I haven’t seen anything written specifically about spiritual abuse and teenagers. This blog will be an attempt to raise the pertinent issues. It is my theory that during the teen years some unique manifestations of spiritual abuse take place. These unique manifestations can have a lasting impact.
Spiritual abuse is about establishing power and control over an individual. All members of a controlling group will be exposed to the same techniques, but the form of the abuse can vary. The primary techniques used are isolation, threats, intimidation, blaming and shaming, sexual abuse and financial abuse. I have written about them here.
Erick Erikson’s theory of development identifies the teen years as a time when the main developmental task is to answer the question, “Who am I?” During this time, they can achieve an identity that allows them to slowly separate from their parents and move toward adulthood, where their next task is to develop intimacy. With proper support the teen will have a strong sense of self and not one of inadequacy.
The teen years are a time to try new things and experiment. The website childdevelopmentinfo.com describes the process this way:
“Erikson believes that during successful early adolescence, mature time perspective is developed; the young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-consciousness and self-doubt. He comes to experiment with different – usually constructive – roles rather than adopting a “negative identity” (such as delinquency). He actually anticipates achievement, and achieves, rather than being “paralyzed” by feelings of inferiority or by an inadequate time perspective. In later adolescence, clear sexual identity – manhood or womanhood – is established. The adolescent seeks leadership (someone to inspire him), and gradually develops a set of ideals (socially congruent and desirable, in the case of the successful adolescent). Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a “psychosocial moratorium,” particularly for middle – and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to “play for keeps,” but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them.[i]
Let’s look at how spiritual abuse can impact how the teen answers, “Who am I?”
Spiritual abuse denies the exploration of larger culture, which can lead to an adult who does not know who he or she is, or worse yet has had it crushed out of him or her. There are constant reminders that things are off limits. I remember my younger friend, who loved the movie Star Wars. He was bullied by church leaders. They tried to kill that spark of delight in him, and he sat depressed in his bedroom, playing Dust in the Wind. It is easy to see how such abuse can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
Spiritual abuse prohibits rites of passage that are developmentally designed to help the child break away from their parents and prepare for adulthood. Team sports, proms, dances, and field trips provide a safe and supervised environment to mingle with others. Friendships are formed and in doing so new beliefs are exposed. Spiritually abusive groups cannot allow this. Their youth are isolated. Their children are pulled in and denied opportunities to learn, ask questions, and even make mistakes. An unintended consequence of being denied is, the teen will sneak. Sneaking can lead to high risk behavior, and at times heavy consequences, like teen pregnancy and addiction. It’s difficult to come away from isolation without feeling ashamed or inadequate about who you are or what you did.
Spiritual abuse inhibits personal dreams and the development of talent. There is no need to dream and develop skills because the life is already prescribed. Instead of awakening to possibilities, there is awareness that the usual things are off limits. There is a grief in watching others head to college and live into their dreams, while inwardly watching your own dreams die. I think of another friend who gave up a college scholarship to go proselytizing. She gave up her education and her talent in photography. Limiting education can condemn the teen to a life time of being a low wage earner, and to the development of depression and suicidal ideation.
Spiritual abuse wrecks healthy sexual development, causing shame about the body and its natural functions. Imagine being a youth who is awakening to the fact that he is gay, and who sits through sermons lambasting homosexuality. But sexual abuse doesn’t start or stop there. Masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, are also highlighted as sinful, and for young women in polygamous groups, there is the dread of knowing her choice in partner will not be her own. There is no proper outlet for sexual development or even learning about sex. Sex is reduced to “that thing you don’t do until your wedding night, and then you can do it all you want.” The person is denied the wonderful ideas of consent and mutual choosing.
For the person caught in spiritual abuse, due to parental choices, two routes through the teen years emerge. Comply and be retained as a group member or break the rules and voluntarily leave (or break the rules and be expelled). Those who choose to stay, may be aware that the religion is not right, but stay out of fear or due to indoctrination. Those who awaken as teens may face parents who try to force compliance. The teen may not yet have an identity other than, that is not for me, and be cast out of the group or the family. Those who are expelled can become homeless while also being ill prepared to make it in the world. They enter society with social and economic deficits.
Healing from these kinds of abuses can take a lifetime, as the former member tries to answer, “Who am I?” It may literally take enrolling in school as an adult, or seeking therapy, to overcome feelings of inadequacy. If you have recently awakened, you may have to experiment to find out what your strengths and desires are. Be patient with yourself as you work to figure out who you are, but also realize that people change and reinvent themselves as they learn and grow.
Look for your biggest qualities. I came up with some like these: I have integrity. I am a seeker. I am honest. I like to help people. The more you can identify about your core qualities, the closer you are to having an identity that no one can shake. What you experienced in your youth is only one thing that helped to write the person you are today. Don’t be discouraged. Your story is still being written.
