What to do if your child gets sucked into a cult

I recently received a heartbreaking email from deeply concerned parents whose daughters had been sucked into a highly-controlling religious group. Here’s an excerpt:

Their church is trying to encourage them to spend less time with their family and they seem to have their time booked up with bible studies, group meetings, church, etc.  They also seem to be arranging relationships for them as far as guys go.  Any insight you could give us would be very helpful.

I’ve received similar emails from families struggling to maintain contact with children or siblings who’ve become involved in a high-demand religious group. I’ve compiled a brief list of ways families can help reach loved ones being lost to a cult.

1. Understand you are no longer family. I know this is really difficult to hear. But the cult is the new family. You are now considered an “outsider.” Anything you say or do will be scrutinized for ulterior motives. Your child now listens to the counsel of the group and will tune out any of your criticisms because you haven’t been enlightened and saved like he/she has. This is why it’s extremely important that you….

2. Stay involved in your child’s life. The absolute worst thing to do is to have a hands-off approach. Your greatest chance of rescuing your child from the clutches of an oppressive religious system is in the beginning. Don’t back off. Be MORE loving, MORE kind, MORE involved than before. Stay involved until they break off contact. Don’t be the first one to break off the relationship. Try not to be offended by their hurtful behavior. Remember that it’s not personal. Their first loyalty is to the cult and they may think by cutting you off, they are proving their commitment to the group.

3. Be a stronger force of love in your child’s life than the cult is. Call often. Show up to meetings. Ask questions. Your love and your questions may not convince them to leave immediately, but you will have planted seeds of healthy doubt which will give them pause later on. As the cult persuades them to give up more and more of their personal freedoms, they will remember that true love never asks for unhealthy sacrifices. They will remember how YOU truly love them because you stayed involved even if you disagree with their decisions.

4. Understand that most cult members will NOT leave so long as the benefits they are receiving inside the cult are more immediate and profound than anything outside it. Become an investigator. Can you identify the benefits/rewards/incentives they are receiving inside the cult that they felt lacking outside of it? For example: a strong sense of community, eternal rewards, grand purpose in life? I would suggest parents investigate the particular group their child has become involved with and see what makes it attractive to new members.

5. Be honest and self-aware. This may be difficult for parents since it might mean their child found something in the cult that they lacked in their upbringing. In my experience, the most devout cult members came from broken homes, alcoholic parents or rich families who simply didn’t give a crap about what their kids did. It’s never too late to be a good parent. Even if your child is a fully grown adult, their well-being is still your concern–especially if they are being seduced by a cult. Be open and honest with yourself and be willing to examine the ways you perhaps overlooked something they truly needed in their childhoods. And then, take action!

6. Be patient. For highly-devout cult members, things have to get really bad on the inside before they’re willing to leave. Sometimes all a parent can do is leave the light on for their child. Just be the safe place they can run to when they finally decide to leave. Many times cult members don’t leave because they have nowhere to go (this was my situation). They have no outside friends. They’ve alienated all their outside family members. If a parent can maintain an open heart and an open door, when the hurting, damaged child decides to leave the cult–you will be their safe place. Sometimes the only thing a parent can do is provide a soft landing place for their broken child. Until then, don’t forget to…

7. Pray.

  • Anonymous

    Just curious: Which cult were you involved in?

    • Anonymous

      You’ll have to wait to read my book to find out. :)

      • Paula

         Can’t wait!!! I am soooo excited to read it!

        • Carmen

           Ditto!!!!!!!!!! :)

  • Naomi

    Excellent advice! When I left the authoritarian Amish Mennonite setting I was raised in, I went straight to a non-denominational fundamentalist group that had a lot of cult-like characteristics. Eventually I left when the sense of deja-vu was too strong to ignore (Wait a minute! Isn’t this kind of behavior the reason I left my family’s tradition?).

    One of the ways to enact #2 and #3 above is to occasionally reference positive memories of their pre-cult life–send their favorite homemade cookies or invite them to do something they once loved–give them opportunities to tangibly reconnect with “real life.” I remember late one night coming across The Farmer’s Wife on PBS and being struck by the normalcy of it (coming from a rural upbringing myself).  That experience didn’t make me leave, but it did nurture my craving for a life of normal family relationships that wasn’t constantly burdened with someone else’s idea of “mission” work.

