How to Rescue a Loved One from a Cult or Controlling Relationship: The Strategic Interactive Approach

Development of the Strategic Interactive Approach

Family members and friends often feel angry, confused, hurt, frustrated and helpless when they realize a loved one has gotten involved with a controlling person or group. They often notice a radical personality change. They either try to argue the person away, are reassured or told to mind their own business. I have blogged about common errant beliefs. Getting informed, choosing a professional and their approach ideally needs to happen as quickly as possible. Then a plan can be developed. Almost everyone wants to just “fix the problem” and tries to do this themselves. This often makes the situation far worse than taking some time, educating themselves and then acting.

Since being deprogrammed myself from the Moonies in 1976, by a team of ex-members hired by my parents, I have wanted to help others to get free. For about one year, I was involved with deprogramming from that cult.

Back in the 1970’s, courts were granting ex-parte conservatorships to parents for their adult cult members to have custody for one week in order to expose them to information about brainwashing and their organization. The cult members had to report back to the judge in person one week later. These conservatorships were largely successful in helping cult members reevaluate and leave. I believe they worked because there was a physical separation from the group. Cult members were exposed to ex-members for the first time, who encouraged them to think about how they were recruited and indoctrinated. (Remember there were no smartphones or internet back then.)

Unfortunately, with intense lobbying, judges stopped granting conservatorships. I stopped doing deprogramming. It was high stress, sometimes traumatic. It was also clearly illegal at that point. I started speaking out against forced, illegal deprogramming, except where there was the high potential for loss of life (like a faith healing cult where the person stopped taking their insulin and was about to die).

Since 1977, I started doing a voluntary approach called “exit-counseling” which was largely successful. That is this which I wrote about it in my 1988 book. Cult leaders read my book and stopped allowing members to come home unescorted or for 2-3 day visits. Move and counter move. As I became trained as a mental health professional, I developed an approach that relied on training and coaching family and friends to speak effectively with the cult member. Of course, some cults cut off the person entirely from their family and friends. (If this is your situation, there is still hope to help, but it will be far more difficult.)

The goal is always to empower people to think for themselves and make independent decisions. I call it the Strategic Interactive Approach. I work with family, friends, ex-members, and others to develop a team. Together, we do an ethical influence campaign with a respectful, loving, nuanced approach which is totally customized to fit that client’s unique situation.

A Loving, Ethical Approach that Empowers Individuals

The Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA) encourages warm, positive relationships between cult members and their families. The Freedom of Mind company advocates respectful, loving and non-coercive interactions. We believe love is stronger than mind control! We believe in empowering people by having a good relationship with them, sharing with them, and asking questions in a curious way. We avoid angry, judgemental, confrontational interactions. Everyone on the team learns about how to communicate effectively.

front cover of Combating Cult Mind Control by Steven HassanFront cover of Freedom of Mind by Steven HassanFor team members who like to read, they are first encouraged to read Combating Cult Mind Control (2016) (CCMC), which serves as the foundation. Following CCMC, they should read my book, Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs.

For team members who do not like to read or have little time to read, we are preparing an audiobook version. However, in the meantime, there are many great videos on our YouTube and Vimeo channels. People need to learn key points such as: how the mind works, the difference between ethical and unethical influence, the Lifton model, as well as my BITE model. They need to understand the group ideology or the controlling person. Then, they learn how to raise essential questions effectively. The SIA uses the “dual identity” model: the authentic identity and the cult identity to help understand the dissociative phenomenon.


The SIA focuses on the development of healthy relationships within the family. The safe and nurturing environment created by the SIA offers many opportunities to heal old wounds. As an integral part of the family system, the cult member is automatically included in the process.

Recovery Phase

The SIA provides a long-term recovery process for both the cult member and members of the family. Everyone is traumatized by the cult involvement, even those who are not directly involved. Feelings get hurt. Belief systems are assaulted or shifted. People lose sleep. They get depressed. Anger, frustration, and resentment are repressed. Each person who has been involved in the traumatic experience of having a loved one in a destructive cult needs support on psychological and emotional levels. The gentleness of the repeated mini-interactions will help the relationships to become more honest, caring and compassionate: setting the foundation for future interactions.

It is an ongoing process that makes each telephone call, letter, and visit more effective. Focus on small, strategic, meaningful interactions that communicate unconditional love and provide space for the loved one to express doubts and fears. In some cases, a formal three-day intervention is beneficial. Many times, mini-interactions may make a formal intervention unnecessary.

Once the person has realized that the group leader and organization is not what they wanted to believe they were–such as God’s representative, a way to enlightenment, or an ethical authority figure–the next stage is receiving specialized help.

The aim is to restore the creative, authentic self. By educating that self and giving a toolbox of healing techniques and strategies, then they are empowered to help liberate their cult self from the cult programming. Undoing phobia programming, neutralizing triggers, sorting the positive experiences from the negative ones enable the individual to digest and integrate their experience, and they become stronger from it.

By having an educated team of family and friends, they are empowered to offer high-quality support for the recovery phase. The Freedom of Mind philosophy is concerned with not only helping the person get away from the negative influences but leaving them with high self-esteem which will support their re-socialization.


Frequently Asked Questions – SIA

Video on Strategic Interactive Approach


What Is The Strategic Interactive Approach? Steve Hassan explains from Steven Hassan PhD on Vimeo.