How far do you think the skills and knowledge needed by professionals who help victims of non-family forms of Undue Influence (eg cults) – both to escape and to recover – are the same or different to helping the victims of family forms of Undue Influence (eg domestic abuse, parental alienation)?

Nick Child

Dear Nick,

Thank you for your question. One of the realizations I’ve had over my 25 years in this particular field is cult specialists don’t realize that much of the information they have accrued transcends cults and overlaps fairly seamlessly into an understanding of other unhealthy environments, including abusive and controlling relationships, human trafficking and even terrorist recruitment.

When people ask me what I find destructive and dangerous about cults, I often say that it is not necessarily the strange philosophy, theology, or psychology that is taught, believed in, or followed, but rather the amount of undue influence and manipulation that is present, and the uneven and unfair power differential between the person in charge and all others under his or her dominion. It’s the perverse and controlling nature of the relationships involved that I have the biggest issue with.

Cults and Parental Alienation share many identical characteristics. In both situations, the people who are pulling rank work to undercut and undermine people’s trust of others, love towards others, or a bond of any sort with others in order to access ultimate control, and to selfishly feed their own emotional needs and their egos. Most cult leaders will rewrite people’s histories to make them feel that they were lucky to find this cult leader or this group to rescue them from their supposedly awful lives and from the awful people who have only been trying to “abuse and control and manipulate them”. This makes it much easier to break off emotionally from the people outside of the group, becoming dependent upon the leader and the people in the group as your only “safe” connections.

The same happens within Parental Alienation. The nature of the relationship is changed when one parent uses his or her influence to make the child feel unsafe or unloved by the other parent, and that child is therefore robbed of being able to continue having a loving and trusting relationship with the other parent. This is an egregious crime for both child and parent.

Cult specialists who want to be helpful in situations of parental alienation already have a wealth of information about manipulation and undue influence, yet would do well to learn about child development, family systems, and attachment issues in order to be better prepared to help a family in this situation.

Be well,


Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a question about undue influence for Rachel, or a story about Parental Alienation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!


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