Born or Raised in High-Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations
An increasing number of individuals are entering mainstream
society who were born and/or raised in cults or closed, high-demand groups. In
my work as a mental health professional specializing in trauma and recovery from
spiritual abuse, I regularly encounter these individuals.
The bulk of literature on recovery from cults is focused
primarily on those who entered such groups as young adults. While much of this
information is quite beneficial to those raised in cults or abusive groups, it
does not address some important key issues that significantly impact this unique
population. In this paper I will define some key terms used to understand the
dynamics and structure of cults or closed, high-demand groups, explore some of
the literature on early trauma and its impact on brain development, look at the
normal processes and goals of childhood development, and analyze how cultic
environments, which are often traumatic, might impact development. The ideas
which I present on child development in cultic environments are theoretical and
developed as a result of information gathered from interviews with approximately
ten adults who were born and/or raised in either Christian-based or eastern
religious-based groups, as well as from clinical work with four such
individuals, consultation with parents who raised children in such groups, and
ongoing observations and interactions with former members who were born and/or
raised in such groups.
Much has been written about how to assess whether a
particular group or relationship is abusive or cultic, and just what these terms
mean, including work by Singer & Lalich (1996), Tobias, Lalich (1994) and
Langone (1993). As a former member of a “closed high-demand group” (CHDG), I
often struggle with terminology and prefer not to use the term “cult,” though it
sometimes is unavoidable. Langone and Chambers (1991) found that many former
members have similar feelings and prefer such terms as “spiritual abuse” or
“psychological manipulation.” In this paper I will primarily use “closed
high-demand group(s)” (CHDGs) when speaking of cults or abusive, manipulative
groups or relationships in which deception and mind control are used to gain
power over members.
Characteristics of CHDGs
According to Tobias and Lalich (1994, p.13) the following
characteristics are often present in these environments:
Members are expected to be excessively zealous and unquestioning
in their commitment to the identity and leadership of the group. Personal
beliefs and values must be replaced with those of the group.
Members are manipulated and exploited and may give up their
education, careers, and families to work excessively long hours at
group-directed tasks such as selling a quota of candy or books, fund-raising,
recruiting, and proselytizing.
Harm or threat of harm may come to members, their families and/or
society due to inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, psychological, physical,
or sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, criminal activities, etc.
Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich (1995), who have done vast
amounts of work in the cult field, state that such groups have the following
Authoritarian power structure
Totalitarian control of members’ behavior
Double sets of ethics (one for leader and another for members; one
for those inside the group, another for outsiders)
Leaders that are self-appointed and claim to have a special
mission in life
Leaders who tend to be charismatic, determined and domineering
Leaders who center the veneration of members upon themselves
Robert Jay Lifton (1961), a psychiatrist and pioneering
researcher in the thought reform, or mind control, field, has proposed that the
following eight features create environments of “ideological totalism”:
Milieu control—the control of communication within an
environment; this creates unhealthy boundaries
Mystical manipulation or “planned spontaneity”—experiences
which appear to be spontaneous are actually orchestrated in order to demonstrate
“divine authority,” which enables the leader(s) to use any means toward a
“higher end” or goal
The demand for purity—absolute separation of good and evil
within self and environment
The cult of confession—one-on-one or group confession of past
and present “sins” or behaviors, which are often used to humiliate the confessor
and create dependency upon the leader
Sacred science—the group's teaching is portrayed as Ultimate
Truth that cannot be questioned.
Loading of the language—use of terms or jargon that have
group-specific meaning, phrases that will keep one in or bring one back into the
Doctrine over person—denial of self and self-perception.
Dispensing of existence—anyone not in the group or not
embracing the “truth” is insignificant, not “saved” or “unconscious”; the
outside world and members who leave the group are rejected.
