Children growing up in High-Demand Groups (HDG)

(Read this article in Norwegian)

This article is based on lectures given at The Institute For Spiritual Guidance 2008, The Lutheran Church Mission in Oslo 2009, RVTS Vest 2012, Norwegian Minstry of Children, Equality and Social Inclution  2012 and The Norwegian Humaist Assosiation 2012.


HDG stands for "High- Demand Groups", and is a term used by Furnari (2005). To be more specific, it is about religious movements that have great ambitions and expectations concerning their members importance as God's answer and solution to the world's problems, and as a result of this have specific aims in influencing their members in a certain direction.



During the last 30 years I have met a number of adults with mental problems, who have grown up within the framework of religious groups and I have felt that there has been a correlation between their psychological problems and particular traits within the religious movement. Of course, in relation to childhood development "suspicions" like this do not prove anything. Unfortunately there are very few empirical studies of these groups in relation to childhood development. However there is one example, though not of recent time, Gaines and others (1984) carried out a study of 70 former members of the so called "cults", in order to evaluate the effect of membership in relation to their health, and that of their children. The following observations are those of ex-members in relation to their children:

  • 27% stated that their children were not vaccinated against children's diseases
  • 23 % stated that their children got less than 8 hours of sleep per night
  • 60% stated that they advocated physical punishment
  • 13% stated that physical punishment was used  "to teach them a lesson "
  • 13% stated that chastising could be menacing or threatening enough to need medical attention
  • 61% stated that families were encouraged to live together and share responsibility

Therefore, due to the lack of good empiricism, I base this article on more indirect information: (1) My own clinical observations from conversations with members and ex-members, (2) my own personal experience between 1970 and 1977 being a member of a then HDG ("The Navigators"), (3) various studies of the actual content of these movements and what they stand for, and (4) information gleaned from a number of experts who have also been interested in this subject matter. However I wish to emphasize that this presentation does not intend to give a broad description of how it is to grow up in these groups. One must also keep in mind that there are many positive and sound aspects connected with growing up in such surroundings. The focus here is on the "potential problem” side that can result in a child's psychological difficulty.


Personality development in childhood and adolescence

It is easier to understand the problems involved in growing up in a religious environment, when we consider the stages of personal development in general and the various needs that children experience in the course of their formative years. Therefore I will try to elucidate by giving a description of these stages:

The following are tantamount to the positive development of the child

  1. To feel closely bound to and a part of the existence of the closest contact (usually the mother), in order to gradually become “independent" from the said person and find one owns identity. The basic conditions for this relationship to exist, is that the child has adults nearby who are sensitive to the needs of the child and that they satisfy those needs in a satisfactory way and are physically and emotionally stable in their caring.
  2. To be appreciated, loved, and valued for who you are, regardless of one's opinion or other qualities.
  3. A gradual transition from "outer control" to "inner control".
  4. Behavioral change as a result of good role models and good upbringing.
  5. Personal development and a decent basis for one's viewpoints, values, and philosophy.
  6. Development of a social conscience and the ability to meet different people and new environments. 
  7. Challenges and accomplishments through group participation and games.
  8. Stability and security with regard to adults ( a slight digression: Studies seem to indicate that about 20% of pupils in The Norwegian School System have psychological problems due to the fact that their relationships with the  adults they grew up with have been for shorter periods and /or  of a superficial nature).

Simultaneously we are well aware of the fact that children express different needs at different stages in their development, though some are more obvious depending on age:


1-2 years old:

  • Primary emphasis on physical needs
  • Emphasis on emotional needs
  • Basic need for security and trust
  • Experience a feeling of belonging
  • Identity confirmation
  • Contact with peers
  • A need for stability and consistency in adults
  • A need for a stable environment


3-6 years old:

  • Developing the need to control impulses and desires
  • Help with channeling the need to assert oneself
  • Good role models encourage acceptable behavior and discourage that which is unacceptable
  • Development of social skills and the ability to feel empathy
  • Interaction, enjoyment, and pleasure in contact with other children


7-12 years old:

  • Greater assertiveness and social ability
  • Widening the scope for pleasure
  • Developing independence and initiative


13-16 years old:

  • Sexual awareness
  • Budding romantic feelings
  • Balancing independence and dependence
  • Awareness of social mores
  • Controlling rebellion towards parents
  • Consciousness of adult roles and behavior
  • Finding one's place in society in reference to position, status, and role
  • A positive self image
  • Self awareness and the ability to view oneself objectively


There is one particular group of religious activity that has captured my interest, specifically those with great ambitions, expectations and demands in relationship to membership being  "God's answer" and a "part of the solution" to the world's problems, and therefore have the set goal of influencing children in a specific direction concerning their personality development, social contacts, and moral thinking. At the same time these movements are "sheltered" in so far as they to a great degree control and limit external influences. But where are our definitions? Religious sects? Cults? Religious communities? Closed religious societies? Religious elite groups? Authoritarian, totalitarian, fundamentalistic, and/or new religious movements?. I don't find any of these definitions particularly good.  The term I find the most comprehensive and the one I employ is "High-Demand Group" (HDG) a term which was used by Furnari (2005).

As I continue I wish to focus on the following:

  1. How does a child experience growing up in a religious HDG?
  2. Aspects which can be perceived as somewhat less dramatic and what might be considered mal treatment.
  3. These groups which exist somewhere between ”destructive sects” and ordinary religious movements.   However I wish to emphasize that what I describe here are traits which in principle may be found in all religious movements, though they seem to be more prevalent in HDG.
  4. Existing problems in this type of child rearing.

The reason for me to focus on the "problematical sides" doesn't mean that I am, in general, negative to people being attracted to such communities. The main reason is that these groups are mainly concerned with the positive side of their activity, both internally and externally, without them being consciously aware of the effects this may have.  My intention is to create a balance here so that it is possible to objectively understand both sides of the movement. I also wish to present a short summary of what I feel to be the positive aspects involved:

  • In general: Satisfaction gained emotionally, socially, and intellectually in partaking in something which feels meaningful, plus a feeling of accomplishment.
  • A constant feedback that what one believes is true and proper.
  • One experiences pleasure and enjoyment.
  • One feels assimilated
  • One has an important role “now that the end is near".
  • After death God's heaven awaits us.
  • One has found the true faith.
  • One is no longer a part of the “problem", but a part of the "solution".
  • One experiences pleasure in seeing others also becoming members.
  • Discussions with those "doubters" (most of them do an about face) confirms that what one believes is both true and proper.
  • One lives within a framework that offers security, education, and advice.
  • One is protected from those who create dissension in the group.