    Important note: Be sure you are initiating things THEY truly enjoy–not the things YOU wish they’d enjoy. My Dad put me on mailing lists he hoped would bring me back to HIS fold, but all they did was reinforce my determination to never go back.

    Staying in contact while not resorting to guilt-trips or ultimatums is key. The group probably glamorizes being cut off/cutting off family. The more threats you make, the more you validate the group’s predictions of your loved one’s need to “forsake all for Christ” or whatever. Be cool. Be cheerful. Be thoughtful. Be available. Be patient. That’s the kind of behavior that confuses cult members–they don’t expect it and don’t know what to do with it.

    Most of all, know that the turnover for cult-like groups is very high. Let your sanity serve as a contrast to the inhumane demands of the group.

  • Naomi

    The internet must have eaten my first post. I’ll try again…

    ——–
    Excellent advice, EE! When I left the authoritarian Amish Mennonite setting I was raised in, I went straight to a non-denominational fundamentalist group that had a lot of cult-like characteristics. Eventually I left when the sense of deja-vu was too strong to ignore (Wait a minute! Isn’t this kind of behavior the reason I left my family’s tradition?).
    One of the ways to enact #2 and #3 above is to occasionally reference positive memories of their pre-cult life–send their favorite homemade cookies or invite them to do something they once loved–give them opportunities to tangibly reconnect with “real life.” I remember late one night coming across The Farmer’s Wife on PBS and being struck by the normalcy of it (coming from a rural upbringing myself).  That experience didn’t make me leave, but it did nurture my craving for a life of normal family relationships that wasn’t constantly burdened with someone else’s idea of “mission” work.

    Important note: Be sure you are initiating things THEY truly enjoy–not the things YOU wish they’d enjoy. My Dad put me on mailing lists he hoped would bring me back to HIS fold, but all they did was reinforce my determination to never go back.

    Staying in contact while not resorting to guilt-trips or ultimatums is key. The group probably glamorizes being cut off/cutting off family. The more threats you make, the more you validate the group’s predictions of your loved one’s need to “forsake all for Christ” or whatever. Be cool. Be cheerful. Be thoughtful. Be available. Be patient. That’s the kind of behavior that confuses cult members–they don’t expect it and don’t know what to do with it.

    Most of all, know that the turnover for cult-like groups is very high. Let your sanity serve as a contrast to the inhumane demands of the group.

  • http://turquoisegates.blogspot.com Genevieve Thul@Turquoise Gates

    I would highly recommend a book that might seem weird to read in this instance, Ruth Graham’s book “Prodigals and Those Who Love Them”. She offers poetry, prayers, and honest chapters on loving a child who does not love you back. I think this book would be very helpful to parents who are in a relationship where their children are acting in a way that is hurtful and dangerous to the family relationships.

  • http://followedbyglory.blogspot.com/ In Need of Grace

    I have a friend who has recently joined a truly weird cult and I am worried for her. She speaks a new “cult” language in every sentence and remaining friends with her is very very difficult because it is like I am speaking with a robot.  Would you recommend that I continue engaging her even though our friendship really is over?

    • Anonymous

      YES! Continue to engage! Don’t give up! Don’t take it personal! She needs you now more than ever. I know it’s so hard, but believe me–she WILL remember your kindness. Thank you for being a good friend!

      • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

        yes, and it’s ok to engage in other ways. The conversations do not need to be about the cult, it’s doctrines etc. Arrange times to get together for fun things. Go to Tupperware or Pampered chef parties, etc  Go out for coffee, lunch, etc.. Cults will love bomb them… they visit them at home, invite them to activities.. they will monopolize their time. Set times to get together in advance..many cults plan their events a month in advance and sometimes a whole year in advance.

  • Stefani

    I could not agree more! Love and acceptance and an open door is what helped me out of the cultish group of which I was a part.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com/ Kristen

    I wish my parents had been able to read this 25 years ago, when it was me.  Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

    I needed to read this today. Thanks Elizabeth.