[i] To read a brief overview of all the developmental stages, please look here. https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/child-development/erickson/#.WM8aWIHyvIU 3/19/2017
When you are suffering in, or have exited a high control group, or have survived a situation of spiritual abuse it can be very disorienting. There may be a loss of community, a crisis of belief, or long term depression. You may feel like you were dropped into a new culture where everything is new, threatening, and different. For all these reasons and more, spiritual abuse can result in trauma. Having an ally can save your life.
In this blog, I will share how I got involved in therapy, how I paid for it, and how I chose a therapist. It’s going to get personal, because mental health is entwined with spiritual health.
I was raised in a high control group. This group regularly spoke out against getting help from mental health professionals. We were taught that they would attack our beliefs and jeopardize our faith. These comments were in writing and in oral instruction.
I was indoctrinated from youth and obeyed the rules. I was striving to be the perfect member of the group. The problem was, I developed an eating disorder. I reached the point where it was get help or die. I chose to get help.
I was poor, uneducated, uninsured, and young. I had to sneak to therapy because I was an active member of the group in good standing, but I did it.
It was before we had the internet, so I looked to the phone book. What I found was a community mental health center. I learned that they could provide services based on my income. This is called a sliding scale. Which meant I could pay a small fee of about $15 a session to get help. When I had no income, it was free.
I asked for a female and when I met her, I explained that I needed help with the eating disorder, but did not want to talk about my religion. If she attacked my religion, I would leave. We worked together for about two years and I successfully recovered.
She referred me to a psychiatrist and he told me that my problems were because of my religion. I told my therapist I would never talk to him again and I didn’t.
What I learned from this first round of therapy was, if you don’t have money, you can still get help. You can set boundaries. You don’t have to stay with someone if you don’t like them. What was most important is, I felt respected, and I learned to like myself (which isn’t really promoted much in a controlling group). She taught me to begin to think and she allowed me to ask questions.
I pursued therapy many times after that, and within 8 years, I had the courage to leave the high control group. Some therapists I liked, others I did not. I fired two therapists who I felt were bossy. I mostly worked with women. I had to teach them about the group so they could discover what issues I need to work through. That was tedious, but staying alive, becoming happy and confident, was worth the discomfort of explaining the dynamics of the group.
In the last few years have I discovered some tools and some issues I wished I had known about earlier. For one thing, people exiting high control groups often have trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and if I had known that was a common side effect of cults, I would have searched for a professional who treats trauma. The website www.journeyfree.org has a three-part article about religious trauma. I directed my therapist to the website and asked her to read. She did and it helped her understand my form of PTSD.
Secondly, I also found Bonnie Zieman’s handout that anyone can print off and give to a therapist. Because Bonnie Zieman is a therapist, this handout speaks the language a therapist will understand.
Thirdly, the internet has good articles on how to pick a therapist including articles that describe different therapeutic modalities. If you imagine you’ll have to lay on a couch, that may not be the case. If you don’t want to dig into your subconscious, tell them. If you want short term, solution focused therapy, let them know. If you want to change how you think, cognitive-based therapy will help. The point is, there are lots of tools and methods available. It’s ok to ask a potential therapist about their experience and education.
Does it matter if your therapist professes your same faith? It may or it may not. But here is one thing to consider, if your experience was spiritual abuse, it may trigger you and hurt you if your therapist suggests you pray about it, forgive, or find a new church. Those suggestions may be premature or you may have no interest in religion ever again. Religious language can be quite triggering.
What matters is, do you feel safe enough to be yourself? Is the therapist kind and experienced? You can get a feel for that in the first few sessions, but you will not get help if you continually to fire people. Therapy requires risk taking. Therapists follow codes of ethics. They are not to impose their will over you; if you wanted that you could go back to your abuser.
Even the best therapist cannot help if you do not do the work. Are you committed to showing up? Will you do the homework? You cannot expect one hour a week to fix trauma. Outside the session, you will also need to take risks and apply what you are learning. The best therapist, or a good enough therapist cannot help if you lie about your circumstances, so be truthful. They may not know about your group, but they will understand depression, low self-esteem, domestic violence, child abuse, betrayal, difficulty making friends, trust issues, etc.
The last thing to know is, therapy is a tool. When you are ready to go solo, talk with your therapist. You can agree that its time to end the relationship. Later if new issues arise, you can seek therapy again.
Therapy literally save my life. I recommend it for anyone who feels depressed, suicidal, isolated, angry, or has any experience that is interfering with daily enjoyment and functioning. Therapy is not the monster that controlling groups make it to be.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255