Crisis Situations - I am really worried.....
- Common to all "crisis" situations is a need to stay calm, gain some understanding before acting, but act promptly as soon as you know you understand the basics.
- Seek to gain understanding of how cults function, and heed advice on what does and doesn’t work. It may seem sudden and unusual to you, but it has happened to many, many people - learn their lessons before you learn them again the hard way.
- "De-programming" or forcibly capturing a cult member, depriving them of liberty and persuading them to leave the group has not been recommended by any serious anti-cult group for around 20 years. It is counter-productive, illegal and has resulted in many court victories for cults. Attempts at "de-programming" give credence in the recruits mind to all the nasty things they were told about the world outside the cult.
- Instead, the best proven path is "promoting voluntary re-evaluation" by the recruit. This requires continuing to value and to build meaningful relationships external to the cult.
- Remember too,
look after yourself - you cannot help your friend/child if you burn out. Assisting a cult recruit to re-evaluate their experiences can be stressful and time-consuming.
Please select type of situation:
(suggest you read them all anyway)
My Friend / Child is thinking about joining a group
Many people join cults out of dissatisfaction with the world they see. Their idealism is not finding expression, their need for missions and goals is not being met by the challenges offered to them by their current church / community group. Maybe they see the many things wrong with the world clearly, and are hoping for something far better.
If they are going through a life-change, such as first-year Uni, job-loss or relationship breakdown, they may be unusually (for them) vulnerable to the offer of a sense of belonging and a direction in life.
Don’t brush off genuine interest - don’t expect it to pass. Get the issues into the open - it may help your communication and relationship far more than you realize. If your friend/child has a genuine interest in developing some kind of spirituality, or showing high levels of idealism (even if this seems naive) it is best that their spirituality/idealism find expression in healthy ways. If you (or they) seek to repress it they become vulnerable to groups that know how to manipulate the idealistic ones among us into cults. Such cults will unethically manipulate, distort and abuse this spirituality/idealism.
Firstly, research the group. Find out all you can from sources external to the group. A significant number of callers to our help line do not even know the name of the group or the name(s) of the leader(s). There is an extensive resource network on the internet - see our links page. In addition, we have access to libraries on cults and extensive collections of articles. Please phone our help line - we are here for you.
Aim to nurture and strengthen your relationship with your friend / child. Make your relationship as good as you can, consider a holiday to a special place or activities they enjoy.
Ask questions of your friend / child with a curious / concerned posture, rather than a negative tone. Avoid dumping reams of negative information - your child / friend is better off working things out for themselves than being told. You don’t wish them to view you as a threat.
The aim is promoting voluntary re-evaluation, that is, to encourage objective and critical evaluation.
My Friend has joined a strange group.
Firstly, evaluate as far as you can if the group is a cult. Many religions operate ethically and with a genuine interest in positive spirituality - it may be perfectly healthy. See our page on Healthy Religious Conversion. Is the recruit showing signs of increased or decreased autonomy? Are they thinking for themselves and drawing their own conclusions or do they appear to be manipulated into following the group’s line against their usual better judgement? Try to be as objective as you can. Bias will be evident.
Protect yourself - learn how cults operate and learn how to avoid the traps yourself. Feigning interest to attempt to get inside information will be found out quick, and joining up yourself in an attempt to get your friend out will be counter-productive.
The most effective approach is to maintain the best, friendliest relationship you can. Ask about the group, genuinely seek to understand what your friend is going through. Don’t openly criticise, you may just convince your friend that you are "demon-possessed" or anti-the-truth. Be open and honest, express mild concern and be genuinely interested in what is going on. See if you can find inconsistencies you can probe gently. The aim is to get the recruit to see what is going on - we call it "promoting voluntary re-evaluation"
Try asking questions like:
- Is this something you’ve always been looking for?
- How does this tie in with your previous beliefs?
- Are you frustrated about not achieving everything you would like?
- How are you succeeding with .... (previous pet goals)
- See also the section below on "protecting yourself" for good questions
My Child has joined a strange group
All the information above on "My friend has joined a strange group" applies, with the additional issues of the parent-child relationship. The parent-child relationship is usually the strongest bond between any humans, but usually goes through a time of difficulty when the child is finding their own place in the world and seeking some kind of independence. Parents will feel partly to blame for what has happened - but at CIS we like to promote the view that the main deciding factor in whether a given individual will join a cult is the skill level of the recruiter.