Regardless of the fact that various aspects of HDG may be positive or negative, a number of problems exist. That which is interpreted as "positive" or "negative"/problematical depends on where we stand, for example, do we interpret issues from the "inside" as a participant, or objectively as one "outside". Of course this depends on our own ideological convictions how we interpret negative and positive aspects. Certain convictions can be based on:

  • If that which is preached as right or wrong is based on holy scripture.
  • Whether membership is voluntary or not (due to "manipulation", “persuasion", or "brain washing"), and to what degree the members themselves believe in what the movement stands for.
  • If the members experience well-being, or its absence, as a consequence of their membership.
  • If that which is being proselytized is in accordance with the UN's Charter for Human Rights.
  • If that which is preached is in accordance with a humanistic viewpoint, as illustrated by the statues of the Norwegian Humanistic Association. 

As human beings we are quite different in what we refer to. And our value system changes over time. Had I been asked about this 35 years ago, I would most likely have referred to point 1. Now I think the last three statements are more in accordance with my views, and it is from these last three points that I evaluate the positive sides of growing up in HDG.


Basic attitudes are more important than consideration for the children

The ambition of the movement is to realize its goals through its membership, both adults and children. Even though nurturing is both practiced and discussed within the organization the goals and vision are primary. That means that should the well being of the participants come into conflict with the goal of the particular movement,  there is no question of what comes first, even at the expense of the younger members. One example of this is when children are separated from their parents due to the fact that the organization expects the parents to follow a special missionary call, and that this service is justified by the Bible (or other religious scripture).

Philosophy in these movements is produced by "its Leaders" and passed down to other believers.

Spiritual insight, revision of spiritual knowledge and behaviour norms are interpreted by the leaders, and minimally from the lower levels or from the outside. This is especially the case where this knowledge is necessary for the congregations’ autonomy, identity, and future development.

Great ambitions

One is expected to carry out "important things", be an integral part of God's plan and through this particular environment expect great results. These are attitudes that experts would consider "grandiose" (delusions of grandeur) and perhaps something that for certain individuals can be a part of psychological problems/ personality disturbances.

One doesn't question the basic tenets of the movement

The basis for the entire involvement in the group is a "revelation" or a "calling/sign“ legetimized in the Bible or other religious books. To question the validity of these references and to question the authenticity, just isn't done. To consider other interpretations or explanations is not on the agenda. Variation in thought is explained by misunderstandings, organizational problems, economic difficulties, unfaithful members, unwise individuals, or that the whole problem was due to an unfortunate incident. Children, or other members, who venture “critical questions" have low status, and must expect to be neglected, accused of wrong thinking, or more directly be actively opposed.


Authoritarian methods

Parents establish their authority by demonstrating it as early as possible when the child has different needs, for example by neglecting a newborn baby who cries due to hunger, when it will be fed.

  • The upbringing of th child  will focus on obligation, subservience, obedience, self-denial, and the ability to love others by denying one’s own needs. Th child / adolescent can also experience threats of God’s wrath, perdition, exclusion and isolation, if one isn’t strongly motivated or committed, not strong enough in their beliefs, “lukewarm”, etc. Threats like this are often conveyed through “cause and effect “, and often based upon the reasoning “for your own good “, or consideration for others (family, the movement’s good name and reputation etc.)
  • There is strong emphasis on the fact that the goals of  the members of the movement also include the child. Stringency like this can be related to behavior, interests, even appearance.
  • Adult contact with the child is seen first and foremost as strategic planning and not as something basically valued from a humanistic point of view.
  • There is little interest in any evaluation of the true feelings of the child as long as they show no negative reactions.
  • The leaders decide the tempo for a child’s development, and this is coordinated with the other children, in other words tandem development.

Negative focus

The dominant perspective for children’s development and upbringing is not the building good relationships and mutual respect, and the long term intention is not independence and realization of the child's potential. In contrast, the intention is affirmation of ethical principles and the viewpoint that the child is a sinful being, an opponent, a “fighter”, one who is greatly influenced by “worldly things  “and /or someone who is unwilling to follow the tenets of the movement. In order to attain the intended goals it is necessary to treat the child in the following manner:

  • Clear and early demands for (and expectations) of total commitment, obedience, intended goals, and loyalty.
  • Theoretical instruction on “right“ and “wrong” behavior-focusing on the cognitive sphere of child development.
  • Focus on the reactions of negative behavior, rather than affirmation of positive behavior.
  • Avoid “spoiling” a child with love. To quote a father: “One mustn’t give him too much love; it can go to his head.”
  • The focus on learning through negative experience (for example expressions like “see what happened, I told you so“) instead of learning through a positive feedback.

“Christian upbringing”

In the USA there are varied viewpoints among “Christian experts” concerning what the basis is for a “good Christian upbringing”. One extreme viewpoint is viewing the child as basically a “rebel” to be met with a framework of clear limitations. An exponent of this is Dr. James Dobson (psychologist) who presents this theory in the books “Dare to Discipline” (1970) and The Strong Willed Child “(1978).

His five basis principles for parenting are as follows (1970 p. 23 -49)

  1. “Developing respect for the parents is the critical factor in child management”
  2. ”The best opportunity to communicate often occurs after punishment “.
  3. “Control without nagging“ (It is possible).
  4. “Don’t saturate the child with excessive materialism”.
  5. “Avoid extremes in control and love”.

And as far as physical punishment is concerned he says (1978):

Corporal punishment should occur only in response to deliberate disobedience or defiance (page 71)

The following are further quotes from Dobson (1970):

It is most important that a child respect his parents, not for the purpose of satisfying their egos, but because the child’s relationship with his parents provides the basis for his attitude towards all other people. His view of parental authority becomes the cornerstone of his later outlook on school authority, police and law, the people with whom he will eventually live and work, and for society in general (p. 25).

The spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely. After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumble to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him, and how important he is to you. You can explain why he was punished and how he can avoid the difficulty next time. Kind of communication is not made possible by other disciplinary measures…. (p. 35).

In the book “Happy Families” (Jean Watson,1983, p. 42-43), further refers to Dobson: “Many parents smack with their hands, but James Dobson’s point of view is worth considering here. He believes the hand should always be seen as an object of love, and therefore advocates using some other suitable object. After the punishment, a cuddle is in order (in no way to be seen as an apology for punishment rightly administered) so that harmony can be restored and the matter forgotten.

In contrast to this is Ross Campbell (child psychiatrist) who states in the books “Do you love me?) (last published in 2007), “ Do  you still love me?” (last published in 2009) and “ Do you know me?” (last published in 1986)  presents a completely different viewpoint, namely that the child’s most basic need is to be secure in the love of his peers, and that discipline is meted out with the child’s full knowledge of this  and will be continually assured of his parents love through physical contact, eye contact, and undivided attention.

The following are some quotes from, “Do you know me?”

  1. “To force a child  will create anger, and an angry child will rebel against authority” (page 28)
  2. “The worst way to control a child is through a feeling of guilt “ (page 57)
  3. “ There are hundreds of verses in the Bible telling us to be understanding, empathetic, considerate and forgiving” (page 109)

These quotations should speak for themselves: But I wish to comment on Dobson: If parents have brought up their child to rebel against them (and then I am not considering the normal rebellion for teenagers) then it is first and foremost the parents who need help, and not the child who is being punished due to parental failure.

In 1982 I partook in a “family outing“ here in Norway sponsored by The Navigators. From one of the lectures given there I wish to quote the following:


A. Basic ideas

  • God is the foundation of the home and the Bible is His holy word which we always respect.
  • The roles of the mother and father and their relationship is ordained by God’s word.
  • The behavior expected of children (obedience and respect) is based on God’s word, Jer.65, 1-2. Even small children can be hurt by an atmosphere of insecurity and reticence instead of clarity and order.

B. Clarity and order provide the basis for:

  • Love and acceptance (Rom. 15. 7)
  • Candor ( John 1.7)
  • Forgiveness ( James 5.16 )
  • Joy (and humor ) Jos. 29,19

C. The home, a place for the development of the whole individual (physically, mentally, and spiritually)


From my point of view these viewpoints are more compatible with James Dobson rather than Ross Campbell. It must also be kept in mind that the speaker later moderated his viewpoints, especially in relation to “ Order and clarity provide the basis for love and acceptance “, but it was also expected that, at that time, “ The Navigators” members should adhere to the principles.

And now:

Gary Ezzo, who is now the leader for “ Growing Families International “, presents views that, as far as I can see, could be destructive for parenting should they be followed. His theories are stated in the book, “The Baby Guide“, though in an abridged version, compared to the original American edition.

The following are some of Gary Ezzo’s statements that experts in the USA have criticized him for:

  1. Infants are manipulating and tend to stretch their boundaries.
  2. Parental consideration always precedes consideration for the child.
  3. Infants must be taught from the very beginning that they aren’t “the center of the universe”.
  4. To satisfy the basic needs expressed by infants causes negative development in them.
  5. Parents must exercise caution when showing too much love and attention to their offspring in order to avoid too great a dependence on the parents.
  6. There is no harm in permitting infants to cry over an extended period of time.
  7. It is the adults who decide when a baby should be nursed without taking into consideration the needs of the child. If a mother picks up an infant each time it cries, the child learns that its food and not the mother that gives satisfaction.
  8. Conflicting signals—for example letting an infant of two months cry for an hour in contrast to giving the child comfort and love.
  9. Physical punishment for disobedience or “protest “ towards the parents (for example thumb sucking past the age of 2 is defined as disobedience and rebellion).
  10. A consistent denial of  “the theory of bonding “
  11. Only two choices: My method or chaos.
  12. Parents who stray in their thinking are considered irresponsible.
  13. Constant use of of shame and guilt from adults.
  14. A “we-them“ attitude
  15. Criticism of other theorists accusing them of “undocumented statements", but can voice the very same statements.
  16. Expressing doubts or questioning authority is against God.

In the USA experience shows that many children, whose parents have used the principles of Ezzo, show general dissatisfaction (Failure To Thrive Syndrome), and many show signs of inhibition, insecurity, and a lack of ability to relate positively to other people.

Further information on Ezzo see: 

In my opinion there are similarities between such destructive patterns of upbringing in connection with religion and that which is discussed in books like, "A Child’s Battle With Adults" and the so-called "quarrelsome children". One can also observe certain parallels to "Black Education" (Miller 1980).

The theme that appears in all of these publications is the focus on “the struggle“ and that the adults must have control over their children.

Physical punishment

There can be many reasons for using physical punishment in the HDG. Here are some examples:

  • Physical punishment is well suited in a society that is authoritarian, the necessity to illustrate “who is right”,  and the viewpoint that the child is in opposition
  • One doesn’t take the chance of letting the child develop at its own pace, but uses physical punishment which results in immediate results, instead of thinking of context, understanding and personal motivation
  • Members in HDG can be so busy that they use upbringing methods that require a minimum of time and thought.
  • Physical punishment is justified by referring to holy scriptures.
  • Those who use corporal punishment have experienced the same treatment in their own childhood
  • Physical punishment can be an effective way of insuring conformity.

The following material is recommended for those who feel that physical punishment is unavoidable:

“20 alternatives to punishment“: /

In contrast to destructive parenting, and to get a clearer perspective on the issue in general I recommend reading what Magne Raundalen has written (2009)

Great demands and expectations

HDG have great demands and expectations for the children who grow up within their framework, in relation to perfection, subservience and piousness, and take it for granted that children during their formative years feel privileged in being allowed to be part of such a community. Children in HDG often develop a feeling of pressure for achievement, chronic stress, and a feeling of inferiority due  to not being able to live up to the high expectations of the movement. Some react with a constant feeling of struggling, of failure, guilt, confusion and renewed efforts. A feeling of independence isn’t very likely if one is met with the attitude thatyou have betrayed us in your way of behaving, but you betray us even more if you leave us, and it is only our love for you that permits you to be one of us. To continue to feel inferior, resigned and depressed will be the result over a period of time. It is also worth noting that children exposed to this growth pattern in HDG have a tendency to gravitate towards extremes - either delusions of grandeur because one is “God’s gift to the world “or the opposite, a feeling of inferiority. Then again others may vacillate between these two extremes.

