Cults and Parental Alienation: A conversation with Steve Hassan

Steven Hassan Click for

You may know that Steven Hassan is a long-standing cult expert having learned about it when he was in the Moonies as a young man.

Steve is energetic and prolific. Read about his BITE model and the Influence Continuum. Watch his videos. Read his books.

You will gain hugely from learning about his story and his approach, even if your interest is in family high control patterns like domestic abuse or Parental Alienation.

A lot in common

Following Amy J Baker‘s lead, you may also know that, here on the alienation experience website, I’ve been pushing that same bridge out across all forms of ‘undue influence’ or ‘coercive control’.  In particular there is that strong overlap between how cults and Parental Alienation function.

Steve and others – eg in the Open Minds Foundation – have taken on this broader view of high control groups and relationships. There aren’t yet many conversations online that focus on this pattern they hold in common.

So I was pleased when Steve reached out in Parental Alienation’s direction too and got us talking.  Watch the YouTube video along with his commentary and links too on his Freedom of Mind blog (56 mins long). Or just click here to watch the video on its own:

I think this shows just how useful Amy’s (and my) idea is to grow the overlap between cults and Parental Alienation. But what do you think?!  Comments welcome below.

By the way, If you want to hear a real story that shows cults and abuse and Parental Alienation all in action together, here’s one of many many examples of how the coercion of a cult covers up and creates the other family coercions. In Nick French’s case, it’s finished off with a double whammy of alienation – being cut off from your loved ones by the cult’s punishment of shunning you for daring to disagree with them and leave.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. Carolyn Milbank

    Thank you to both Steven and Nick. This is a helpful discussion…and it makes me realise how complex these issues are.
    Hope to find the conference you mentioned Nick. Is it in Scotland?


  2. A number of people have responded elsewhere. They’ve agreed to me posting their comments here: First, Michael Denny from Australia:

    I really enjoyed this video of you with Steven Hassan It was so refreshing to hear two specialists in fields that are assumed to be very different however are actually very similar come together to talk about it. I hope that we can get to hear much more of this.

    What would be really fantastic next time is to bring into the discussion someone who was alienated as a child that escaped PA. A great candidate would be: although she is video camera shy.

    I read Dr Warshaks book ‘Divorce Poison’ 2010 edit and enjoyed it immensely. In your video you referred to a story by Dr Warshak in the second edit of ‘Divorce Poison’ where the Targeted Parent was able to get the child to snap out of PA. From what I have learned from people who were alienated as children is that by the Targeted Parent (TP) trying to get them to snap out of it will only push the child away and make it worse in many cases. Warshak seems to believe that children who are alienated are weak and in need of help. I would totally disagree with this.

    Try putting yourself in the shoes of a child in an alienation situation:
    -the Alienator confides in the child that the other parent has ruined their life in some terrible way (usually ended the marriage, took all their money or physically beat them);
    -the child believes the Alienator is weak and needs their help to protect them from the Targeted Parent and the rest of the outside world;
    -the child feels empowered;
    -the Alienator cuts off from contact anyone who does not support the Alienators story line;
    -the child is overwhelmed by people who believe the terrible things the Targeted Parent has allegedly done to the Alienator;
    -the child is told the Targeted Parent hates them with hurtful examples like they wanted them aborted;
    -the child is told the Targeted Parent abandoned them;
    -the Alienator tells the child if they try to go to the Targeted Parent the Alienator will abandon them and they will have no support at all;
    -the Alienator supplies food and shelter pays for special things such as education, sports, hobbies, entertainment, gifts etc;
    -the above drags on for years.
    There would be few children or for that matter adults who could defend themselves against this psychological control.

    Think of it this way. Your trusted neighbour who you have known for a long time tells you that a weird looking old man who lives down the end of the street who wears a trench coat and lives alone is a convicted child molester. I suspect that most people would be reluctant to talk with this person and even fewer willing to listen to anything he has to say. The more he tries to talk to you when you walk past the more it would revive revulsion about what you believe he has done. This parallels what two adults who escaped PA told me.

    Another way to think of it is to picture yourself in a prison cell alone and being beaten by a prison guard with a baton who is twice as big as you. You are weak and in handcuffs. Without other people around, how can you defend yourself ? Yet Warshak and so many others are preaching to help children defend themselves. What we need is education of all the people around the child about the problem:
    -all the relatives:
    -school children friends;
    -sports coaches;
    -mental health professionals;
    -social workers;

    We need lights in the prison with big windows for all the outsiders to look in. Better still, to let the child out of prison. Teaching the child Kung Foo won’t help at all.

    I have met and been in contact with people who have escaped parental Alienation. Most tell me that they escaped PA when they were helped by another person which was usually a romantic partner. Ryan Thomas’s personal experience and many of those he coaches is that Alienated children often escape on account of major life events such as weddings and funerals. Dr Mandy Mathewson from the University of Tasmania has done research about children who escaped PA – however this research has not been freely published.

