I stumbled across an article by Doni Whitsett and Stephen A. Kent about what can happen to families involved in cults. (A link to the article can be found at the end of this post.) It was written for therapists, to help therapists understand the experiences of clients who had been cult members. It is not about parental alienation, but since parental alienators behave like leaders of their own little cults, I recognized many of the problems the authors describe occurring in my family, and maybe you will too. Quotations from the article are in red, and my comments follow in black.
The controlling demands of leaders minimize and often eliminate emotional connections among family members that might compete with members’ loyalties toward them. The controlling demands of the alienating parent minimize and/or eliminate connections with you.
By their very nature, cults cannot afford to have [… independently functioning individuals] (Deikman, 1994, pp. 50–69). To this end, individual and family boundaries break down as the result of several factors. These factors include intensive resocialization into the new, deviant beliefs and behaviors; the demonization of people’s precult lives; intense punishment and shaming regimes; restrictions on exogenous social contacts; heavy financial and time commitments; and constant demands to value group commitments over [individual] considerations.
Alienators most definitely “intensively resocialize” children into the “new, deviant beliefs and behaviors“: That you are a bad parent, a bad person, that you don’t love them and are to be rejected. “Demonization of precult lives” describes the demonization of the rejected parent and perhaps other relatives, and the reinvention of the past. “Intense punishment and shaming regimes” might be an overstatement. These terms suggest violence and aggression and I think alienators are more subtle, but then again, when I think of my own experience when my ex alienated me from my parents, it’s perfectly accurate. And my children saw what happened to me when I was “disloyal”, and therefore the threat is there for them too. “Restrictions on exogenous social contacts“: Limiting or preventing contact with the other parent and associated persons is a hallmark of alienation, and in the case of my family the alienator dramatically limited and controlled all the social contacts of our children. He convinced or compelled them to end friendships, only enrolled them in extracurricular activities that he was involved in, promoted family socializing as a group with his (very few) friends, and kept himself and them isolated in many ways. “Heavy financial and time commitments; and constant demands to value group commitments over [individual] considerations”: This doesn’t apply quite so neatly as we are talking about children who generally do not have financial resources, but alienators do often jealously interfere with their children’s time. My children spend far more time with their dad than is typical for teenagers, and far more time together as a group, with him, than I believe is developmentally healthy.
The alienators I described in an earlier post used most of these controlling techniques too.
Not surprisingly, therefore, in these high-control groups, [alienated] parents’ authority over their children is undermined. The [alienator] usurps the rights and obligations that usually adhere to [both parents]. Although almost always with the exception of financial obligations!
A typical dire consequence of dysfunctional leaders running groups is that frequently members are exposed to shaming and humiliating experiences, both in public and in front of their families. Witnessing their parents’ degradation, children lose respect for them. This did happen to me and my children.
Amid such humiliation, […] children must look elsewhere for someone to admire, emulate, and model themselves after. … Cult leaders (alienators) fill this void, as they claim to be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect embodiments of “truth.”
Cults divide the world into discrete, dichotomous categories: good and evil, the saved and the damned, winners and losers, and so on (see McGuire pp. 39–44, 2002). These represent splitting, which is a primitive defense mechanism that reduces the anxiety of having to live with life’s uncertainties (see Whitsett, 1992, p. 370). They generate deep suspicions if not outright hostility toward nonmembers, especially those who once believed but subsequently left the group. Defectors from these cults…(the former spouse) are (from the perspective of their former groups) the worst outsiders, because they once had “the truth” but now turn their backs on it. When a defector is a parent who desires either custody or visitation rights for children whose other parent [is an alienator], then children likely suffer the consequences of having been socialized into these split and demonizing belief systems. …they may experience…trauma as they move between the two households, one of which the [alienator] will have defined as “good” and the other as “evil.” Because the children are fearful of being drawn into the [rejected] parent’s reputedly demonic world, their visitations often are contrived and anxiety ridden. Children may be withdrawn, guarded about their everyday lives, and unwilling to engage in [ordinary] activities that the cult (alienator) defines as sinful. That is, activities that would promote being close to and enjoying their alienated parent.
Not surprisingly, therefore, these children may experience nightmares and show other signs of distress before or after visits with the [alienated] parent. Custody evaluators may misinterpret these signs as validation of the cult parent’s claims that the outside parent is harmful.
Part two to follow.
Doni Whitsett and Stephen A. Kent, Cults and Families, Families in Society, Volume 84, Number 4, 2003
Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services • http://www.familiesinsociety.org
Copyright 2003 Alliance for Children and Families