In my work with therapy clients who are adult children of cult members (ACOCMs), I have been struck by the similarities of their characteristics and those of adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs). I was drawn to explore this connection because I observed that many adult children appeared to protect their parents from any blame for what my clients endured as children — and continue to suffer as adults. This tendency is very prevalent among ACOAs and has been noted in the literature for years. The more I researched ACOAs, the more parallels I found.
The items below are adapted freely from similar characteristic lists publicly available for ACOAs. I also wish to gratefully acknowledge Gina Catena, MS, herself an ACOCM, for her patience, generosity, and persistence in offering her insights and suggestions, as well as allowing me the privilege of reviewing an unpublished manuscript on ACOCMs. It was Ms. Catena that pointed out the central similarity between addiction psychology and cultic abuse psychology: In time, an addiction comes to determine one's total life direction; in time, a cultic obsession/compulsion can similarly restrict a cultic relationship. I must also thank my clients who have all been a source of inspiration for me in so many ways.
It is also important to note that the International Cultic Studies Association asserts that addiction psychology does not reflect the themes of cultic abuse psychology. (Also, they use the term "Second-Generation Adults" to refer to adult children. I do not use this term because it is not easily understood by readers outside of an academic audience.) While I respect and admire the research and history of ICSA, my observations have led me to different conclusions, and I hope to write more on this topic in the near future.
Below I outline the challenges facing adult children that I've observed — along with corresponding strengths they appear to exhibit. I also include tasks I believe they must accomplish to recover from their cultic relationships.
I caution readers from treating the items below as a laundry list of symptoms — and, at that, drawn from a fairly small and narrow group of individuals. Many of my clients have left Transcendental Meditation, because of my background with TM, but others have left other, similar groups. I observe similarities in the challenges veterans of all these groups face. I, however, am not aware of any research on this topic, so please treat this material as a starting point for discussion and research only. Please also note that no clients exhibit all these characteristics.
Characteristics of Adult Children of Cult Members
- Challenge: Some adult children of cult members (ACOCMs) may tend to feel sorry for their parents, feeling they were not to blame for their cult involvement. In fact, the adult child may see parents as victims that he or she needs to protect. The ACOCM may have been parentified at an early age, becoming responsible for adult tasks because the cult member parents were not capable of performing them.
Strengths: Adult children may tend to "take charge" of their lives.
- To reclaim the appropriate emotions, desires, and experiences that they may have missed as children.
- To allow significant others to care for them when appropriate.
- To learn to see parents as flawed human beings who have made both healthy and unhealthy choices in their lives — and who must take responsibility for changing any dysfunctional behaviors.
- Challenge: Some adult children may be isolated from friends, family, and community.
Strength: These individuals may form independent, self-reliant lives at an early age.
- To avoid unnecessary emotional cutoffs of family and friends.
- To see family and friends as complete human beings — with both strengths and weaknesses — and to love them for who they are and what they can give us.
- Challenge: Some adult children may fear taking part in groups, no matter how benign, such as churches or self-help groups.
Strength: Society needs its independent thinkers. Intelligent, sensitive outsiders have had unique viewpoints to offer others throughout history — think Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla.
- To distinguish between coercive groups, which threaten one's self-knowledge and identity, and benign, supportive groups, which can be valuable emotional supports.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may fear authority figures. This may lead to difficulties in keeping and holding jobs, completing education, and so forth.
Strength: The ability to question authority appropriately and by conscious choice can lead to strong personal beliefs — especially having survived lifelong coercive techniques.
- To learn when challenging authority can lead to productive outcomes — and when it will not.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may seek the approval of others more than adults who did not grow up in a cult.
Strength: ACOCMs may use appropriate recognition for their efforts as a spur to ambition and achievement in their lives.
- To learn to "check in" with oneself and recognize when seeking the approval of others conflicts with meeting one's own needs and desires.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may be unsure of their identity, core values, likes and dislikes having had dysfunctional cult beliefs forced on them from childhood.
Strength: Adult children may be more likely to consciously examine their core values — leading to a thoughtful approach to life.
- To explore, as an adult, values and beliefs that will form a strong, functional core identity — a task usually completed during childhood and adolescence.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may be frightened by angry people, strong emotions, or those who express themselves forcefully.
Strengths: Adult children may be sensitive to imposing conflict on others — a strength in interpersonal relations.
- To learn to assert one's needs and desires productively when appropriate.
- To learn to be comfortable when others assert themselves.
- To know when conflict crosses the line into aggression, which is healthy to avoid.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may be especially sensitive to even slight personal criticism due to harsh judgments thrust on them growing up in a totalist cult. Adult children may have a tendency toward crippling perfectionism.
Strength: A quest for excellence can spur one to achieving great things.
- Develop a clear-eyed appraisal of one's abilities that allows one to excel — without hindering one with unachievable expectations or self-defeating behaviors.
- Challenge: Adult children may judge themselves harshly. They may suffer from low self-esteem.
Strength: Such individuals can learn to have a balanced appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses.
- To learn not to "disqualify the positive," in Aaron T. Beck's phrase.
- To learn to value themselves.