    It is excellent to hear someone other than me talk about how damaging in child custody cases the terrible concept of ‘where there is smoke there must be fire’ is.

    Thanks again for raising the cult issue in PA. Looking forward to more discussion on this issue.

    Michael Derry

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Michael. I would agree with your critique of the Warshak case that you make in terms of what applies to severe PA. My concern is about a wider range of cases that are still very stressful in other ways and degrees and that make it very difficult to keep relationships going with your children while family courts drag on.

    I would say that people in all kinds of case need to be invited to think freely about their own situation – including may be not just waiting for decades to be found. Steve Hassan’s work, and Ryan Thomas’s too, is about how you can work on ways of connecting that are less likely to repel your efforts.


  4. From a DC/US parent:

    This is an interesting topic. It is absolutely astonishing the cult-like grip that family lawyers and family court operatives can easily possess over distressed parents of minor children, putting them in a trance-
    like state, taking all their money and assets, and causing them to torture and abuse themselves, their spouse, and their own children.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks DC/US parent.

    I have also noted and commented on how many parallels there are between cults and the family legal system – taking in vulnerable distraught isolated clients on trust with little realistic information about where the river heads, warmly signing a contract that can effectively lock you into liquidating your assets and handing the money over, while the promised results of justice and child welfare fade and fade again into the distance or forever (if your money runs out), no complaint system that is going to actually work, etc etc.

    But there’s no clear leader or leading group for this cult-like organisation. There’s no Ron L Hubbard or Rajneesh driving it. The ideology is more woven into the highest fabric and authority of the land, supported by government and by everyone: the law must be good guys, right?! It’s all done within a well-intentioned (so it seems) and completely true assumption that “This is how we do it, this is how everyone does it, it’s the laws of the land, surely they must know what they’re doing, they’re the highest authority – it cannot be wrong to be doing it this way!”

    Steve Hassan is working with top legals to try to find a way to criminalise cults so they can be taken to court. The thought occurs to me that “It takes one to know one”!

    Last thought – I’ve met loads of really nice well meaning family lawyers and family judges. But they’re so brought up within the system / cult, that they cannot see the problem.


  6. Immanuel Yosef wrote from Israel:

    Great idea. No doubt that this horrific child abuse is cult abuse as evidenced by primary differential fact that kids of sexual and physical abusers STILL love them. Which by the way works both ways in PA
    1- hate targeted parent and not in touch with deeply repressed guilt
    2- love alienators to total enmeshment and even when and if they start to get it straight as adults they are so deeply brainwashed that it’s too hard to accept and often only lands slowly and incompletely

    When this parallel is accepted this could provide the legal jurisprudence weight we have lacked to end abuse.


  7. Christine Giancarlo wrote:

    Hi Nick, I think this is an excellent interview…well done! Until PA is understood as a “cult”, I believe legal systems will continue to remedy/direct non-custodial interventions (such as counseling from the alienator’s, usually the custodial parent’s, home) for children subjected to this form of psychological abuse.

    I attended the AFCC (Assoc. of Family and Conciliation Courts) international conference last week in Toronto. Attendees were mostly lawyers, judges and mental health workers from the U.S. and Canada. I heard repeatedly, by attendees and presenters, how parents just need to get along and that PA is most often falsely alleged by the parent who is actually the alienator.

    So … according to these people, alienated parents (claimed mostly by dads) are actually the alienators (/abusers of mostly, moms) and a parent who says s/he is targeted is actually the abuser. Very troubling to see the denial of real PA continuing among these “learned” folks making decisions that fuel child abuse.

    Just my two-cents worth. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this comment, Marilyn.

    I’m sorry to hear that the ideological viewpoint is so strong still in AFCC. I knew that the gendered battle had been waged in AFCC over the years, but hoped there had been some resolution more than you describe.

    It is extraordinary that lay people recognise that a parent can turn a child against the other parent without good reason but so many professionals are set against it. I know how that is: I was one of those professionals once! That’s why I’m making up now for my faulty past career!

    Of course, as everything can be, PA can on occasion itself can be used manipulatively (by either gender) intentionally or because of personality or other mental relationship disturbance. But just because that can happen doesn’t mean it always happens. What is required in every case is a skilled assessment to find out what’s going on, manipulative one way or the other.

    And it is an astonishing idea for a solution to anything to try to rubbish and ban the term for it! “Because I refuse to name it, it doesn’t happen!’ is the fingers in your ears answer to something that challenges your beliefs. Allegations of intimate partner or domestic abuse can also be manipulated and false. But we don’t campaign to ban that category of criminal abuse as a way to pretend it doesn’t happen!


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