Demands for early self control

The requirements state that children should be toilet trained early, behave well, look nice, speak correctly, etc. at a stage of development when they do not have the necessary maturity to meet these demands. One of the classic theories of psychology states that practicing toilet training too early may result in a personality showing protest, opposition and strong will.

Special methods for moral upbringing

A focus on rapid and superficial learning of ethics and morals, for example by using

  • reprimands
  • superficial agreement (yes, we agree on that...)
  • theorizing
  • superficial examples (and then the naughty boy decided he would be good towards his mother and father---what can we learn from this ?)
  • an appeal to one’s conscience, or a feeling of guilt and  shame which hasn’t yet been manifested

Now Jesus will be unhappy

As an example of the latter statement, I quote from the journal “Youth and Our Times” (5/1966), published by The Norwegian Lutheran Missionary Society , pages 8-10, written by Bjørg Aasen, where the subject is, “ Do you cheat ?” She states among other things:

Cheating has been compared to bacteria—something which influences personality development. Bacteria are so small that we hardly notice them, but they are far from innocent. They reproduce rapidly, and quickly invade new cells. This is parallel to what happens to the virus we call cheating. The first little faulty step seems so innocent, in fact you hardly notice it. You forget how quickly bacteria reproduce if they aren’t stopped. Then one day you find out that you’ve become an accomplished cheat. You “forget” to pay back the ten dollars you borrowed yesterday.  You “really” have a headache and must skip school or work today. At this point the illness is becoming serious, because it affected the finest and most important parts of your mind. Not only is your personality in trouble, but even worse your soul. “ If we say we have contact with Him and wander in darkness, we lie and are not truthful”.   (1. John. 1,6 ). You are considered a member of the flock as God’s child, but you don’t walk in the light.  You have become a cheat, also in your relationship with God. That small evil temptation that we are unable to resist can lead us there.

“Everything “becomes spiritual

  • ”Everything” is placed in God’s hands instead of using your own thoughts and taking responsibility for your own actions.  Dear God, give me the strength to get out of bed.
  • Focus on the good signs that one is a part of God’s plan/ that one is chosen/ that one has a close relationship with God.
  • To think for yourself, to be an “ordinary person”, and to make random choices is seen as negative. God is drawn into everything and all things relate to Him.
  • All important decisions are based on the confirmation that  this is the will of God.
  • Negative behavior and adolescent protest towards parents typical of the teenager and a natural part of growing up is frowned upon. This also applies to other forms of criticism from the child which is directed towards the adult world.


Uncritical involvement in the adult world

  • The child becomes involved in the visionary aspects as soon as possible: God’s chosen people, missionary work, etc.
  • The child is held responsible for success or failure in the movement.
  • At an early stage the child is made responsible for others becoming members / not becoming members.
  • The child is “used as an example “as to how spiritual, capable, and successful the parents are.” Unsuccessful “children are, in contrast, informed that they are “a disgrace to the family”.


Splitting the family

The movement can espouse the idea of close family ties. But in practice it can advocate pseudofamilies in which case the “real“ family is the movement and its leaders.  This is necessary in order to create stability in the congregation, which cannot exist in a close family that doesn’t permit a certain amount of insight and control. Leaders can consider themselves as “your spiritual father/mother etc. Children can be encouraged to protest against their parents should they be exposed to official ridicule. They can also be encouraged to show greater loyalty to the leaders and minimize their own emotional relationship to their parents by describing them as immature, weak, disobedient, etc. One can also plan activity that will limit the amount of time children spend with their parents, or to keep the parents so occupied that they “ haven’t the energy” to spend time with their children, thereby giving the green light to the leaders’ right to bring up the children. Parents can also bequeath so much money to the movement that it limits their contact with their children, especially in relation to activities that cost money.

Parents and other peers who are important in children’s lives can also experience uncertainty due to the fact that they themselves aren’t in control of their own activities. The leaders decide which changes are to be made, and members get short notice of these changes (“keep your hearts open and your bags packed “). Such changes may be concerned with new tasks involving periods of absence. Another unexpected change can for example be that the adults have suddenly lost status because one has sinned and must atone for this and is sort of “knocked down” (back to the starting point).  When adult lives face uncertainty, insecurity is the result for the children. One way for the child to “survive” in this is to distance oneself  by for example behaving like a robot in relation to one’s parents and other people.  This behavior is very obvious in situations where the parents also have become asocial. This same tendency is observable in those who have relocated a number of times due to the adults involved, and who find little value in close friendships because the pain of likely separation is too great.

This kind of skepticism in relation to making friends with other people can be something one feels even in adult age.


