Child Custody and Cults

Cult Observer, 1995, Volume 12, No. 2.

Child Custody and Cults

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

The central question in a custody dispute is: “What is in the best interests of the children?”  Regarding this question, I make the following assumptions about children’s needs.

When parental separation occurs, contact with both parents is preferable, provided both parents are loving and act responsibly toward their children.

Children need to feel secure and their lives ought to be reasonably predictable.

Children need to feel worthwhile, that is, esteemed in their own eyes, in their parents’ eyes, and the eyes of their immediate community.

Children need to learn interpersonal, intellectual, and practical skills that will prepare them for independent living in the adult world.

Children’s parents should have sufficient flexibility and understanding to adjust their expectations and disciplinary methods according to the changing developmental needs of their children.

Assumption One: Contact with Both Parents

Cultic groups tend to disrupt family relationships and “demonize” those who disagree with or otherwise threaten the group or its leadership.  This tendency to disrupt family relationships is a natural outgrowth of the isolationism, subjectivism, and closed logical system of psychologically abusive groups.  As exemplified in the case of David Koresh, the group’s social and conceptual systems are structured so as to prop up the leader’s typically exaggerated view of his/her importance.  Information from outside can threaten this fragile, closed system.  When one parent belongs to such a group and has custody over his/her children, a nonmember parent who attempts to spend much time with the children can seriously threaten the internal equilibrium of the group, which will, therefore, attempt to keep the nonmember parent away.

This tendency to disrupt family relationships can be exacerbated by the tendency of many such groups to hold themselves above the law or to lie to those who seek contact with children under the influence of the group.

Additionally, the tendency to demonize critics of the group can be traumatic for children, who are likely to feel torn between a member parent and a nonmember, demonized parent.

Assumption Two: The Need for Security and Predictability

Cultic groups foster unhealthy forms of dependency by focusing on submission and obedience to those in authority.  Such groups operate under a dynamic of deception, dependency, and dread (the “DDD syndrome”) in order to win and maintain control over members.  Research studies, most notably the work of Dr. Paul Martin and associates, demonstrate that psychologically abusive groups tend to create a state of anxious dependency in their members.  Such a state maximizes the leadership’s capacity to control members in that members’ dependency on leadership reinforces their isolation from outside sources of information while their anxiety (typically stimulated in subtle ways by leadership) prevents them from becoming complacent about their relationship to leadership.  Hence, they are always trying to please while never feeling that they measure up.

Such a state of affairs can have serious consequences for children.  First of all, the children are raised in an environment in which dire threats (the “devil”) and regular criticism of their failings make them feel insecure and dependent upon leadership for whatever intermittent reinforcement leadership provides. Such an environment is the opposite of what the psychological community would recommend for the rearing of children.

A second detrimental consequence of such psychologically abusive environments results from the tendency for leadership to treat parents as “middle management” with regard to their own children.  Parents are seduced and/or pressured into relinquishing primary responsibility for making decisions that impinge upon their children’s welfare.  Thus, educational decisions, disciplinary measures, medical decisions, etc., will frequently issue from the group’s leader, directly or indirectly. If the leader does not value children or subscribes to a belief in corporal punishment, severe harm can be inflicted upon the children.  There are many such cases in the literature.

Parents’ becoming “middle management” with regard to their own children is most detrimental when leadership uses the children as pawns to test the loyalty of parents.  Jim Jones’s suicide drills (there were dozens of practice runs before the actual suicide in Guyana) tested parents’ loyalty to him because they had to give their children the poison.  Although Jonestown is obviously an extreme example, the extreme merely underlines the principle, which can be very destructive even in much less extreme situations.

Assumption Three: Children Need to Feel Worthwhile

The black/white attitudes of cultic groups place children in a position of either submitting totally or risking severe psychological, and sometimes physical, punishment.  Neither of these options—suppression of natural tendencies to test limits and assert individuality vs. exposure to possibly severe and persistent punishments—is conducive to the growth of selfesteem and a secure sense of belonging to a caring community.

Black/white attitudes are reinforced by the closed logical systems of such groups.  Belief systems are usually so structured that leadership is always right.  If a group advocates meditation or prayer to cure physical ills and a member who meditates or prays remains sick, then the obvious conclusion leadership draws is that the member is not meditating or praying enough, or not doing it correctly.  Children raised in such environments cannot develop confidence in themselves or their immediate environment because they can be criticized even when they obey, for they are obeying irrational belief systems that often have negative consequences in the real world. But because the belief system by definition is unassailable, the child will always be “wrong.”

Assumption Four: Learning Skills

It is almost selfevident that groups that are isolationist, subjectivist, and logically closed will hinder children’s attempts to learn the interpersonal, intellectual, and practical skills that mainstream society puts so much effort into teaching children.  If reason is denigrated because reason threatens the irrational beliefs of leadership, a child’s capacity to reason will be stunted.  If the outside world is viewed as evil, a child’s opportunity to interact with a variety of people and to learn practical skills in the world will be restricted.

Assumption Five: Parental Flexibility

The black/white attitudes, anxious dependency, closed system of logic, and isolationism of psychologically abusive groups demand rigidity, not flexibility.  Moreover, the tendency to demonize those who disagree or disobey will come into conflict with normal developmental changes such as teenagers’ tendency to test limits by breaking rules.  Parents of adolescents must learn to let go of their control as their children learn to behave independently and responsibly.  Parents must be flexible; otherwise their children will have much difficulty in learning how to become independent and responsible.  Psychologically abusive environments, because they foster rigidity, make even more difficult a developmental stage that can be trying to even the most flexible and understanding of parents.

Michael Langone, Ph.D., is Executive Director of AFF and Editor of AFF’s Cultic Studies Journal.