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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Are Parental Alienation Organizations Cult-like in Nature?

In the litigious atmosphere of the modern United States, it is common for personal, professional, or financial allegations against someone to be brought into the courtroom as ways for another party to achieve a goal. Divorce courts and family courts frequently see arguments based on such allegations, deployed for financial or other gains. An increasingly common allegation by one parent against another is parental alienation—generally defined as the refusal of a child to have contact with one parent, in the absence of rational objections (usually limited to a history of substantiated physical or sexual abuse), and as the result of a campaign of denigration and “brainwashing” by a favored parent. When parental alienation (PA) is successfully argued in the courtroom, the consequences for the accused parent may be dire, involving prohibition of contact with the child and financial responsibility for treatments offered by PA proponents. This continues despite the absence of evidence supporting the PA diagnosis or the safety and effectiveness of the treatments used.

The question I want to raise in this post is whether some organizations promoting PA concepts and treatment methods are in fact similar to cults.

Let me state at the beginning that I am far from claiming that PA cannot happen. I have no doubt that this parental behavior and child outcome do sometimes occur. However, I am equally far from accepting that the behavior and resulting outcome are present in most of the cases where PA allegations are made. The burden of proof for a claim to that effect is on PA proponents, who have not provided evidence either for their diagnostic approach or for the treatments they advocate.

Given that no adequate evidence has been provided, and that organizations nevertheless strongly support PA views, the obvious question is how and why people are persuaded that claims about PA are valid.  Do the  practices of  PA groups resemble those of cults?

The  Wikipedia definition of cults says this: “The term cult usually refers to a social group defined by its religiousspiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. This broad definition would include the Boy Scouts, the Green Party, and the Pennsylvania Association for Infant Mental Health, because of their common interests and goals, and presumably PA advocacy groups also fit here. But most uses of the term imply or say overtly that a group called a cult is potentially harmful in some way, to its members or even to society in general. To match that aspect of the meaning of the term, various checklists of cult characteristics have been offered.

For example, material at, proposes that cults have these characteristics:

·         Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
 No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
 No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
 Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
 There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
 Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
 There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
 Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
 The group/leader is always right.
 The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Here is another checklist of cult characteristics, from (an excerpt from the book "Captive Hearts, Captive minds", by Madeline Tobias and
Janja Lalich adapted from information compiled by Dr. Michael Langone). The introduction to the checklist makes it clear that cults are to be identified when they have many characteristics from this checklist; a small number may be found in non-cult organizations, and an actual cult may not check every box.

                           Checklist of Cult Characteristics

1) The group is focused on a living leader to whom members display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

2) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and/or making money.

3) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged.

4) Mind-numbing techniques (for example: meditation, chanting, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used to suppress members' doubts.

5) The group's leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, or get married;) leaders may determine types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth.

6) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, [its] leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).

7) The group has a polarized we-they mentality that causes conflict with the wider society.

8) The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).

9) The group teaches or implies that its "superior" ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
10) The group's leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control then

11) Members' subservience to the group causes them to give up previous personal goats and interests while devoting inordinate amounts of time to the groups’.

12) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

We can look at a parental alienation advocacy organization and evaluate the number of characteristics it shares with the stated cult characteristics. Some examples can be drawn from the website of the 501 c(3) organization Simply Parent,
Simply Parent invites persons who feel they have been victimized by PA to join a Parent Speak meeting. Here are some questions addressing the appropriateness of such meetings for individuals who may be interested:
 a society free of parental alienation, where good parenting is protected in its diverse genesis, forms and colors
 Do you struggle to recognize yourself in self-help books or common parenting stories?
Have you withdrawn from your support networks because they cannot relate to what you are going through?
Do you feel mocked by others’ responses or advice?
Then, states the website, “ Parent Speak meetings are for you. Completely anonymous, these meetings are by and for parents like you because you deserve to be supported, nurtured and uplifted.”
 At, the website invites interested parents to join the “movement” and its working groups. Acknowledging that people may have different motives for joining, the page answers the question “What’s in it for you?” in several ways. Possible rewards for the joiner may be:

1.      1. Retribution, on behalf of all those whose darkest hour is brought on by biased, archaic, and inhumane systems intended to serve them

2.     2. Network of leading thinkers across research, professional practice, media, policy, and more…

3.      3.Exposure to the cutting edge of a force that will shortly affect millions of people and redefine professions

4.     4.  Influence over an emerging public health and social justice frontier

5.    5.  Kudos—both personal and professional—for not only being on the right side of an emerging movement, but for having the foresight, expertise, and commitment to shape it.

