Re-focusing Family Counselling in Extremism Prevention

Lotta Rahlf

May 15, 2024

For family members and friends, the radicalisation of a loved one can cause considerable ‘grief, anxiety, despair and upset’ (Gielen 2015, 23). Fortunately, alongside those directly involving radicalising individuals, there are also counselling services that offer support to their relatives and friends (Koehler 2013; 2015). Family counselling is often used as an element of a systemic prevention approach or within exit programmes. It focuses on the person who is believed to be radicalising and seeks to intervene in this process or support a rehabilitation by supporting the person’s systemic environment, which includes relatives and friends but also the professional and social environment in a broader sense. The counselling aims to support them in gaining agency and building skills that enable them to maintain a relationship with the radicalising person or to have a preventative influence on them (Cragin, Robinson, and Steinberg P.S. 2015; Williams, Horgan, and Evans 2016). In Germany, such counselling as part of a systemic approach to prevention is currently offered by several organisations, albeit with different emphases, such as i-unito (including Legato), the Violence Prevention Network, Grüner Vogel e.V. and BeRATen e.V. Another example is the former Hayat model, which advised family members of people who intended to join a terrorist group in the Middle East (Köhler 2015, 9).

The benefits of supporting relatives in this way are manifold: First, in the best-case scenario, relatives and friends still have informal, possibly even daily or recurring access to the radicalising person. Secondly, they may have an intrinsic interest in the person’s well-being or in maintaining family or friendly relationships (Ellefsen and Sandberg 2022). Relatives are thus uniquely positioned to recognise and report early signs of radicalisation (cf. Gielen 2015), a potential that can be strengthened through counselling: ‘By teaching the relative of radicalised individuals about arguments and ideological narratives used by radical groups, the family will be able to counter them’ (Koehler 2015, 5).

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, similar family counselling services have emerged to support relatives and friends in dealing with people within their personal environment who turn to conspiracy theories. The development of a referral system for counselling with the focus on people attracted to conspiracy narratives and their environment aims to further support the professionalisation and network building of this field and is supported in the scope of the federal program ‘Demokratie leben!’. In the German context, examples of such services include ‘Entschwört’ or ‘Veritas’, which focus on the psychological needs of the person receiving counselling beyond the purpose of intervention, in addition to developing skills to intervene. Counselling of the social environment of radicalising individuals in extremism prevention always aims at emotionally stabilising the person seeking counselling and encouraging them to further seek support and build up their own resilience in dealing with the emotional burden and stress of the situation they find themselves in. However, this aspect is rarely prioritised by policymakers who instead focus on the use of family counselling for extremism prevention. As will now be described, sole focus on the latter is problematic in multiple respects, making a stronger awareness for the consideration of relatives’ and friends’ needs mandatory when planning and funding entire extremism prevention programmes. 

From a deontological perspective, for example, one could argue that it is not appropriate to make family members agents of change in a radicalisation process. When counselling relatives of conspiracy believers, it is often children who seek advice on how to deal with their parents, and they in particular do not have positive duties towards their parents, as could perhaps be argued in the parent-child relationship. Yet, in cases where parents seek advice on their children, for example, where they suspect a radicalisation, it is equally questionable whether an intervention in a radicalisation process constitutes such a ‘positive duty’ or whether it places too much responsibility on relatives given the multifactorial nature of radicalisation processes. Some authors doubt that relatives and friends can play a decisive role in prevention (Weggemans, Liem, and van der Zwan 2021; Sikkens et al. 2017). The intentions of the security authorities behind such counselling services can be particularly problematic: Relatives could be assigned ‘heavy responsibilities in nation-states counter-terrorism’ (Haugstvedt 2022) or not use counselling services at all because they are worried about security authority consequences for their relatives or fundamentally distrust the state.

This is echoed by a consequentialist perspective: The success of the intervention may be low or counterproductive and the psychological consequences for relatives who fail in their attempts to intervene can be great. In the case of conspiracy theories, for example, counter-evidence is even said to have a reinforcing effect on conspiracy ideology (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009, 223). At the same time, it is also possible that counselling fulfils a natural desire of the relative to acquire skills to help the radicalising relative and preserve relationships (Noddings 1986). In accordance with the intrinsic interest of the person seeking counselling in the well-being of the radicalising individual, one could also argue from an ethics-of-care perspective that relatives are in a reciprocal caring relationship and that counselling is necessary to support relatives in this.