Contrasting and schizophrenic signals

  • Love is expressed by demands.
  • One shows gentleness, friendliness, hospitality, respect, understanding, open-mindedness, but in reality one is firm, uncompromising and governed by one’s convictions and standard answers and solutions.
  • One speaks about God’s love, but at the same time threatens with Hell and Damnation. And one talks of a loving God who gives us love and stability and who understands our situation, at the same time stating that sinful actions can lead to damnation, for example should one be so “unfortunate”  as not to ask for forgiveness for one’s sins before dying in a car accident.
  • One creates a feeling of expectation that the child sometimes in the future will experience “complete love”, without this happening.
  • Expressing love verbally, but not through physical contact, eye contact, or showing respect and consideration in everyday life.
  • One is brought up to help and support each other, but also to betrayal.
  • One expects loyalty and confidence toward the leadership and at the same time (and without warning) be met with criticism and demands. From the authorities’ side this can occasionally appear as “conscious spontaneity” because one assumes that the child is not “on the defensive “and therefore easier to sway. But in the long run the effect can result in a personality always in agreement with others or always doing what one feels others expect, or anxiety for being unprepared or “ taken by surprise “ ("one must always be prepared").
  • The child is encouraged to have a ""friendly" attitud to the “world “, but at the same time to see it as an enemy. And one should socialize with other children, but in reality not accept them as true friends, but as potential evangelizing objects.
  • The child must, in certain cases, make choices he isn’t mature enough to make ( for example , a commitment to the movement’s visions) but on the other hand hampered in making choices  he is mature enough for ( for example the ability to choose a friend  or to think independently).
  • One ends up in crossfire between parents who have diverging opinions about being “a follower” and conflicting demands for membership.
  • ”Trust“ is presented as something you can demand and not something you give of your own free will (“you must trust us “).
  • One gives the impression of taking complete responsibility for the child’s development, but in reality shows a lack of competence in this area.
  • One states that the child’s needs are the focal point, but in reality concentrates on the movement’s interpretations and solutions, for example the expression “ don’t look at yourself, look at Jesus “. Studies show that children under the age of a year and a half to a great degree have to feel that adults can meet the child with a common focus, in other words that which is essential to the child is also essential to the adult. This can be of the utmost importance for the child to understand other people’s thoughts, intentions and emotions, the conviction that one is understood and at the same time understand that others may think differently than oneself (Smith, 2010). A lack of competence in this area can have serious social consequences, such as seen in handicapped children with for example Infantile Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (but where the cause is not connected to childhood development). The severity of this problem in HDG is difficult to ascertain.  My assumption is that the problem is relatively small in infants, but becomes more distinct as the child grows older and is exposed to the views and focus of the group. “The final result “can be a person without the ability to understand, or have an interest in other people’s thoughts, intentions and emotions, even if the child was “nurtured “as an infant.

As an example of how it can be to grow up in a family with conflicting signals, I wish to quote the following from the book “Just me…a dissociative disturbance “by Inger Eggen (2008): “The book is about a little girl who appears just fine. Her parents express their love for her and often remind her of how lucky she is to have such a good life. At the same time we get a glimpse of what is happening on the inside—with a father who really sees her and simultaneously abuses her sexually, a brother who is physically violent, and a mother who keeps her distance from everything.”

Another example is the following:

The book “Psychosocial treatment of psychosis “(Borchrevink, and others 1999) refers to a psychosis study at the “State Center For Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (chap. 2-When reality becomes unreal—about stress and vulnerability in psychotic youth):

There is definite an over-representation in our observation of families with a diffuse life style. It can be concerned with philosophical, religious or personal convictions that constantly  can erupt in conflict between parents, or between the family and society (for example school norms). This kind of interaction can cause a warped picture in the adolescent mind. Examples here are: Christian congregations, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, revivalist groups, Smith’s Friends, and the Rudolf Steiner school movement. To elaborate: Continuing ambiguous lifestyle can seem confusing and psychotic, especially in families where lifestyle is closely associated with the parents need for strong support.



If one considers the distinctive aspects of an HDG, what can be the long term consequences?

There is no simple answer to this. A HDG has its own version of the results, and states that it can document this in many ways. But the issue isn’t quite that simple. The results aren’t always those which were intended, and it isn’t certain that the HDG is aware of possible negative consequences.

Negative consequences of regulation

There are many methods that HDG can employ to ensure that children will fulfill the movement’s goals. One way of doing this is to have a fairly extensive set of rules, provisions, laws and norms which may be conveyed implicitly or explicitly ( “ all members must…”) The advantage of such a system is  “keep the boys in line” and that HDG presents itself as a well structured and predictable movement, something which is of the utmost importance for those who have been drawn into such a movement and who have a background characterized by an absence of consistency ( for example a chaotic, unstable, confusing adolescence), and therefore  have a strong need for the feeling of security this type of structure can provide. But growing up in a HDG also has other negative aspects: Children have to experience that to relate to other people doesn’t first and foremost concern rules, but rather spontaneity, genuineness, and improvisation, and spontaneous experiences.  An example of how important this is in the relationship between parents and children:  If a child grows up in a home where human relationships are governed by rules, the question can arise: Are my parents only conveyors of rules, who are they really, do they really love me, or are their actions based on just following the rules and carrying out a “correct“ upbringing? Another example concerns children in their interplay with other children: If child’s play is too full of rules one risks missing the point that child’s play has a deeper value (for example companionship, mutual pleasure, spontaneity, comradeship and contact). The child can risk growing up with few positive memories of genuine gladness in relation to other people. For some children this can be a kind of sorrow they will always live with: I never experienced really having fun as a child. Grownups always stated how we should behave. Others may deny or repress this feeling of sorrow, at the same time the system can be self perpetuating and affect the next generation, because this is the system which is familiar. This makes it natural for them as an adult to remain in HDG, a fact that HDG are very satisfied with and with which they can conclude that they have done the right thing. But a person’s ability to relate to other people in a spontaneous and sincere way is lost in the process.  Should there still be some difficulty in seeing the point I wish to make may I present the following illustration: “Rules and regulations for having a correct sexual intercourse between man and wife.” Where is the room for pleasure and spontaneity?   I must also comment on the fact that no HDG gives out books with such a title. The title would most likely be “The Perfect Marriage“, “Living Together with God’s Blessing “, “The God- given Sexual Relationship“, “Give Your All to Your Mate “, "honour God in loving your wif"and so on. But a closer look will in reveal a focus on rules and regulations, or present spontaneity as a theoretical principle, but at the same time contradict such an advice, due to the focus on rule management.


One displays knowledge in areas where no real competence exists.

One of the basic assumptions that can be found in HDG is the following:  Because one is chosen by God, one has knowledge and wisdom in other fields than purely the spiritual. This of course includes the field of bringing up children.  This is often due to a leader who has apparently had success with his own children, and because of this can present his “spiritual principles for child rearing”, usually supported by Bible verses or other spiritual references, and therefore expect everyone to use them,. Examples of these "truths" can be the following:

  1. Discipline is a pre-condition for love.
  2. Children who are disobedient show themselves to be in opposition to their parents and therefore should be physically punished.
  3. Parents must always be an example, by being spiritually strong and never show weakness in front of their children.
  4. By renouncing and denying temptation one is assured of a good spiritual life.
  5. Children learn more by being taught then by finding out for themselves.