Children in CHDGs
Markowitz and Halperin (1984) discuss the vulnerability and
abuse of children in cults. A child's parent, who is in a dependent, regressive
state due to being under the influence of the group's leader(s), “is prone
toward abusive practices” (p. 154) and power over children is often the only
power this parent may have. Most adults in CHDGs live in a state of
unpredictability, in that one never knows when the “axe will fall” and the
member will be disciplined (shunned, put in the “hot seat”, lose privileges,
When a parent’s life is unpredictable, the parent’s
behavior toward the child is also unpredictable with regard to support, neglect,
or anger. This unpredictability impedes the child's ability to develop a sense
of safety or consistency in his or her view of the parent and the environment.
When the parent is unpredictable or the parent dissociates (is psychologically
absent while physically present), the child’s ability to perceive whether there
is danger or safety is impaired and the child becomes hypervigilant, or super
organized around assessing the state of the parent. This may trigger a “freeze”
response in the child in which the child dissociates. Dissociated parents may
trigger dissociation in infants. In addition, in CHDGs children are often
separated from their parents at an early age (two years old - five years old)
and placed in collective environments where another adult or adults assume
educational and child-rearing responsibilities. Rochford (1999) says that in
ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) children were separated
from their parents at age four or five to be raised by others because parents
tend not to be strict enough with their own children. The ISKCON schools
(gurukulas) became the children’s primary environment and they spent only brief
periods with their parents during the year. Tragically, this system compromised
the safety of many children who suffered from physical, sexual, and emotional
abuse while in the care of their teachers. It is important to note that ISKCON
has made significant changes in recent years to increase safety for children,
though this does not diminish the negative impacts on those who were not
protected for many years. The Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall (SI/FW), which was
a psychoanalytic and political group, instituted the practice of separating
children as young as three years old from their parents, “the rationale being
the less exposure there was to parents, the better the child’s mental health
would be” (Siskind, 1999, p. 59).
Children who grow up in such environments are at-risk for
many significant issues, including but not limited to:
lack of an appropriate, consistent caretaker;
lack of healthy attachment to appropriate caretaker;
lack of adequate medical care;
lack of intellectual stimuli;
unrealistic expectations that children participate in adult
activities, such as meditation, fasting, sexual activity; and
suppression of developmental tasks.
The parents of children in CHDGs are often thought-reformed
to believe that normal human feelings for their children, such as love, concern,
and attachment, are not “spiritual” or that these feelings dilute the group’s
higher or special purpose. Children, who are naturally striving to accomplish
normal developmental tasks such as identity, safety and independence, are
labeled “possessed,” crazy, or bad. The parents’ confusion, the negative labels,
and the overt and covert negative messages children receive about their worth
and safety are all factors that contribute to traumatic experiences for them. In
turn these early traumatic experiences interfere with healthy attachment and
negatively impact the child’s ability to develop and mature in healthy ways.
Reber (1996), cites Bowlby, who defines attachment as a
“lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (p. 83). Bowlby (in
Reber 1996) says that attachment is a fundamental building block for human
development, and describes the bond between mother (or other consistent,
appropriate caretaker) and infant as critical to healthy development. Also, in
Reber (1996) Waters, Posada, Crowell and Lay state that “children who have
secure attachments are ‘inoculated’ from adverse outcomes throughout
development” (p.84). Lack of healthy attachment, then, is truly a very traumatic
beginning for any child. Early problems with attachment can have long term
negative impacts, including “skew[ing] the developmental trajectory of the right
brain over the rest of the life span” (Shore, 2002 p.24). Schore (2002) states
that the right brain is “dominant for attachment, affect regulation and stress
modulation” (p. 2), and he further states that “the organization of the brain’s
essential coping mechanisms occurs in crucial periods of infancy” (p.26). Van
der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth (1996) say that
(t)rauma early in the life cycle
fundamentally effects the maturation of the systems in charge of the regulation
of psychological and biological processes. The disruption of these
self-regulatory processes makes these individuals vulnerable to develop chronic
affect dysregulation, destructive behavior against self and others, learning
disabilities, dissociative problems, somatization and distortions in concepts
about self and others. (pp. x-xi).
