The Cult of Parenthood: A Qualitative Study of Parental
By Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D.
Cultic Studies Review Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
Forty adults who were alienated from a parent as a child participated
in a qualitative research study about their experience. A content analysis
was conducted on the transcripts [of the audio tapes of the interviews
of adults that participated in the study] and a comparison was
undertaken to identify similarities between alienating parents and cult
leaders. Results revealed that adults whose parents alienated them from
their other parent described the alienating parent much the way former
cult members describe cult leaders. The alienating parents were described
as narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion and loyalty, especially
at the expense of the targeted parent. The alienating parents also were
found to utilize many of the same emotional manipulation and persuasion
techniques cult leaders use to heighten dependency on them. And, finally,
the alienating parents seemed to benefit from the alienation much the way
cult leaders benefit from the cult: they have excessive control, power,
and adulation. Likewise, the participants reported many of the same
negative outcomes that former cult members experience such as low
self-esteem, guilt, depression, and lack of trust in themselves and
others. These findings can provide a useful framework for conceptualizing
the experience of parental alienation and should also be useful for
therapists who provide counseling and treatment to adults who experienced
alienation as a child.
Each year approximately one million couples divorce. Many of these
divorces involve children. Research has consistently shown that children
whose parents divorce suffer emotionally and psychologically, especially
when the divorce is contentious and the children are exposed to ongoing
conflict between their parents (e.g., Amato, 1994; Johnston, 1994,
Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1996; Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). Amato (1994),
building on an earlier meta-analysis of 92 studies, concluded that children
who experienced divorce, compared to samples of children in continuously
intact two-parent families, had higher rates of negative outcomes including
conduct problems, psychological maladjustment, and poorer self-concepts.
Using a qualitative approach, Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) also found
long-term negative consequences of childrens experience of parental
One subset of children of divorce considered most at risk for negative
outcomes are those experiencing ongoing post-divorce conflict (Garrity &
Baris, 1994, Turkat, 2002). The children in these families are at risk of
being subjected to some form of parental alienation in which one parent
turns the child against the other parent through powerful emotional
manipulation techniques designed to bind the child to them at the exclusion
of the other targeted -- parent (Darnall, 1998; Gardner, 1998; Garrity &
Baris, 1994; Warshak, 2001). These alienating parents undermine the
independent thinking skills of their children and cultivate an unhealthy
dependency designed to satisfy the emotional needs of the adult rather than
the developmental needs of the child (Warshak, 2001).
According to Gardner (1998) children can experience three levels of the
parental alienation syndrome: mild, moderate, and severe (although Turkat,
2002 outlined conceptual issues with this scale). Mild cases are
characterized by some parental programming against the targeted parent but
visitation is not seriously affected and the child manages to have a
reasonably healthy relationship with both parents. In cases of moderate
parental alienation there is significant parental programming against the
targeted parent and considerable struggle around visitation. The child often
has difficulty during the transition but eventually adjusts. The child who
is severely alienated is adamant about his or her hatred of the targeted
parent. The child usually refuses any contact and may threaten to run away
if forced to visit. The alienating parent and the child have an unhealthy
alliance based on shared distorted ideas about the targeted parent. When
this happens and the child wholly adopts the views of the alienating parent
and severs all ties with the targeted parent, the child is living in
something akin to a cult, the cult of the alienating parent.
According to West and Langone (1986) a cult (1) is a hierarchical social
group in which there is a leader who requires excessive devotion, (2) has a
leader who uses emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques to heighten
dependency on him or her, and (3) furthers the aims of the leader at the
expense of its members as well as others. Utilizing this definition provides
a useful basis for comparing cults to the characteristics of families in
which parental alienation occurs.
Of course, most families in western cultures are hierarchical social groups.
Power is not evenly distributed among the members of the family. Parents
have legal, physical, moral, and psychological control over their children.
Even parents who respect their childrens individuality and aim to promote
competence and autonomy retain some authority over their children. In some
families, however, parents exploit their inherent authority in order to
alienate the child from the other parent. The focus of the current study was
to determine whether these alienating parents resemble cult leaders; that
is, do they (1) require excessive devotion, (2) use emotional manipulation
techniques to heighten dependency, and (3) garner psychological benefits at
the expense of the well being of the child. This analysis was accomplished
through the current study of interviews with adult who when they were
children were turned against one parent by the other.
The full text of the study
report is available as a PDF file (187kB)
From: John C. Menear
Dear Friends and Parents,
The attached PAS research was just released. It is worthy of a careful read.
It compares PAS parental dysfunction with the dysfunction of a cult leader.
Different than all the other PAS research, it does not rely on the testimony
of children. It relies on mature adults who suffered PAS in their own, long
past upbringing. It has much more validity than the earlier research based
primarily on a child's vulnerable views of their family situation.
The author, Dr. Amy Baker (Psych) has given me permission to distribute it.
I hope you find it of crebible value in understanding the issues you may
JOHN C. MENEAR
Barrister & Solicitor
"Qualitative" studies have important limitations. For one thing, they
involve a selective study sample (self-reporting is a no-no in serious
statistical analyses). The findings of a "qualitative" study may generally
hold true for the study sample examined. Nevertheless, because the sample in
such a study is not selected at random, no valid extrapolations can be made
from the study sample to the population at large.
Feminist social "researchers" have a reputation for using qualitative studies
to promote their misandrist and family-hostile agenda. It is safe to assume
that any qualitative studies produced by feminist have few, if any, redeeming
qualities. Dr. Baker, however, appears to have made no attempt to paint men or
fathers in a bad light in her study report. She identified that five out of the 40
alienating parents in her study were fathers, and that the remaining 35
alienating parents in her study were mothers.
Although that reflects the ratio of non-custodial to custodial parents in the
real world, the study neither sought nor provides proof that women and men are
equally likely to alienate their children against the other parent if given an
opportunity to do so. A study attempting to establish the relative risk of
mothers and fathers to alienate children would have to be based on a randomly
selected study sample, not a self-selective one.
Similar cautions must be used when interpreting the sex ratio of the
participants in the study sample (15 men and 25 women). Under no
circumstances should that sex ratio be taken as evidence that either women are
more likely to be alienated or being more likely to report experiences of
What Dr. Baker's study may accidentally reflect is that children alienated by
either parent are equally likely to come forward and report their being abused
in that manner. Still, unless a randomly chosen study sample is used to
identify and examine the experiences of such children, it is not possible to
prove with a qualitative study that either mothers or fathers are more likely,
or more effective in doing so, to alienate their children against the other parent.
Going by anecdotal evidence of parental alienation (that is not valid
statistical evidence either), it appears that parental alienating of children
is present in many "intact" families. It is even a common practice by many
parents to alienate siblings against one another.
All forms of alienation of children in families no matter whether the
families are "intact" or not fall into the category family violence.
Nevertheless, the full extent of parental alienation in the population can
only be estimated if a proper statistical analysis is done on a randomly
selected population sample. F4L
Note 2007 07 11:
Dr. Baker recently published a book on Parental Alienation:
Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome:
Breaking the Ties that Bind (Norton Professional Book) by Amy
J. L. Baker (Hardcover
- April 15, 2007)
Back to main page for Parental Alienation Syndrome
Posted 2005 04 20
2013 03 08 (removed reference to dvstats.org -- website no longer functions)