- Challenge: Cult leaders do not recognize boundaries and tend to create environments in which everything exists to serve them. As a result, ACOCMs may be raised by parents who have trouble drawing appropriate boundaries. This may carry on to the next generation: ACOCMs may have trouble recognizing boundaries. Some ACOCM's were raised with loose or highly rigid sexual rules, which can interfere with adult intimacy and healthy boundaries.
Strength: Once channeled, the ability to be flexible with boundaries is an important skill for family and intimate relationships.
- To successfully develop intimacy, without becoming enmeshed inappropriately with others.
- Challenge: Because we learn what we live growing up, ACOCMs may become emotionally attached to other cult members, alcoholics, or other compulsive personalities, such as workaholics, to fill needs created when their parents abandoned them.
Strength: Adult children may be especially successful at "healing relationships" — relationships in which both members bear significant wounds, but who work to heal each other through compassion and commitment.
- To learn to value relationships free from compulsions.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may view themselves as a victims — and be attracted to similar weaknesses in their friendships and love relationships. They may feel a need to "rescue" others. They may be attracted to helping and healing professions.
Strengths: Society holds helpers and healers in special esteem.
- To learn to meet one's own needs first, before inappropriately trying to rescue others.
- Also see item "k."
- Challenge: ACOCMs may tend to confuse love and pity.
Strength: This tendency can be the basis for developing a mature sense of empathy.
- To avoid pity, which can trap one into a feeling of superiority.
- To develop relationships founded on mutual respect.
- Challenge: Totalist cults tend to indoctrinate their members with inappropriate, unachievable missions to save the world. ACOCMs may feel a restless need to "make a difference in society" — to "save the world."
Strength: Blessed are the peacemakers, the visionaries, the dreamers.
- To channel these high aspirations into achievable goals — possibly working with established organizations.
- To reframe goals to apply within manageable limits, such as working with family, friends, and neighbors, or otherwise size one's aspirations to match one's abilities.
- Challenge: Adult children may have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. It may be easier for one to help others than it is to help oneself. This enables some ACOCMs to avoid looking closely at their own faults and needs.
Strength: Matured and modified, the impulse to caretake can form a solid basis for work in the helping and healing fields.
- To acknowledge those things one is truly responsible for, that is events and actions that one can realistically change, while learning to let go of things that are the responsibilities of others.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may feel guilty when they stand up for themselves, instead of giving in to others.
Strength & Recovery Task:
- See discussion on assertiveness in item "g."
- Challenge: Because they grew up surrounded by the chaos of constantly changing and capricious demands in a cult, ACOCMs may become addicted to excitement. They may be prone to addictive behaviors, such as spending sprees, gambling, drugs, promiscuity, alcohol, and other compulsions.
Strength: Many people who achieve greatness are driven by a desire to explore new places, ideas, people.
- To channel the need for excitement into a creative, not destructive, force in one's life.
- Challenge: Some adult children have strong needs for order and control in their lives because these were lacking in their childhoods.
Strength: The ability to organize and prioritize can be important assets for success in life.
- In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr's famous "Serenity Prayer," to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may not have developed social skills appropriate to living in mainstream culture, having only been exposed to nontraditional social mores within their cult.
Strength: Like all visitors to a foreign land, adult children may, in time, develop a unique understanding of and sensitivity to social customs that others merely take for granted.
- To consciously develop manners, attitudes, habits of their newly adopted culture: mainstream society.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may have stuffed their feelings, particularly anger and abandonment, from their traumatic childhoods. Strong emotions that are ignored and unexpressed can lead to a host of psychological and physical ills in later life.
Strength: The ability to compartmentalize, when under conscious control, can be an important survival technique in career, education, and family life.
- To learn to express feelings appropriately, productively, gracefully in or near the moment that they occur.
- Challenge: Adult children may have lost — or never developed — the ability to feel or express their feelings because it hurts so much. They may live in denial or have nearly delusional beliefs about their lives, their abilities, or their place in society.
Strength & Recovery Task:
- See item "t."
- Challenge: ACOCMs may tend to be dependent on others and be unusually fearful of abandonment. They may suffer from a series of unstable love and friendship relationships. Their abandonment may spring from what it felt like to live in an unhealthy family with people who were never there for them emotionally.
Strength: Adult children may feel extraordinary compassion for the emotional needs of others because of the extremes they experienced.
- To learn emotional management strategies that allow adult children to fulfill more of their own needs.
- Challenge: ACOCMs may tend to be reactors rather than actors in their own life. This may be due to the need to anticipate the chaotic emotions of parents and cult leaders to emotionally survive childhood.
Strength: Adult children may be strongly intuitive about the needs and feelings of others.
- To learn to be Self-centered rather than other-centered.
- To learn to recognize and express one's own needs, feelings, and values while also truly valuing others'.
- Challenge: Just as children of alcoholics experience alcoholism as a family disease, ACOCMs may continue to express the characteristics of cult members — even long after they have left their family's cult.
Strength & Recovery Task:
- Adult children may be in a unique position to consciously decide which cult-based values and beliefs they want to honor — and which they wish to discard.
Loosely adapted from Characteristics of the Problems of ALANONs and ACOAs, with gratefully acknowledged additions and corrections from Gina Catena, MS and my clients.
John M. Knapp, LMSW