In a presentation on trauma in Denver, Colorado (January
26, 2001) Van der Kolk said that alcoholism and religious fanaticism are two
prime factors that increase the likelihood of child abuse. The resultant lack of
early, healthy attachment can lead to clinging or detachment in interpersonal
There are many models of human development. Because safety
and trust are the foundation for healthy development and because Erik Erikson’s
(1950) model is simple and clear I’ve chosen to use his model of developmental
stages as a template. Erikson’s eight stages are summarized in the following
Period in which development is most pronounced
Trust vs. mistrust (hope)
Autonomy vs. shame (will)
Preschooler "play age"
Industry vs. inferiority (competence)
Elementary school age
Identity vs. diffusion (fidelity)
Intimacy vs. isolation
Generativity vs. Self-absorption (care)
Integrity vs. despair (wisdom)
Each stage of development has its “tasks” which are
building blocks or the foundation for each subsequent stage. If the emotional
and physical needs of the child are adequately met, the child appropriately
completes the task, i.e., learning to trust, learning to develop autonomy, etc.
If the child’s needs are NOT adequately met, the child can still move on to the
next stage, but his or her emotional and mental well being is compromised and
subsequent tasks, as well as relationships, can become more difficult to
complete. For the purposes of this paper I will give an overview of the first
five steps, covering the life span from infancy through adolescence. The
negative outcomes are based on the work of Bryant, Kessler, & Shirar (1992).
Infancy - Hope
Learning to trust one’s environment and caretakers:
“My needs are okay,” “I’m important.”
If abuse and/or neglect occur the child develops
mistrust in the environment and caretakers. “My needs are not okay,” “I’m
Negative outcome - Mistrust, anxiety
Toddlerhood - Will
Learning autonomy: personal control of one’s body
and doing things on one’s own. The child begins to separate from caretakers: “I
am me, you are you.”
If separateness is punished, a sense of engulfment or
abandonment results. The child learns shame and doubt. “I can’t do it,”
“I feel out of control,” “I am bad.”
Negative outcome - Shame, doubt, helplessness,
anxiety, overcompliance vs. hyperactivity
Preschool Age - Purpose
Learning initiative, to have confidence in self, to
explore in safe environment; trusting that caretakers will be there when needed.
When taught that risk-taking or initiative will cause harm
to self or others, guilt develops: “I’m to blame,” “I am responsible for
others feeling good or bad”.
Negative outcome - Role reversal, hypervigilance,
Elementary School Age - Competence
Learning to feel competent about one’s own abilities
in social and intellectual activities; continued process of healthy separation
from caretaker, with support and boundaries.
If support and encouragement are lacking child develops a
sense of inferiority about abilities and self: “I can’t think/act for
myself,” I’m stupid/wrong.”
Negative outcome - Inferiority, anxiety
Adolescence - Fidelity
Establishing separate identity; gradual increasing
of level of responsibility and freedom throughout the teen years.
Constrictive or nonexistent boundaries (too many or too few
directives, guidelines) cause role confusion, lack of identity,
inability to differentiate.
Negative outcome - Anxiety, emotional enmeshment;
extreme fluctuations in behavior and mood - extreme acting out (drugs, sex,
legal problems), or compulsive conformity and over-achievement. Can become
paralyzed with feelings of inferiority.
Development and Trauma
According to John Briere (1996) there are three primary
self-capacities that develop in normal early childhood. These are:
- Identity—which provides a consistent sense of
personal existence and enables the individual to respond from an internal
sense of security. Unstable identity may cause an individual to become easily
- Boundary—awareness of separation between self and
others. Those with poor boundaries tend to allow others to intrude upon them,
or they intrude upon others. This can lead to a lack of awareness of personal
rights to safety and/or difficulty with interpersonal relations.
- Affect regulation—which includes: (a)
affect modulation (self-soothing techniques to reduce or change painful
emotion) and (b) affect tolerance (ability to experience negative
affect without resorting to external destructive or self-destructive behaviors
or “acting out").
Briere (1996), citing Bowlby, says that these
self-capacities help establish a sense of internal stability, a secure
psychological base from which to interact with the world. In the context of
sustained external security, which is provided in the relationship between child
and primary caretaker, the child learns to deal with occasional uncomfortable
experiences and internal states, which leads to a continuous building of a
stronger set of internal resources and sense of self (Briere, 1996). Sustained
external security is not present in an abusive or neglectful environment.
