What Do We Need to Know About Being Born or Raised in a Cultic Environment?

A model introductory talk developed by ICSA's NYC Educational Outreach Committee. For permission to reprint, contact mail@icsahome.com –1-786-509-9746‬ (icsahome.com).

What Do We Need to Know About Being Born or Raised in a Cultic Environment?

Cult As Family

There is much variability in the thousands of groups associated with the term cult, although in general the role of the leader becomes central in the cult family. The leader takes on the role of father and/or mother, deciding how children will be raised. Parents function somewhat as middle managers in the rearing of their children.

For example, Perry and Szalavitz have observed about David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians,

He maintained an iron grip, controlling every aspect of life in the compound. He separated husband from wife, child from parent, friend from friend, undermining any relationship that could challenge his position as the most dominant, powerful force in each person's life. Koresh was the source of all insight, wisdom, love and power; he was the conduit to God, if not God himself on earth. ... And he was a god who ruled by fear. Children (and sometimes even adults) were in constant fear of the physical attacks and public humiliation that could result from the tiniest error, like spilling milk. (Perry & Szalavitz, 2007, para. 3, 4)

Severing of Family Bonds

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). (Whittset & Kent, 2003, p 494)

Effect on Children

For example, in describing the effect of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians on the children’s sense of family and self, Perry and Szalavitz (2007) wrote this about their work with one child: “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).

Cult As Socializing System


Physical vs. Psychological Isolation

Lack of Multidimensional Influences (Lalich & Tobias, 2004)


Cognitive Suppression

Emotional Suppression

Creative Suppression (see especially Wehle, Cultic Studies Review, 2010, p. 47)

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 (1) feeling sadness for something that was obviously God’s plan and (2) indulging in selfish pursuits that do not further the needs of the group. Her creativity, her ability to process difficult emotions, and make meaning of the experience have been denied. (Anonymous, n.d.)

Creative Suppression: Effect on Children


Looking at the Branch Davidians, Perry and Szalavitz (2007) explain,

Koresh was mercurial: one moment kind, attentive and nurturing, and the next, a prophet of rage. The Davidians, as the members of the Mount Carmel religious community were called, became exquisitely sensitive to his moods as they attempted to curry his favor and tried, often in vain, to stave off his vengeance. (para. 2)

Structure of Cults As Conducive to Abuse/Neglect

When SGAs Leave the Cult/High-Demand Group

Selected Practical Concerns

Recovery Concerns (see also Section 11: Culture Shock)


Grief and Loss (Furnari, 2005)

Feelings of Shame and Isolation

Relational Adjustment, Dependency, and Boundaries

For example, 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. 43)

“Harsh Conscience”

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.


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