Such “wisdom “related to bringing up children has, in my opinion, inflicted sorrow and suffering on many children in HDG. However, there are also comical examples of such “wisdom”. Here is an example not related to child rearing. During the seventies I myself was a participant in a charismatic summer camp in Norway. The lecturer stated the following: “All dogs are possessed of evil spirits “, and must therefore never be considered a family member. And the explanation was as follows: “When dad comes home from work, who is the first one to greet him?”  Yes, exactly, the family dog, and not his wife. In this way the dog comes “between“ husband and wife. And since it’s the Devil’s intention to cause dissention among people, it’s obvious that the Devil is behind dogs interferring between family members!” As an afterthought it occurred to me that the speaker probably was familiar with one or more examples in which the woman of the house might have complained that “he greets the dog first!”, and with this reasoning as a starting point concluded  with a ”spiritual truth”. This example is, however, more than just an amusing anecdote: What happens to a child who grows up with the conviction that all dogs are possessed of evil spirits?

Another example concerns suicide: My impression is that when members of HDG commit suicide, the usual reaction from the leaders is that he (she) failed us, he has sinned against God, he thought only of himself , or other explanations placing the entire blame on the individual involved. At the same time other explanations will be toned down, minimized or denied – for example mental problems, conflicts with other people, family difficulties, loneliness, an urgent need to be "seen"or existing problems within the movement itself.


The child becomes isolated or limited concerning important factors in personality development.

This may be related to participation in games, recreation, spontaneity, sexual development, the need for peace and quiet, interaction with other children, and contact with other children who think “differently”.


The child is frightened and develop anxiety

In HDG it is relatively common to focus on "man's sinful nature and the inner rottenness," the negative consequences of disobedience, hell and that "Jesus becomes dissapointed". And here one make no difference between adults and children, even if one argues that one should not frighten the child. This is legetimized in different ways:

  • Children should, as adults, get the "full package".
  • They will learn more about the good aspects of obedience.
  • The Bible teaches that man must first be humiliated, "crushed" etc. before he becames receptive to the message of salvation.

But that such propaganda of horror can result in lasting, and sometimes serious, mental problems for a young child, is not necessary in the mind of the HDG.


Reduced or absent social competence

  • The absence of experience in different social situations which results in anxiety in relation to leaving the movement.
  • Categorizing and excluding social groups “we –them”.
  • One becomes “marginal”, exists “outside “and communicates in patent phrases.


Development of a “passive-dependent“ personality

  • Live through others/self-denial—pseudo personality
  • Causes and solutions are beyond me


Development of a narcissistic personality

  • The child is praised or given attention, usually when it does, or says, something that is “correct”.
  • Belonging to the movement becomes the basis for the childs identity.
  • A lifelong pursuit for the good experience.
  • What’s new is what counts. The older generation’s experience is uninteresting or dangerous
  • Creating an impression that one day the child shall become “prophet like”
  • In reality parents avoid close contact with the child.
  • One prepares for a “propelled spiritual life “. Relaxation= laziness = sin
  • Close family relationships are absent or strongly reduced. It is the relationship to the movement that counts.

The development of personality disturbances and psychiatric affliction

Children who do not experience unreserved love, emotional stability, close physical contact, dependability, and confirmation will normally show stress. Over an extended period of time this may cause more serious personality disturbances. Because: Parental contact tells the child about his (her) place in the world..From this vantage point the child will conduct himself according to these surroundings and develop a number of defense mechanisms and survival strategies, for example being “hard”, somewhat suspicious of other people, and be prepared for any challenging situation by exerting control over other people so as not to be controlled himself. In an attempt to relive his lost childhood the child will develop a strong need to be “seen”, to be the focal point, and be admired by other people. Since the surroundings will normally consist of people with another frame of reference than the child himself, the world around him will not satisfy his needs, the ground is laid for conflicts, misunderstandings, and so called “limits”.  The individual can be looked at as “difficult”, “challenging”, in the worst case “a pain in the neck”, in the best case “an interesting person”. And the individual will more or less fall into the criteria of serious personality disturbances. Further information on this theme is to be found in an article in The Periodical for the Norwegian Psychology Society (Fosse, 2009).

Serious neglect can be found in any culture group. But looking at the inner workings and viewpoints on humanity,there is reason to feel troubled about children who grow up in HDG. I must express concern when children who react toward childhood neglect, and show this by abnormal behavior, and who are also met by limiting their activity without showing any warmth or tenderness. The fact that some “experts “can advocate such practice doesn’t make the problem of less importance. 

There is no less reason to be concerned about children who experience various forms of abuse, like spanking. Children who are exposed to different ways of abuse end up in the danger zone prone to developing psychological disturbances. You can read more about this in an article published for the Norwegian Psychology Society (Hagen, 2009).


Stagnation in cognitive development

An indication om mental maturity is when a person is capable of integrating various perspectives, and be open-minded toward other “truths”. It also means to have the strength to "live with" conflicting thoughts and feelings. HDG, on the other hand, present “clear convictions” and view other explanations as irrelevant, or a sign of insecurity. This means that children who have grown up in HDG have a problem with their own meanings, as the focus has been on what the movement stands for and the arguments used to defend “the truth”. It will also be difficult and unpleasant for them to reflect on issues like: What do you think and why? Why do you agree with the movement? If you, purely theoretically, at some time should decide to leave this congregation—what could be the deciding factor? And further: What do others who aren’t part of the group think of it? In which way do they disagree with you? What are theirreasons for disagreement? What do you think of their viewpoints? What do they think of your counter arguments? How do they justify this? and so on. On the whole, to put yourself in someone else’s way of thinking—on their premises—without being critical and feeling personally threatened, is in and of itself very difficult.