For someone to join a cult takes a lot of courage, a high level of seeking and a rejection of the peer-pressure from mainstream consumerist society. As such, the parents probably did a good job encouraging the child towards idealism, morality, or a search for higher truths. The child has probably learned the falsity of peer-pressure and is willing to swim against the flow of society for a higher cause. If this is the case - well parented !
Joining a cult will test the parent-child relationship severely. Communication channels must be kept open, respect given and received both ways. The main focus should be on helping your child become themselves, not what a cult recruiter wants them to become, but equally, not a mould that parents would push them into. There are many excellent resources on parenting and communication skills around. We suggest that parents look at some of these as a high priority - to ensure that you do not drive your child further into the cult.
There are some kooks in our neighbourhood.
You may have become aware of a group operating nearby. Perhaps there is a community house. Well, firstly, they have a democratic right to exist in our society and live peacefully. Secondly, however, they do not have a right to misrepresent, manipulate, lie, capture the youth around them, promote drugs, immoral activities or avoiding tax.
Should you have good grounds for suspecting illegal activity including stalking, menacing, obtaining money by deception or deprivation of liberty, get some good evidence (if time), get a witness or two and contact the police. Under current legislation, they will be reluctant to act without concrete evidence of actual illegality. Future legislation may prohibit aspects of cult functions, but this is dangerously close to limiting the right to freedom of religion, therefore difficult for legislators.
Otherwise, just avoid them. "No publicity is bad publicity" - any raising of even a bad profile will assist them gaining recruits as "only the real truth gets persecuted by the press". For example, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has gained greatly from a succession of unfulfilled prophecies of the end of the world. Despite the ignominy of missed date after missed date, they gain recruits every time they say the world will end, then they don’t lose them when it doesn’t... that’s the way it is!
I am concerned about this group I am thinking of joining
If YOU are thinking of becoming a member of an organisation which may be considered unhealthy, ask the following questions:
- How does the group use power ?
- How does the group treat ex-members ?
- Has your ability to think critically and openly about any subject improved or diminished since encountering the group ?
- Can you find lack of sincerity in the group or leaders?
- What information is available on the internet - is there an ex-members website?
- Can you find independant advice. Email us - we may know of the group.
Consider arranging a meeting on neutral territory with the person who is trying to get you to join and ask questions like these:
(Taken from Hassan 1988)
Try Asking the following questions of a person who is trying to get you to join a high pressure group or suspected cult:
How long have you been involved? Are you trying to recruit me into any type of organisation?
Find out who you are dealing with as soon as possible. If the recruiter has been a member for any length of time, expect to get concrete answers. Some groups won’t tell you that you are being recruited.
Who is the top leader? What is his background and qualifications? Does he have a public profile or history?
If the person doesn’t know, ask why they got involved in such a big way without finding out something as important as this.
What does your group believe?
Any legitimate group will be able to summarise its main beliefs. Cults often leave important details until you are well and truly locked into the group. Ask if there are different levels of knowledge within the group.
What are the members expected to do once they join? Do I have to quit Uni, or work without pay or give my money to the group? Do I have to cut off ties with my family if they refuse to join?
Watch their non-verbals when you ask this question. Ask the person what he did when he first met the group and what he is doing now.
Is your group considered controversial by anyone? If people are critical of your group, what are their objections?
Is there any healthy self-criticism occurring - is the group changing or improving in response to criticism?
How do you feel about former members? Have you ever sat down with them to find out why they left? If not, why not? Does your group impose restrictions on communicating with ex-members?
Cults do not accept any valid reasons for a person’s departure, no matter what they are.
What are the three things you like least about the group and the leader?
Watch the body language for this one!
Write down the answers to this, maybe as a journal. Consider keeping a special email address you can access from the web and check back at the answers anytime.
See our Articles page, and How Cults Function Ask questions and evaluate.
Promoting Voluntary Re-Evaluation.
