Hanover Park, IL - (630) 372-6599
South Elgin, IL - (847) 488-1999
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Spiritual Abuse in the Family

Publication Date: 
August 27, 2017

Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of marriage or family authority misuses that authority by placing themselves over God’s plan for healthy parenting and leadership. Their desire is to control, coerce or manipulate family for seemingly personal reasons.

Spiritual abuse is one of the most subtle and coercive forms of emotional abuse, according to Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.

Spiritual abuse has five distinct characteristics: authoritarianism, image consciousness, suppression of criticism, perfectionistic standards, and imbalance in belief or practice. In the context of family, these features are particularly abusive, for a family should be a place of growth and safety.  


Authoritarians exercise complete or almost complete control over the will of others, as well as, favor complete obedience to authority as opposed to individual freedom.

Many raised within an authoritarian environment may find it extremely difficult to make decisions later in life, particularly if they have been taught that their own thoughts and communication with God cannot be trusted. While the degree of authoritarianism is determined by such facets as personality, relationship with God and others, and personal beliefs typically authoritarian parents:

  1. React rather than respond
  2. Are excessively demanding
  3. Require instant obedience and conformity
  4. Give no explanation or state "Because I am the dad!"
  5. Are intimidating and become angry, animated, or forceful
  6. Often communicate unreasonable expectations
  7. Convey unspoken messages such as: you are loved and/or accepted by me only when you perform the way I demand
  8. Disparage and discourage the emotional needs of their children
  9. Are restrictive and intrusive
  10. Do not respect boundaries

Contrast this with authoritative parenting, where the authority of a parent is inherently established by being who they are. It is believed that authoritative parents are a healthy balance between authoritarian and permissive styles.

Authoritative parents:

  1. Respond rather than react
  2. Have high but reasonable expectations
  3. Are assertive
  4. Practice healthy balance between discipline and nurture
  5. Are sensitive to the needs of their children, including the emotions
  6. Respect boundaries, including those of their children
  7. Encourage responsible decision-making while still under protection of the home

Suppression of Criticism

To question is rebellion within authoritarian, spiritually abusive families. Children, even adult offspring, who raise issues or inquiries regarding beliefs, convictions, and way of life, are perceived as a challenge to authority, a threat to family values.

Perfectionistic standards

When perfection is demanded throughout formative years, children have no true example of humility, godliness, or truth. Appealing to fear, fear of hell, fear of disappointing parents or God, fear of the world, fear of sexuality, is another method of behavior control with attempts to ensure perfection. In addition to subtle condemnation for questioning, challenging, and other understood 'misbehavior,' further error is {often silently} promoted: Those who do, or attempt to do so, are labeled rebellious, and are humiliated.


Spiritually abusive families retain severe lack of balance. Many claim a special grasp on truth, or God, that is not shared by others. Some claim to be more holy, more enlightened. Imbalance, or extremism, cannot produce healthy balanced people and families.

What now?

For those who grew up in a spiritually abusive family or a spiritually abusive marriage, one essential understanding is that healing can occur. The journey to healing is as individual as we are. It is a journey to hope, peace and life.

If you are struggling with issues related to spiritual abuse in the family, we offer hope to you at Village Counseling Center.  Please do not hesitate to call and make an appointment to meet with one of our professional counselors. 

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Hanover Park, IL - (630) 372-6599
South Elgin, IL - (847) 488-1999

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