich and Tobias (2004) explain that children raised outside of cults come into contact with many different individuals, personalities, and belief structures. In contrast, children raised in cults do not have this multidimensional influence on their development. They are raised in an environment where there is only one way of being and believing (2004). Cults are characterized by black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking.

As with adults, independent, autonomous thinking and feeling on the part of children in cultic environments is severely suppressed, which hampers normal cognitive and emotional development. Furnari (2005) observes that “Children, who are naturally striving to accomplish normal developmental tasks such as identity, safety, and independence, are labeled ‘possessed,’ crazy, or bad” (para. 10). Harsh punishments for questioning or rebellious behavior diminish independent thinking and interfere with healthy cognitive development (Whitsett & Kent, 2003). Goldberg (2006b) suggests that children cope with these extreme punishments and the anxiety that is evoked by becoming passive.

In addition to cognitive suppression, cults suppress emotions. Cults typically do not tolerate the expression of anger or grief; therefore, children have little experience with self-regulation of emotions and affect (Goldberg, 2006b). Cults also dictate what emotions are acceptable and can be expressed by members (Wehle, 2010). Suppression of emotions is as important and potentially harmful as cognitive suppression because the two are intimately connected. May (1994) explains, “data in Rorschach responses ... that indicate that people can more accurately observe precisely when they are emotionally involved—that is, reason works better when emotions are present...” (as cited in Wehle, 2010, p. 47). Therefore, if emotions are suppressed in the cult environment, then the ability to think critically will also be severely hampered (Wehle, 2010).

Another dimension of emotion and cognition is creativity. Wehle (2010) conducted a survey of former cult members and mental-health professionals who were working with former members and found that the majority of respondents felt that their creativity had been suppressed in the cult environment. As the expression of emotions is coercively denied within the cult environment, creativity is interrupted. For example, 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 (a) feeling sadness for something that was obviously God’s plan and (b) indulging in selfish pursuits that do not further the needs of the group. Her creativity, and 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.” For example, one second-generation former member related that between the ages of 3 and 4 she was paddled daily for “playing baby” with rolled-up blankets.

Creative suppression impacts the development of children in significant ways. 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 skills, cognitive flexibility, recognition of emotions in others, and bonding between parent and child. Play can be defined as “any activity freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and personally directed. It stands outside ‘ordinary’ life, and is non-serious...” (Goldstein, 2012, p. 5). These are all things that are not allowed within cultic environments. Looking at it through the lens of neuroscience, 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, internally regulate emotions and behavior, and experience joy (Goldstein, 2005).

Another aspect of the cultic socializing system is unpredictability. One prominent characteristic of cultic leaders is a pattern of behaving unpredictably, maintaining control over members by keeping them guessing, raising them one moment and crushing them the next. For example, one second-generation former member relates this experience: One afternoon the leader came through the kitchen as the former member was chopping tomatoes for lunch. In great detail and with enthusiasm, he praised her technique for chopping perfect cubes of tomatoes. The next day, the leader passed through the kitchen and, although she was chopping the tomatoes in exactly the same way as the previous day, the leader loudly denigrated her and told her leave the kitchen immediately.

This unpredictability creates hypervigilance in children, who work to sense what is expected of them so they can gain approval and deflect punishment. Hypervigilance creates a constant sense of insecurity and fear.

Structure of Cults As Conducive to Abuse/Neglect

The structure of cultic groups is conducive to abusive dynamics. And because of the physical and psychological isolation of these groups, the normal avenues through which abuse may be identified are not available (i.e., doctors, teachers, friends, and the like). Compounding this issue, because children have been taught that the world outside the group is bad, they may not disclose abuse to outsiders. This is an important consideration for professionals, such as social workers, family lawyers, and teachers, who may come into contact with these children. In a widely reported case in Island Pond, Vermont, the children of a group were removed, only to be returned to the group by the judge because there was insufficient evidence for a legal-removal warrant. In a statement, the state prosecutor explained,

The problem that State has faced from the beginning is that the church community appears to be purposefully organized to shield the identity of the parents and children in question, and to allow them to thwart the ordinary steps of due process which many critics seem convinced should have worked successfully. (Burchard, 1984, p. 7; as cited in Kent, 2010, p. 40)

Leaving the Cult/High-Demand Group

Second-generation members leave high-demand groups in one of three ways: they leave on their own without their family, they leave with their family (either voluntarily or involuntarily because of age), or they are forced by the group to leave. The manner in which they leave will have an impact on recovery. If second-generation members leave on their own without their family, they may not know anyone outside of the group. Often children raised in cults are isolated from their own family members who are not in the group. Even second-generation members who leave with family are often leaving the only people outside the family they have ever known.

Members who choose to leave have usually gone through an internal process of becoming disillusioned with their group and even their own family. They have found an inner strength that enables them to walk away. As isolated as they may feel outside their group, the pain they endured and the disillusion usually prevent them from going back. But those who are forced to leave may bear the burden of feeling they failed their group, their leader, and their family. They have not gone through the process of recognizing the group’s failure.