Adapted from Ross & Langone 1988
Steps to Encourage a recruit to re-evaluate and walk out of the group:
Establishing Rapport - Build Bridges, don’t burn them!
Letters, phone calls, emails etc are not a good means of communicating deprecatory information about the group. Assisting your child/friend requires personal rapport. Personal interaction makes it much harder for the recruit to brush you off as "part of the evil world". Don’t give the cult leadership the opportunity to classify you as "evil". Moreover, the recruit’s best chance of leaving requires loving connections outside the group. If they expect a chorus of "I told you so’s", or view you as shallow and worldly, they are less likely to seek you out for refuge.
If the recruit is hostile to parents, then siblings and friends have a greater role. If parents or others already have personal contact, work on increasing that contact, encouraging the recruit to visit home for special occasions (Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, funerals) or to come out for family holidays.
If a child doesn’t trust her parents (external to the cult), the parents cannot have much constructive influence. Parents and families who experience careful and meaningful problem resolution, gently but fully expressing feelings in a mature reserved manner may be more trust worthy than the cult - but this may take time for the recruit to realise this.
In cases where a son or daughter is in a harmful cult, it is up to the parents to learn skills and to initiate and sustain behaviour which will improve parent-child communication and trust.
Communication Skills - Listening, Responding and Asking Questions.
Listening is a skill. It requires sensitivity not only to the specific words, but also to the more subtle thoughts, feelings and implications being expressed. Promote communication, establish trust - don’t gainsay and "turn-off" or "turn-away" the recruit. For example:
A child comes home and is talking to her parents about her cult experience. She says, "In meditation I can hear divine music. It’s very beautiful". Her mother, who has been "listening", happens to be a biologist and she interjects, "That’s ridiculous. Impossible. It’s not divine music, it’s blood rushing through your ears".
Although the mother is most likely correct, her choice of words and tone may interfere with her communication with her daughter. Why?
Her daughter has been describing experiences, and in such a situation, parents have have an opportunity to learn about the cult, and at the same time improve rapport with their child.
If parents insist on "championing their own ideas" and respond with disbelief or ridicule to their son’s experiences, they risk pushing him away. He may decide that he can’t trust his parents, and therefore he better not discuss the cult. Or he might decide to stop visiting home, since the time spent there is so unpleasant. This is exactly the opposite of what the parents had intended, but exactly what the group’s leadership wanted.
Listen respectfully, ask questions, encourage the recruit to talk about their experiences. Hope that he will feel respected, understood and desire to continue to share his thoughts and feelings about the cult. A more effective response to the situation above would be "Oh, what exactly is meditation? How do you do it?"
One piece of information may lead to another. Maybe some of the practices are secret. The parents could ask "Why is the meditation secret?", and "Is it good that it is kept secret from the world?" encouraging the child’s critical thinking. Try "How do you know it’s divine music? Have you considered that it might be something else?" The recruit should be gently led to consider alternatives without feeling attacked.
Remember: The cult will have it’s own special vocabulary, speech patterns and sayings. Ask for definitions of these terms. Gently seek inconsistencies and try to get the recruit’s critical evaluation functions restarted.
There are a number of parenting communication skills courses around. Don’t put all the blame on the recruit for bad communication - the parents are probably partly at fault also. One such skills course evaluates different parenting styles: authoritarian, over-protective, inconsistent, or the more positive "problem-solving" orientation.
Remember here the key is to build bridges, not to burn them!
Controlling Emotional Reactions
Recognising and controlling emotional reactions are essential steps in improving rapport, otherwise there is unwelcome turbulence, confusion and distrust in the parent-child or recruit-friend relationship.
Keep a journal or record of your conversations, interactions, letters, etc. Discuss these with your spouse, family or counsellors. What did you say, and what did your child hear? What tone of voice did you use? What kind of outcome will result? What feelings were communicated? Anger? Hostility? Blame? Love? Respect? Understanding? Trust? Suspicion? Were there particular issues that caused you to get upset or lose control? Why?
Consider how your reactions may affect your child/the recruit. Anger will lead to defensiveness, rejection and communication breakdown. Genuine expressions of anxiety, confusion, sadness, and disappointment tend to have positive effects, such as: helping to awaken a recruit’s critical faculties, planting seeds of doubt about the cult, and reminding them of all that is good about the "old world".