HDG can lack the ability, or the will power to:

  • look at themselves objectively.
  • understand that there are other ideological alternatives, and that they can also be worthwhile and substantial.
  • understand that there are many ways in which to interpret reality.
  • to comprehend that reality and the interpretation of reality logically speaking are two different things (I don’t interpret the Bible, because I know what it says).
  • understand external criticism: When someone “outside” questions what occurs within the movement, one is often met with the statement: This is a description of our activity that I don’t recognize, and it is based on lack of understanding of our movement from the inside, prejudices, or accusations from dissenters.

Children who grow up in such movements will normalle follow the same reasoning. This is one of the reasons that offspring in such movements might have difficulty in leaving: They might lack a frame of reference, from whitch they can evaluate the movement in an alternative way.

Since HDG rarely consider their own limitations and weaknesses from other perspectives than their own, there is very little focus on how they can best provide for those who grow up within the movement, but over an extended period of time choose to leave it: How can anyone eventhink of leaving God’s gift to the world, unless he is an apostate and must take the consequences of their actions? So those who for some "strange reason" decide to leave the movement, must do their own soul searching. To think that we are open for thinking that God wants you to leave us because He has other plans for you, and we wish you well, is a foreign way of thinking in HDG.

Defense mechanisms on overload

Defense mechanisms such as repression, denial, reaction formation, displacement and rationalizing may be understandable reactions for a person having difficulty to accept the impressions from the movement. But if the amount of information is overwhelming, it becomes too great to absorb and the danger of chronic mental problems increases.

Unhealthy moral development

Many HDG express themselves in an either/or way of thinking where they clearly indicate and categorically separate those who are “for” and those who are “against”. This can lead to the assumption that those who are “for” are on God’s side, are “saved”, are “born of God” and cannot sin, etc. This means that those who belong are incapable of wrongdoing, at least not to any degree. The opposite is the case with those who are outside the movement: Most of what they do is wrong, regardless of what, even if it should concern someone who received The Nobel Peace Prize, an innocent child or Mother Theresa. This indicates that children in HDG can grow up with a set of moral values which do not relate to ethics or morality for the world in general, but the bottom line is are you “with” us or “against” us. This means that in who “belong“ in principle can permit whatever suits them with a good conscience, and for example follow the principle that “the end justifies the means” or that "withholding the truth is sometimes nessessary". What are the moral consequences for the child who grows up in HDG? How do they view humanity? They can develop stereotypic ideas and prejudices, and they can become more immoral than most people. This last statement is really a paradox, as members of HDG often try to give the impression that they have higher moral values than the population in general. This “God is with us” justification for one’s immoral behavior is, sadly enough, something history can present many tragic examples of, both in political and religious connections.


Abuse, in this context, is not limited to intended infringements, but involves actions whose origins are in the movement’s ideology. Some examples are:

  • Active physical punishment (beatings) and sexual abuse (adults with repressed needs related to comforting, contact and sexuality).
  • Passive physical mal-treatment (the child is left to fend for itself).
  • Active psychic mal- treatment (making fun of, criticizing, making demands).
  • Passive physical mal-treatment (“parents who keep at a distance “).

A hypothetical case

Let us for a moment imagine what might happen to a child growing up in a Discipleship Movement.


Distinctive features


Negative, unintended consequences

The movement considers itself chosen  by God.

Many will join the flock.

Elitism where one “thanks God for not being like other Christians”, one feels superior and looks down on others with pity or condescending Magnanimity.

One has the ambition to "make disiples into all the world".

Many people will  become a disciple.

One vacillates between two extremes “ I am God’s gift to the world” and “ I am completely worthless”.

The use of well defined and effective methods .

Everyday problems and challenges are handled effectively.

One shows strict conformity in handling everyday tasks (Asperger  style).

Isolated referrences from the Bible are used to legetimate principles related to "the art of disiplemaking".

Clarifies the examples in the Bible.

Confusions. Patent generalizations.

Focusing on being a "spirtiual leader" or being av "spiritual son".

Newcomers are spiritually helped through close personal contact.

Problems arise in being equal to other people: “Either I teach you or otherwise it’s you who you teach me”.

Attainable goals and effectiveness become paramount, rather than “ordinary human needs”.

Goals are quickly achieved

Important human needs is downplayed. The developement of a pseudo-personality.

"Take it, or leave it".

One accepts challenges and tries to excel.

Stress. Fear of failure.

Viewpoint on child rearing discipline that precedes love.

The child is quick to learn to follow “the righteous way”.

A negative perception of oneself because love isn’t unconditional, but dependent on positive behavior in the child.

A focus on outer signs of a person “living close to God”.

The person is confirmed that he is “living close to God”.

Competition  over who is closest to God, who is most humble, who has “learned the most” etc.




There is no simple explanation between the complexities that characterize HDG and the actual strain it may cause the individual child. Some relevant factors are:

  • The genetic disposition the child has.
  • How strong the pressure for conformity actually is. Some local leaders are more controlling and authoritarian than others, and this will influence the group.
  • To which degree do the parents follow the congregation’s ideology? They can for example be somewhat indifferent to the leaders’ viewpoints in contact with those outside the movement, and be more or less concerned with the leaders’ focus on children first and foremost being loyal and obedient.

Example: In connection with a “testimony” from the board in The Free Evangelical  Lutheran Church from 1996, Oleg, one of its representatives, expressed the following in the publication “ Underveis” 1/96: Whether the academic subjects and religious instruction have left any positive or negative impression , depends on the atmosphere  in the home. This may have strengthened or lessened the “negative” memories they may have had from school or the movement.

  • Which mechanisms influence the individual child? Can one owns perception of self be maintained? Can one hold onto the ability to think for one self?

There are also other factors which one may assume will lead to mental problems for children who grow up in HDG, without this necessarily being the case:

  • Parents being “ardent” can cause stress in children, but can also make children feel relatively secure due to a strong bond with the congregation, they have high status, they become increasingly important and receive a positive feedback due to their effort. On the other hand this can change the day one doesn’t advance any further in the hierarchy of the system, or when that day comes that they ask the critical questions or even go as far as to consider leaving the congregation. The higher we are, the greater the fall.
  • The fact that when viewing the movement externally and seeing these viewpoints as somewhat “frightening” (a good example is the idea of hell and damnation), this does not mean that this seems frightening to children in HDG. The way such theories influence a child depends on many factors, for example, how they are related, the reaction of the parents, and the intellectual level of the child.
  • Children can have distinctive qualities that fits to the special views of the movement, for example children with AD/HD who grow up in an emotional and spontaneous group. Or a child with an Asperger’s Syndrome who function well in a system based on rules, conformity and predictable results ( “a robot culture”). Or the opposite: Or a child with AD/HD who is unable to sit still and listen to the teaching in a "cognitive" group, or a child with an Asperger's sydrome who lack emotional spontaneity and therefore is consideres unable to be blessed by the Holy Spirit in an "emotional" group.