In such an environment, “the overwhelming stress of maltreatment [whether it is
abuse and/or neglect] is associated with adverse influences on brain
development” (deBellis, Baum, Birmaher, Keshavan, Eccard, Boring, Jenkins, &
Ryan), cited in traumapages.com/schore (2002). This is known as relational or
interpersonal trauma. Early relational trauma has a significantly greater
negative impact than non-relational trauma (such as from a natural disaster,
accident, etc.) over the lifespan. Relational trauma is usually “complex”
John Briere (1996) says that complex trauma is
characterized by the following:
Onset – usually involves or includes childhood
Duration – prolonged
Frequency – multiple exposures
Relational – usually interpersonal
Complexity – multiple victimization modalities (neglect, physical,
sexual, medical, emotional, etc.)
Mary Sue Moore, a clinical psychologist and researcher who
has done much work and research on patterns of attachment in infants and
children, says that early trauma activates the brain stem which can lead to
hypersensitivity to the environment and induce a fight, flight, or freeze
response. This brain stem activation makes it very difficult, if not impossible,
to think oneself out of the traumatic response (personal communication, 2002).
Over the long term, infants and children who dissociate in
order to cope with traumatic experiences often become adults who dissociate when
faced with traumatic or significantly stressful situations. Adults with Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may regress to their younger developmental
stage and coping modality in stressful situations. The adult, then, is again in
a state in which he or she cannot think his or her way out of the situation.
Ogawa, Sroufe, Weinfield, Carlson, & Egeland, cited in traumapages.com/shore
(2002), found that “early trauma more so than later trauma has a greater impact
on the development of dissociative behaviors” (section titled: continuity
between infant, childhood, and adult ptsd). The brain itself is negatively
impacted. Early, pre-verbal experiences, including traumatic experiences are
sensorily stored with the smells, sensations and motor activity present during
the experiences. Those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be
triggered through the senses to these earlier, traumatic experiences.
Development in CHDGs
The next step is putting this information together and
examining child development using Erikson’s model (1950) in the context of a
thought reform program, using Lifton’s model (1961) and Bryant, et al’s theory
of the negative messages children internalize in an unsafe environment (1992).
Milieu Control—the control of communication within
an environment; builds unhealthy boundaries. Parents may be given directives
about parenting do’s and don’ts: Don’t hold children; don’t respond to their
cries; Do keep them quiet; Don’t be attached to them. The message children
receive is “my needs are not okay” or “I am not important” “I am not safe”
which is essentially dispensing of existence. Infants learn that they
cannot trust that their needs will be met.
Mystical Manipulation—“divine authority” mandates
dysfunctional and/or abusive parenting. This authority allows any means toward a
“higher end” or goal. Verbal and non-verbal messages are given to infants that
interfere with the development of trust.
Demand for Purity—absolute separation of good and
evil within self and within the environment. Good children behave in proscribed
ways and do not “act” like children. Children are often forced to participate in
rituals that are not age-appropriate. Shame and doubt interfere with
development of autonomy or the belief that it’s okay to think and feel
The Cult of Confession—one-on-one or group
confession (by child or on behalf of child) for the purpose of humiliating the
confessor and creating dependency upon the leader for one’s definition of
goodness. Humiliation discourages risk-taking; the child develops a sense of
guilt and is fearful of exhibiting initiative.
Sacred Science and Doctrine over Person—the
teachings of the CHDG and/or leader is the Ultimate Truth that allows for no
questioning. The individual is always inferior to the Ultimate Truth of
the group or leader(s). This necessitates denial of self and self-perception.
When parents or caretakers encourage a child to become self-directed the child
develops a sense of competence. The inability to question or to value
one’s own ideas lead to the development of inferiority. The child is
always secondary to the doctrine or leader(s).