Parents can tell a child, for instance, that they are very sad that she has decided to leave Uni, saying "Just a few months ago you told us how much you loved Uni. You said it was stimulating and giving you a chance to discover your strengths. I’m wondering what’s happened since then?" Such statements are non-threatening, may strengthen your relationship and nurture doubts in the recruit’s mind.
Emotions must be genuine and positive, not feigned and reactionary. If the parents have never learned to manage their own emotions, to choose their responses and focus on nurturing rather than accusing, then they should learn and practise these issues rather than drive their child further into the group.
Unhelpful alarm reactions such as "We’ll disown you if you do that!" or "I’m coming up the coast to sort this out and rescue you from this group" are well intentioned but may push your child further into the group. Parents should communicate anxieties in a way that does not alienate.
Overcoming barriers produced by the cult
Barrier: Limited Input (=Milieu Control - Lifton)
The cult may limit time with families or prohibit unsupervised visits.
Strategy: Try to gently negotiate terms, special occasions, birthdays etc. Try asking: "Is there any way we can see you? We are disappointed that you haven’t been communicating with us. Is there anything we can do? Is there anything you can do?" In this instance sadness and disappointment are being communicated, not anger and blame. Parents are asking for their daughter’s ideas, indicating a willingness to compromise.
The daughter may promise to contact more often, and she may really want to. If her promises aren’t kept, the parents may say "We understood you were going to phone us more often - what happened to prevent you keeping that promise?" The daughter may realise the cult’s manipulation of her. They have prevented her from calling home. She may begin to realise the control the cult has over her.
Barrier: Anti-parent propaganda
The emotional bond between parents and children is usually the strongest bond between any humans. Cults are aware of this, and invariably seek to reduce the strength of this bond. One cult warns members that "Satan works through parents". A pseudo-Christian cult leader advises members whose parents oppose the cult: "Don’t throw your pearls before swine, Let the dead bury their dead, He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me". This selective quoting of parts of the Bible is contradicted by the major thrust of "honouring your parents" and "telling the truth", "showing charity", "living at peace with all".
Strategy: Demonstrate through words and actions that parents aren’t evil, mis-understanding, controlling, distant, dishonest and dangerous. Break the mould by not reacting with outrage, threats you don’t intend to carry out and rejection of your child. Let the child see that the cult is not telling the truth about parents.
Barrier: Fear of Deprogramming
The Cult may have exaggerated stories of deprogramming techniques designed to "break your faith in God", such as beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, even rape. This fear may be promoted as reason for "careful protection" of group members.
Strategy: Remember that deprogramming (forced capture of recruit) is not ethical nor recommended. However a lot of cults still use this fear to control members. If you suspect this is an issue, ask straight out: "Are you afraid that we will try to deprogram you?" If the fear exists, ask "How can we reassure you?", be open, honest, discuss ethics and values. It could open a treasure trove of communication.
Stimulating the recruit’s Problem solving (or "analytical thought" capabilities)
The reduced level of individual autonomy is a significant factor keeping recruits in cults. Many decisions are made for them, such as where to live, what to eat, vocation, how time is spent, not infrequently who to marry. Intellectual challenges will have been reduced by the cult, and some life-skills may be reduced. Parents can help reawaken a child’s independent thought, problem solving abilities and independent religious view formation, as opposed to cultish view formation.
Before entering the cult, what activities did the recruit pursue? Reading? Writing? Organisational commitments to church, educational, civic, other? Can you re-awaken any of these? Which might be appealing?
Before entering the cult, with whom did you son/daughter discuss, debate and evaluate conflicts, beliefs, values, principles, philosophy, religion, creative ideas? (That is, friends, relatives, colleagues, teachers, counsellors, fellow students?) Of these people, who is currently accessible? To whom might the child respond? Could you invite them to dinner?
Even involving the child in family problem solving such as restaurant or spare time choices, house modification choices or matters with siblings may assist. Cult members have probably been taught to suppress personal preferences.
Can you encourage the recruit to see themselves on a journey of discovery - a journey of their own? Or is the destination pre-planned for the benefit of others?