However they leave, second-generation former members are not only losing an entire relational support system, but they are also in many ways losing an entire world. They are losing the only belief structure/worldview they have ever known.

Second-generation former members may face distinct 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 school. They may have little or no experience with the use of currency. One young man recounted his experience upon leaving a cultic group at age 18: He had no formal education, only sporadic homeschooling within the cult. His only option was to take the GED. He looked into joining the military but was unable to do so because an education paper trail was lacking. He then attempted to get a job while preparing for the GED, but he had no references and was unfamiliar with the hiring process (e.g., how to fill out an application, the appropriate amount of time to wait before following up, how to dress for the interview). He attempted to rent an apartment but again did not have any references, no one to cosign the lease with him, and no credit history. In every direction he turned, he reports being acutely aware that he was not prepared to function in society outside the group.

Starting Out in Mainstream America (2010), by Livia Bardin, MSW, is an excellent resource that discusses everything from practical concerns such as getting a drivers license to broader concerns such as parenting skills.

Recovery Concerns

Furnari (2005) found that second-generation former members who had left their group identified multiple personal losses, including their sense of self, childhood, and their family. They also identified the loss of spirituality and a loss of meaning in life. Furthermore, they reported difficulty with interpersonal relationships (2005).

A particularly pervasive issue raised in the literature relates to dependency (Goldberg, 2006b; Landa, 1990–1991; Langone & Eisenberg, 1993; Perry & Szalavitz, 2007). Second-generation members 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. Their ability to develop a sense of independence and internal validation has been severely hampered (Herman, 1997). When leaving these environments, they may find themselves in relationships that mimic this high degree of control (Goldberg, 2006a). 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 (para. 44).

Approaching second-generation members from a psychoanalytic framework, Goldberg (2006b) views as one of the primary issues their internalization of the harsh views of the cult and cult leader, which shape their moral capacity.

As a result of this adaptation, the child may adopt a submissive, masochistic attitude as a response to the leader’s authority and, therefore, develop an internal experience of being insignificant or bad. (Goldberg, 2006b, para. 17)

Goldberg (2006a) suggests that second-generation cult members develop a harsh conscience and lack a loving conscience that acknowledges and accepts the inherent imperfection of being a human being. “I have learned that second-generation former cultists often have an ideal of perfection that is impossible to achieve” (Goldberg, 2006a, para. 19). Lalich and Tobias (2004) add that children raised in cults do not see compassion and negotiation modeled because perfect obedience is demanded and harsh consequences are experienced by adult members of cults when perfect obedience and behavior is not achieved.

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.

Other recovery concerns revolve around trauma/PTSD, grief and loss, and isolation. Many second-generation members do not feel able to share their cultic experiences with new friends they make outside the group. They may even feel they need to create a second identity or history to fit in with mainstream society. “As one Krishna Culture Kid described it, [it is’ ‘like acting a role in a play but all the while knowing that this is not the real you’" (McCaig 2002, p. 23; as cited in Horback & Rothery-Jackson, 2007, “Commonalities of Marginals,” para. 1). This experience exacerbates feelings of isolation.

Culture shock or culture adjustment is a vital issue for second-generation adults. Culture is an internal experience. It creates a scaffolding or map with which to make sense of our experiences. The greater the difference between two cultures, the greater the culture shock will be:

Thus, one response to this "terminal uniqueness" may have been the participants’ ability to act as a “chameleon,” “observer,” and lead “a double life.” It can be assumed that creating a facade is one means of adaptation by the marginal to feel accepted by a cultural group. However, it is important to recognize that having to culturally transition across environments can be exhausting to the individual. (Horback & Rothery-Jackson, 2007, “Layers of Marginality,” para. 2)

It is important to understand that adjusting to a new culture is a process, not an event. Some may retain this double identity for many years before integration begins to occur.

Culture shock/distress is exacerbated in former cult members because cults explicitly ascribe meaning to the culture outside the group, and that meaning is filled with images of all things bad, with death of the soul, spirituality, or both. Therefore, former members must not only learn a new culture, but also a new morality. They must reject (or at least significantly reevaluate) an entire worldview and build a new one that can incorporate the culture outside the group. This is a daunting task.


[1] “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 (see Kanter, 1972, pp. 89–91.” (Whitsett & Kent, 2003, p. 494).


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About the Author

Ashley Allen, MSW, LSW, completed her Master’s in Social Work at Monmouth University. Ashley spent her formative years in a religious cult, and her personal experiences have led to her professional interest in the cultic-studies field. She has presented on cults, with a particular focus on second-generation adults (SGAs) at various mental-health agencies and universities in New Jersey. Ashley is currently serving on ICSA’s NY Educational Outreach Committee.