In my opinion there are certain parallels between what some HDG espouse and the mental problems to be found in those who have grown up in such groups. But the relationships are complex: The problematical aspects of HDG cannot be considered other than potential risk factors, due to the complex interaction between a child’s genetic inheritance, home situation, and the child’s own choices, all of which will decide how “the end result” will be. Therefore it is easier to look back in time than it is to predict what the future will bring.


Are there any similarities between possible mental illness in children who grow up in religious HDG or children who grow up in other ideological groups with similar patterns? I am convinced the answer is yes. My opinion is that many of the potential psychological problems are primarily connected to control and ambitions in general, and not necessarily mentioned in reference to religious organizations. Adults’ control and ambition have, whether we like it or not, an effect on children, regardless of whether the adults represent a religious ideology or not. But to go deeper into this issue is something I find quite difficult, first and foremost, because I’m venturing into a field where I feel I lack the competence. This is a field for philosophers, sociologists, and of course social anthropologists, who might use other terminology than HDG.

But one must also keep in mind the distinctive features which are specific for religious HDG. For example: What are the consequences for a child who grows up with the constant fear of perhaps not having “eternal life” together with his family and friends? Or the feeling of guilt that this could have happened to others? Or the feeling of never having been accepted by God, or another spiritual authority, unless one is free of “sin”. Or perhaps the constant fear that perhaps I’ve sinned or will sin in the future.

Or perhaps one has experienced a religious upbringing and constantly been reminded of this song?


Be careful, little eye, what you see.

Be careful, little eye, what you see

For your Father over there, looks down on us on earth here.

Be careful, little eye, what you see.

Be careful, little mouth, what you say.

Be careful, little mouth, what you say.

For your Father over there, looks down on us on earth here.

Be careful, little mouth, what you say.

Be careful, little hand, what you do.

Be careful, little hand, what you do.

For your Father over there looks down on us on earth here.

Be careful, little hand, what you do.

Be careful, little heart, what you think.

Be careful, little heart, what you think.

For your Father over there looks down on us on earth here.

Be careful, little heart, what you think.


Perhaps representatives for HDG ought to devote more time to what they focus on, what they say, what they do, and what they think!

Finally, I would like to highlight a specific statement by a leader of a New Religious Movement in Norway that I believe illustrate much of what I have just talked about. The personwho conveyed this to me said that this "greeting" was written in front of the songbook that was used in their Sunday school:

We are children just once in a lifetime. The childhood never comes again. What you do as a child will be left in your memory as long as you live. Your relationship with your parents andsiblings will be remembered all your lifte. So please be a good child in your home. Leave your childhood with good memories. Don't hesitate when your parents tells you to do something.Help your younger siblings and be obedient to the elderly. In order to do everything in a right way you need help. You need divine guidance - God through your conscience will tell you what to do right in each case. Father and mother cannot always be present wherever you are, butGod is present everywhere, even where no one can see you. Beware that he also can disciplineyou for naughty things that no human can see. God is always present. To be right with God andpeople, pray to God, for He is near. What you do and tell in secret, he will see and hear in secret. If you have this fellowship with God, your heart will be soft and pliable, and sin andhardness will be disgusting for you. In this way you will stay clean and you will always have a clear conscience. And all this will make you a happy person. Never forget this!

Is this the recipe for a happy childhood?



Borchrevink.T. S. and others (1999) Psychosocial treatment of psychosis. Tano. Aschehoug.

Eggen, I. (2008): Only me…..a dissociative disturbance.  Hertervig publisher. Printed in the publication for The Norwegian Psychology Society (2009, pg. 593)

Fosse, R. (2009): There are no genes for mental illness: Printed in the publication fpr The Norwegian Psychology Society, Vol.46, number 6.2009, pg.596-600. Further ref.

Furnari, L. (2005): Born or Raised in High-Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations.ICSA E-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, September 2005.  Further ref.

Gaines, M. J., Wilson, M. A. Redican, K. J.&Baffi, C. R. ( 1984): The effects of cult membership on the health status of adults and children. Health Values: Achieving High Level Wellness, 8(2), 13-17. Gaspe cult leader gets two –year jail term. (1982, September 30 ). Montreal Gazette.  Grizzuti-Harrison, B. (1984, December).

Hagen, R. (2009): The relationship between childhood trauma and the later development of mental illness. Publication for the Norwegian Psychology Society, Vol 46, number 11, 2009, pgs. 1049-1055. Further ref.

Miller, A. (1980): Am Anfang war Erziehung. ISBN: 3518374516

Raundalen,M. (2009): How we look at children—worth a celebration? Publication for the Norwegian Psychology Society, Vol 46, number 11, pgs 1096-1097. Further ref.

Smith, L. (2010): Concern and understanding for the thoughts of others, their intentions and feelings in relation  to infancy.  Publication for the Norwegian Psychology Society, Vol 47, number 7, 2010, pgs.693-600. Further ref.



Copyright © 2009 Kjell Totland Psykologtjenester

Nyeste kommentarer

03.12 | 21:29

Hei, jeg er NIRA SHALOM, jeg er her ute for å spre disse gode nyhetene til hele verden om hvordan jeg fikk tilbake min eks-kjærlighet. Jeg holdt på å bli gal da kjærligheten min forlot meg for en anne

01.12 | 07:20

Jeg har hovedfag i matematikk. Og jeg er blant dem som tror at 5,1 er et større tall enn 5,08.

07.11 | 11:23

Ikke veldig bra, dårlig versjon av ortodoks og katolikk kristendom

04.11 | 12:34

Jeg likes ikke nettsiden din veldig virusete