In my research on the subject of parental alienation, chapter two from Amy J. L. Baker’s book “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome” hit me in the head like a hammer. It pretty much summed up my ex’s family dynamic in one phrase which happens to be the chapter header: The Cult of Parenthood.

In this chapter, Baker compares an alienating family to a cult, saying “alienating parents behave like cult leaders, and they create families that function in many respects as if they were cults.” She goes on to say that “in some families…parents exploit their inherent authority in order to alienate the child from the other parent.”

To set the stage, my wife and I own a growing franchise business here in the Indianapolis area. By most accounts, it’s a successful, family-owned business that has grown substantially over the last 14 years. Whenever the subject of our business would come up, whether at home or out in public, my daughters would shut down and almost act annoyed that we were talking. They never asked questions, never expressed happiness for us, never even smiled when the subject came up. They would, however, quickly talk about how great their step-dad was, how important his job was, or how he was the “boss” at his work. Each and every time this happened, the rhetoric sounded rehearsed.

Out of full transparency, he manages a Ziebart franchise locally that is owned by his brother.  I’m not saying that he doesn’t have an important job, and there is no argument from me as to how good or bad he is at his job – it’s just odd how children would revere their step-dad in this way on their own (especially given their demeanor to my job). It always sounded like they were repeating the dialogue or chant of their fellow cult followers.

Baker sums up this behavior by saying that “dependency on the leader is created through the promotion of the belief that this person holds a unique and irreplaceable position in the member’s life; the cult leader is experienced as essential for the member’s well-being. Once indoctrination into the cult has occurred, loyalty is maintained through a range of strategies such as inculcating fear of expulsion, breaking down the person’s resistance and independent thinking, and creating a sense of obligation toward the leader.”

Cult leaders, or targeting parents, need to be the focus of attention at all times and work daily to be the emotional center of the child’s life. This certainly happened to my children.

Looking back, and realizing the dynamic of cult families, here are some warning signs you need to be looking for and what to do if you see them:

  1. Children praising your ex/step-spouse: If your children are constantly talking about how “important” or “successful” your ex/step-spouse are, you might want to have a side conversation with your ex about where this is coming from. Nothing against your ex/step-spouse being successful, but when your kids start talking putting them up on a pedestal, be aware this is cult-like activity.
  2. Speaking of your ex/step-spouse in third person: I noticed that my daughters often times said things like “he (their step-dad) is the king of our household” or “we need to do what he says because he takes care of us.” This was cult-like behavior that Baker suggests is part of their targeting language. They instill in your children “hey, you need me to survive” which in turn mitigates the need for me in their lives. A targeting parent wants their children to choose them over you, every time.
  3. Vacations are always “family” vacations: Not mentioned in Baker’s book, but a sure sign that alienation is happening is the need for every vacation to be a “family” vacation by your ex. In other words, the entire family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, all other cult followers) would go on a week-long trip, every year, which would supersede any other work, sports, or extracurricular activities. They could miss sporting events or camps to go on “their” vacations, but somehow my vacation time with them took a back seat to the same activities. It goes without saying that “our” family had to work around everything under the sun to get a week away with our daughters. And while we were away, my ex/step-spouse would text and call them continually.
  4. Perceived fear of the step-spouse: Cult leaders lead by “inculcating fear of expulsion”, so watch for your children saying things like “that makes him angry” or “he gets really mad at us if we don’t do what he says.” When my daughters were about 8-10 years old, they told my mother that one night while she was having them over for a sleep over. I was afraid to ask my ex about it, in fear that it would only make their step-dad mad and he would take it out on my daughters. In hindsight, I should have confronted both my ex and her spouse with it so the message couldn’t get distorted or used against my daughters.