[A note at the bottom of this list again assures readers that they may remain anonymous, though it is not clear how personal kudos is to be enjoyed by anonymous people.]

Without at all wanting to claim that these lists are perfectly accurate or reliable, I want to consider the question of how much do these things overlap--  the cult characteristics or checklist, and the questions and statements of Simply Parent?

Let’s look first at the questions posed to potential members who may feel isolated, mocked, etc. These questions appeal to a we-they polarized mentality that places members in opposition to the wider society. They suggest unreasonable fear about the “outside world”, including the possibility of conspiracies that work against these individuals. It is implied that the group has a special status and mission. These questions alone show that the organization shares some characteristics with cults.

The “what’s in it for you?” section reveals other cult-like characteristics, including an emphasis on adding new members:.

1.     1. “Retribution…”: Again, a we-they polarized view is shown. A special mission of the organization is suggested. The group is not only unaccountable to authority, but planning to take steps that will control and shape outside authority.

2.     2. “Network of leading thinkers…”:  The group is shown as the means of finding truth, is always right, and is the source of absolute authority drawn from credentialed persons who agree with the group.

3.     3. “Exposure…”: The special mission of the group is shown here, with predictions about dramatic social changes to be created in the form of what the website calls a “battle plan”.

4.      4.“Influence…”: Again, there is a special mission in which interested people are invited to take part.

5.    5.  “Kudos…”: A we-they polarized view places members in a superior position to those outside the group and identifies the group as the source of knowledge about the mission and ways to achieve it.

While Simply Parent’s website shows some overlap with identifying characteristics of cults, there are some characteristics that are absent or for which no information is available. For example, it is unknown whether people ever leave the group, what pressures they may find themselves under, or whether there is criticism or punishment for those who go. Nothing suggests that members are confined to socializing with other members (although if they feel isolated and mocked by outsiders, they may tend to do so). Clothing and other everyday concerns do not seem to be issues, although certainly the entire PA concept stresses a single way of handling specific child behaviors and attitudes as the primary focus of the group and the reason for the existence of the organization. Whether group members feel they can behave unethically in order to achieve their goals is not stated, though in my own experience another PA group was willing to use subterfuge in order to have an exhibit booth at a psychology conference. There is no living leader mentioned as an absolute authority on the Simply Parent website, although the PA proponent Craig Childress seems to take this position on his own website, as he claims a complete reformulation of developmental changes in attachment.

The cult characteristics lists that I gave earlier do not mention some items that I see in the Simply Parent material. One is a “come the revolution” approach with goals and promises of changing laws and social attitudes, which is not characteristic of small “end of the world” or “guru” cults, but is seen in larger groups like the Scientologists. A second is a sense of grandiosity, as in claims that millions of people will soon be affected by the work of the organization. A third is the apparent appeal to narcissism, as members are invited to join with persuasive statements about the advantages of the organization for individuals who have been “mocked” but will now attain power and even participate in retribution against those who have rejected them. These two items are of particular interest because PA proponents claim that those they accuse of “campaigns of denigration” are grandiose and narcissistic and will cause the alienated children to develop those problems as well. Whether grandiosity and narcissism are common elements in cult-like organizations is not clear, although certainly such characteristics, if not excessively blatant, would be advantageous for a cult leader, and might well make an organization attractive to those whose own personalities were reflected in that of the leader.

One final comment: the absence of one factor is painfully evident in the Simply Parent material, as far as I can see. This is any statement of concern about the needs of the children whose welfare is the supposed concern of PA advocates. If this is a cult-like organization, it is one whose mission involves “simply” parents and not children.     

Hs lists overlap accompanying exam.

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