However, the latter requires a shift in the focus of counselling for relatives: instead of seeing counselling for relatives as a means to the end of preventing radicalisation, the needs of those seeking counselling should come to the fore to meet the need for psychosocial support and competence development. This will ultimately have the same effect in the best-case scenario, but will also buffer any negative effects if an intervention is not successful. For example, a nuanced two-track counselling model could be possible, in which counselling acts as a stress reliever and competency provider (Haugstvedt 2022, 9). On the one hand, counselling services should meet the possible desire of some relatives to acquire skills with which they can intervene. The focus should be on the relative as ‘the one caring’ and the opportunities to act as an agent of change should be explored, while at the same time preparing them for the risks involved. Despite the potential that such counselling services have for the prevention of radicalisation, it must also be possible for relatives to simply seek psychosocial support without being held responsible as agents of change. This includes, for example, counselling on how to maintain family relationships and support in developing coping strategies. The focus here is on the relative as ‘the one caring for themselves’. Such a two-track model also allows those seeking counselling to switch back and forth between the two tracks. If an attempt at intervention fails or the relative is overwhelmed despite initially expressing a desire for intervention, it is sensible to abandon the intervention logic and instead focus solely on the well-being of the person seeking counselling. On the other hand, psychological support can also trigger a motivation to intervene.

In conclusion, relatives and friends of radicalising individuals have a variety of needs that counselling should fulfil in some way. Some relatives wish to help their loved ones and try to intervene in a radicalisation process. However, despite all the potential that relatives have as ‘agents of change’, it can lead to ethical problems if feelings of responsibility arise, counselling becomes a tool for the purpose of prevention and potential risks for relatives are not sufficiently considered. Hence, when planning and promoting extremism prevention programmes that seek to take advantage of the undisputed benefits of family counselling, care should be taken to ensure that psychosocial support of family members and friends is offered, which is already often the case in systemic counselling or counselling for relatives of conspiracy theorists. Policymakers should acknowledge the ethical difficulties of regarding relatives and friends of a radicalising individual solely as potential intervention actors and thus make sure that future prevention programmes always contain both: Support regarding the advice seeker’s confidence and agency in dealing with their radicalising relative and psychosocial support for the advice seeker themselves.

Named organisations and projects offering counselling for relatives and friends in Germany (non-exhaustive list):


Cragin, Bradley K., M.A. Robinson, and Steinberg P.S. 2015. ‘What Factors Cause Youth to Reject Violent Extremism? Results of an Exploratory Analysis in the West Bank’. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corportation.

Ellefsen, Rune, and Sveinung Sandberg. 2022. ‘Everyday Prevention of Radicalization: The Impacts of Family, Peer, and Police Intervention’. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, February, 1–24.

Gielen, Amy-Jane. 2015. ‘Supporting Families of Foreign Fighters. A Realistic Appraoch for Measuring the Effectiveness’. Journal for Deradicalization, no. 2: 21–48.

Haugstvedt, Håvard. 2022. ‘What Can Families Really Do? A Scoping Review of Family Directed Services Aimed at Preventing Violent Extremism’. Journal of Family Therapy, February, 1–14.

Koehler, Daniel. 2013. ‘Family Counselling as Prevention and Intervention Tool against “Foreign Fighters”. The German “Hayat” Program’. Journal EXIT-Deutschland 3: 182–204.

———. 2015. ‘Using Family Counselling to Prevent and Intervene Against Foreign Fighters: Operational Perspectives, Methodology and Best Practices for Implementing Codes of Conduct’. In Understanding Deradicalization: Pathways to Enhance Transatlantic Common Perceptions and Practices, edited by Middle East Institute.

Noddings, Nel. 1986. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics & Moral Education. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013.

Sikkens, Elga, Marion van San, Stijn Sieckelink, and Micha de Winter. 2017. ‘Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences of Former Extremists and Their Families’. Journal for Deradicalization 12.

Sunstein, Cas, and Adrian Vermeule. 2009. ‘Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures’. The Journal of Political Philosophy 17 (2): 202–27.

Weggemans, Daan, Marieke Liem, and Marieke van der Zwan. 2021. ‘A Family Affair? Exploratory Insights into the Role of Family Members of Those Who Joined Jihadist Groups’. Security Journal.

Williams, Michael J., John G. Horgan, and William P. Evans. 2016. ‘The Critical Role of Friends in Networks for Countering Violent Extremism: Toward a Theory of Vicarious Help-Seeking’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 8 (1): 45–65. 

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