Teach Teens to be Wary of High Control Groups

High control groups are organizations that entice unsuspecting individuals to commit to, and comply with, the group’s way of thinking, acting and believing. Cults are an extreme form of high control groups, but there are many other types, such as political groups, religious groups, gangs, multi-level-marketing (MLM), conspiracy theory communities, self-help groups, activist groups, and lifestyle groups. Some psychologists even consider families with domestic abusers as a high control group.

Before you dismiss this article because you think that your son or daughter would never join a gang or fall for a cult, please remember that no one joins a high control group voluntarily. They are manipulated, deceived and carefully recruited, and lots of smart, well-meaning individuals have ended up under the influence of a high control group without even realizing it.

We are in a uniquely challenging time, with significant anxiety, doubt, and stress. Countless groups are appearing in our country that purport to offer inclusion, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. Our adolescents and young adults are particularly susceptible to the allure of high control groups because they are in a tumultuous, tentative period in their lives and many are struggling with loneliness or anxiety. Rather than think your child will never fall under the spell of a high control group, it’s a much better idea to teach your teen or young adult the signs of a high control group so that they are wary of these groups’ recruiting tactics.

Warning Signs of a High Control Group

  • Leadership. High control groups are typically headed by a charismatic leader – sometimes a small group of leaders – with no accountability to any other people. In fact, no one in the group tells the leader no. The leader is almost always self-appointed and generally presents a list of principles or a doctrine they claim as unquestionably true.
  • Loyalty. Questioning the leader or the “truths” of the group is met with gaslighting – when other members of the group use manipulation to make the questioner feel guilty and/or doubt their own powers of reasoning, morals, or instincts.
  • Love bombing. New people who are being recruited to the group are consistently flattered, praised, and complimented in order to train their brain to associate the group with love and acceptance. Recruits are made to feel very special and accepted. Tell teens to remember that genuine friendships take time to build and to be wary if people in a group they are considering are excessively or inappropriately friendly.
  • Over-the-Top Promises. The leaders of high control groups often make promises that are totally unattainable, but also offered by no other group in society. Such things might include rapid financial gain, total health, constant peace of mind, achieving enlightenment, saving mankind, or eternal life — the things every human desires at the deepest level.
  • Absolute Answers. Our world is complicated and issues are rarely black and white. Teach your teens to beware of people with simplistic solutions to complex world problems. High control groups tend to simplify problems and offer absolute answers to abstract ideas, such as good vs evil and the meaning of life.
  • Isolation. Leaders in high control groups use manipulation and deception to create an “us versus them” mentality. They convince their followers that they are superior to people not in the group. They tell them that no one outside of the group will understand their important work. They limit members’ access to outside information. They frown on group members sharing their thoughts, concerns or problems with anyone outside of the group.
  • Machiavellian. High control groups often follow the concept that the ends justifies the means. They will take actions that violate their own “truths,” but rationalize it as a way to meet some far-out goal, such as saving group members from evil.
  • Behavior Control. High control groups will dictate certain behaviors, such as what members wear or how they spend their leisure time. They will often use different methods (all that have “good reasons”) to restrict members’ sleep or calories. Individuals who are sleep deprived or hungry are more psychologically susceptible to receive suggestions as truth.
  • Punishment. While new recruits are love bombed, once they become established members, they are often manipulated through punishment. Leaders use fear, coercion, intimidation and public humiliation as tools to control their followers. They might require members to admit their fears or failures to show loyalty for joining the group, but then use that information to publicly humiliate or blackmail them later.
  • Treatment of Past Members. In a typical group, there should be plenty of members that have moved on in their lives. Either they moved away or just decided the group wasn’t for them, but regardless, past members will likely maintain friendships with at least one or two current members. In a high control group, people are not allowed to leave, and if they do, they are villainized as a traitor, shunned, threatened, or even sued in a lawsuit.

Final Thoughts…

Talk to your teen about high control groups. Acknowledge that, of course, we all want to be part of something special and to connect with others, to share our ideas, hopes, and fears. We all hope to have meaningful lives that improve our communities. We just need to approach joining new organizations with a bit of skepticism and be a little wary of people that promise too much. Tell your teen that it’s always a good idea to research new organizations online before joining to learn more about them and how legitimate they are.

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