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 – 239-514-3081 (icsahome.com).

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

Cult As Family

  • Father, mother, and children typically comprise the traditional family system. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends of the parents may also be involved to varying degrees. There also is some form of structure or hierarchy, typically with parents deciding and implementing child-rearing practices.

  • 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

  • Parents become relatively powerless within the structure of the group.

  • In some groups, the bonds between parents and children are actively severed by the leader removing children from parents and sending them to cult-run schools or giving them to other adult members to raise. Shaming of parents in front of their children serves as another way to weaken the family bond.

  • And as Whittset and Kent have noted:

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

  • Children raised in these environments often have a distorted view of family.

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).

  • Children also tend to develop a divided identity, one outwardly compliant with the cult’s rules, an identity the child is taught is good; the other inwardly rebellious, an identity the child is taught to consider is evil.

Cult As Socializing System

  • The cult environment may be viewed as a socializing system, which is much more influential on children than adults because children in this setting are in the process of developing their sense of self, their view of the world, and their identity, while adults who join a cult have an identity formed outside of the cult.

  • There is a consensus in the cultic-studies literature that adults who join cults bring with them a precult personality and identity that they can then reconnect to when they leave the cult. In contrast, the very personality of SGAs (second-generation adults—people born or raised in a cultic group) is constructed within the cult.


  • High-demand groups vary in degree of isolation from mainstream society.

  • Some groups limit all interaction with outside society: living in isolated communities; homeschooling their children; refusing outside medical care; eliminating 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, they still exercise a high degree of control over how members interact and interpret their experiences outside of the group.

Physical vs. Psychological Isolation

  • Although the degree to which children are physically isolated from mainstream society may vary depending on the group, the degree of psychological isolation for children in the group often does not.

  • Children are taught that the world inside the cult is good, while the world outside is evil.

  • Even when children do come into contact with outsiders, their behavior is often scripted and dishonest.

  • While adult cult members have also been indoctrinated to fear and distrust the outside world, the impact of the indoctrination is magnified in children because they have no precult identity or experience.

Lack of Multidimensional Influences (Lalich & Tobias, 2004)

  • Children raised outside of cults come into contact with many different individuals, personalities, and belief structures.

  • In contrast, children in cults are raised in a restricted environment that limits the amount of contact outside the group and fosters a sense that there is only one way of being and believing.


Cognitive Suppression

  • As Whitsett and Kent noted, “In many cultic situations, however, where children receive punishment for questioning adults (not to mention leaders), they quickly learn to suppress autonomous thinking. As a consequence, children’s cognitive development is stunted” (2003, p. 497).

  • Further, Furnari stated, “Children who are naturally striving to accomplish normal developmental tasks such as identity, safety, and independence, are labeled ‘possessed,’ crazy, or bad” (2005, para. 10).

  • And according to Langone and Eisenberg, “They are socialized into an environment that denigrates independent critical thinking, maintains members in a state of dependency, and fosters a private insecurity by attacking members' while demanding that they not protest and show a positive front to the world” (1993, p. 337).

Emotional Suppression

  • Cultic groups dictate what emotions are acceptable and what emotions members will express, with anger and grief typically not tolerated. Therefore, children have little experience with self-regulation of emotions and affect (Goldberg, 2006).

  • Suppression of emotions is as important and potentially harmful as cognitive suppression because the two are intimately connected and have a tremendous impact on each other. May (1994) refers to “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... (p. 49).” (cited in Wehle, Cultic Studies Review, 2010, p. 47).

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

  • Creativity remains a somewhat elusive idea. However, in general, it can be agreed that creativity has to do with freedom of thought and emotion, combining and recombining information/knowledge in unique ways, and the creation and use of symbols.

  • Symbols are a mechanism through which one can communicate, but they are also used to represent and enable one to cope with emotions.

  • The expression of emotions is coercively denied within the cult environment, which interrupts the individual’s process of creating symbols and meaning. A former member recounts the following:

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.)

  • 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.” High-demand groups may also label creative expression as self-indulgent.

  • Personal talent is often utilized by cultic groups; however, it is exploited to further the group and leader.

  • There is an important difference between using one’s creativity to create something and using one’s talent to create something. In a creative endeavor, the output is the unique expression/understanding of the person who created it. In contrast, the output in cults reflects the expression/understanding of the cult.

Creative Suppression: Effect on Children

  • 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, cognitive flexibility, recognition of emotions in others, and bonding between parent and child.

  • Play is 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 play 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 (Goldstein, 2012).

  • Studies indicate that lack of play impacts the ability of children to develop self-control, to internally regulate emotions and behavior, and to experience joy (Goldstein, 2012).


  • One prominent feature of cultic leaders is a pattern of behaving unpredictably. This unpredictability tends to trickle down from the members to the 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)

  • Consistent with trauma theory, this unpredictability creates hypervigilance in children and interferes with their ability to develop a sense of safety and security.

Structure of Cults As Conducive to Abuse/Neglect

  • Most concerning when one examines abuse and/or neglect within cultic groups are

  • How the structure of these groups is conducive to abusive dynamics

  • The physical and psychological isolation of these groups

  • The normal avenues through which abuse may be identified are frequently not available (e.g., doctors, teachers, friends).

  • Because children have been taught that the world outside the group is bad, they might not disclose abuse to outsiders (Note: This is an important consideration for those professionals, such as social workers, family lawyers, and scholars, who may come into contact with these children).

When SGAs Leave the Cult/High-Demand Group

  • SGAs (those born and/or raised in cults) leave high-demand groups in one of three ways:

  • Leave on their own without their family

  • Leave with their family (either voluntarily, or involuntarily because of age)

  • Forced by the group to leave

  • The manner in which SGAs leave will have an impact on their recovery.

  • Often, children raised in cults are isolated from family members who are not in the group. As a result, if SGAs leave on their own without their family, they may not know anyone outside of the group.

  • Even SGAs who leave with their family are often leaving the only people they have ever known outside the family.

  • Additionally, SGAs are not only losing an entire relational support system, they are in many ways losing an entire world. They are losing the only belief structure/worldview they have ever known.

Selected 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 for school.

  • They may have little or no experience with use of currency.

  • Guidance:

  • Starting Out in Mainstream America, by Livia Bardin, LCSW, is an excellent resource that discusses everything from practical concerns such as getting a driver’s license to broader concerns such as parenting skills. It can be accessed on the Internet at startingout.icsa.name

  • See Section 11: Culture Shock.

  • See Section 13: Where to Get Help, for additional resources.

Recovery Concerns (see also Section 11: Culture Shock)


Grief and Loss (Furnari, 2005)

  • Personal losses including their sense of self, childhood, and their family

  • Loss of spirituality and a loss of meaning in life

Feelings of Shame and Isolation

Relational Adjustment, Dependency, and Boundaries

  • SGAs 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.

  • Children raised in cultic environments have come to depend on outside reinforcement; thus, their ability to develop a sense of independence and internal validation has been severely hampered (Herman, 1997).

  • When leaving these environments, SGAs may find themselves in relationships that mimic this high degree of control (Goldberg, n.d.).

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”

  • In her work with SGAs, Lorna Goldberg identified what she terms the “harsh conscience” as a clinically significant recovery concern:

  • Within cults, there is often a demand for absolute perfection.

  • Consequences for lack of perfection are unpredictable and often harsh.

  • There is a lack of consistent modeling of nonmanipulative compassion and negotiation.

  • Children internalize the harsh views of the cult and the leader.

  • This combined experience results in a lack of a loving conscience that acknowledges and accepts the inherent imperfection of being a human being.

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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