Dispensing of Existence—anyone not in the group or
not embracing the “truth” is insignificant, not “saved,” or “unconscious”; the
outside world or members who leave the group are rejected. The developmental
tasks of adolescents are to separate from their caretakers and create their own
identity. This cannot be done without thinking for oneself and adopting
one’s own set of values. Yet to do so in a cultic environment is tantamount to
rejecting “Truth”. The only way to survive is to dispense of self.
Loading of the Language—use of terms, jargon that
have group-specific meaning; phrases that will keep one in, or bring one back
into, the cult mindset. In the case of a child growing up in a thought reform
environment theses meanings are the only ones the child will learn. The
loaded language is the child’s first language. Upon leaving the group an
adolescent or adult questions his or her competence at understanding the
language, behaviors, and customs of the culture.
Judith Herman, in her widely respected book Trauma and
Recovery (1992) states that
(r)epeated trauma in adult life
erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in
childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive
environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation. She must find a way to
preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation
that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power
in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself, she must
compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at
her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses (p. 96).
I have conducted interviews with a number of adults who
were raised in CHDGs. In addition to developmental deficits, these individuals
identify a myriad of other personal losses. These include, though are certainly
not limited to:
childhood, self, family, God,
meaning, sustaining beliefs, language, identity, learning capacities, problems
sustaining relationships, problems reading social cues.
Many of these former members describe deep feelings of
shame, guilt, isolation, doubt, confusion, and mood swings. The following
statements express some of the difficulties faced:
“I felt, and continue to feel,
like a stranger in a strange land.”
“I had no pre-cult self, lacked
basic survival skills, had/have many relational issues, had lack of
understanding of normal human emotions and expression, lacked critical thinking
skills, and needed to re-define ‘normal’.”
“Everywhere I went upon leaving
the cult I tripped up on my own undone developmental work.”
“I will be in recovery for the
rest of my life. The damage I suffered was profound.”
“It was deprivation, abuse and
“Lots of re-defining of terms,
i.e. good bad, etc. I had to come to grips with the sad, apparent truth that
good people suffer losses all the time.”
“I had no reference to go back to
– this has been the most difficult piece. I had to give up all the meaning I had
learned – everything I learned was wrong. Accepting this is the key to my
Though recovery will not be explored in depth in this
paper, it is important to have an overview of the recovery process. Martin
(1993) discusses stages of recovery following cultic experiences. These stages
are similar, though with a unique twist for those born or raised in CHDGs
because there is no pre-cult identity to go back to, so I have modified Martin
somewhat (e.g., "re-evaluation" becomes "evaluation", “reintegration” becomes
“integration”). The stages are:
Evaluation of the experiences - often in tandem with
finding a support network, including any former members and/or extended family
who have been on the outside; education on cults/mind control; therapy; reading;
Reconciliation/Adaptation, Conciliation – moving slowly,
taking small steps; explore redefining of terms; set small goals, tend to
personal health; discover personal strengths
Integration – occurs over time
There are many things that will likely impact the success
and degree of recovery. Developmental tasks of safety and trust are paramount,
and are usually not quickly or painlessly achieved. Rosanne Henry, a licensed
professional counselor who works with cult survivors says that “we can’t expect
to do recovery the way we do cults,” (personal communication 2004) meaning that
there are no magic bullets or quick fixes, and that time, patience, and
self-care are very important. This cannot be emphasized enough. In the cult
recovery field one of the theories is that most people, at times of
vulnerability, are susceptible to being indoctrinated into a CHDG, and that one
need not come from a dysfunctional family or have family-of-origin issues to
have become involved in such a group. Treatment usually focuses on the cult
experience first, and then family-of-origin issues, if there are any. In the
case of those born or raised in CHDGs the two are inseparable and must be dealt
with simultaneously. Since the trauma is relational and occurs over time, the
individual may be dealing with complex PTSD, and professional help may be
important for understanding and decreasing the symptoms.
Healing is a process, and adaptation and integration occur
over time. It is very important to remember that human beings are resilient. As
one begins to experience small successes and builds a foundation of personal
strengths and skills, one’s sense of safety begins to expand. As one’s sense of
safety expands, so do self-confidence, autonomy, initiative, and identity, just
as in the normal process of healthy childhood development.
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