If your adult child has left your faith, and their choice is keeping you up at night, it’s time to take the focus off of them and find support for yourself. In two recent blog posts I addressed several possible reasons children leave the church of their childhood (Leaving the Faith Part 1) , and how to understand and relate to your child with grace when that happens (Leaving the Faith Part 2.) For many parents this stage of parenting brings hidden shame. They fear being judged by God and by their congregation. And they may consider loss of faith in a child to be the ultimate parenting failure.
First and foremost in your quest for peace of mind, don’t expect everyone to understand the concern you feel about your child’s choice. There will always be folks who believe that all roads lead to Rome (or Jerusalem, or Mecca or Salt Lake City) so why bother. But until we get to wherever “there” is, nobody knows for sure. If you believe that there is one true path ordained by God, or at least that some paths are better than others, don’t apologize for that belief, and don’t kick yourself for worrying. You have enough on your plate without trying to please others.
Look for support from those who do understand your distress. If you open up to people that you trust, especially in your own congregation, you are likely to find many other parents in the same boat. Older parents will also help you put this phase of your parenting in perspective.
Stop blaming yourself, unless, of course, it is your fault. This is time for a realistic assessment of how you used the church in your parenting. Was it a carrot or a stick? Did you do your best? I know of one Christian mother who suffered for years letting her adult son manipulate her with guilt and blame when deep inside she knew she had done her best. One day she got the courage to ask him, “Have I taught you everything you needed to know to live the gospel of Jesus Christ?” Her confused son responded angrily, “Of course you did!” “Then my work here is done,” she said. He broke down in tears realizing that his problems were of his own making.
Your soul searching may happily lead you to the conclusion that you did do your best. Howard W. Hunter, the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered this comforting definition of successful parenting: “A successful parent is one who has loved, one who has cared for, taught, and ministered to the needs of a child. If you have done all of these and your child is still wayward or troublesome or worldly, it could well be that you are, nevertheless, a successful parent. Perhaps there are children who have come into the world that would challenge any set of parents under any set of circumstances. Likewise, perhaps there are others who would bless the lives of, and be a joy to, almost any father or mother.” (“Parents’ Concern for Children”)
If soul searching leads to the conclusion that you should have done things differently, admit your failures to your child. Explain how your practice of faith may have looked hypocritical or harsh in their eyes. Tell them you respect their journey and let them know that you are trying to improve your own journey.
Don’t let your child’s doubts unsettle your own faith. I’ve seen entire families defect from their faith, following their adult child’s lead, because they didn’t want to be out of harmony with the child and grandchildren. Acknowledge what your child is going through and help them find answers to their questions. But don’t throw out your own lifetime of experience and “knowing.”
This is a time for you to honestly explore and potentially reinforce why you believe what you do. If your exploration leads you to a new path, then so be it. But start from a place of believing. In the words of one of my church leaders, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, (an apostle of the LDS Church,) “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.”
One caution: Throwing yourself more furiously into your own spiritual practices will not bring your child back. This is your journey, not your child’s. Learn more about your belief system to satisfy your own interests. Pray more for your own peace. In the words of author Nancy Williams (Secrets to Parenting Your Adult Child,) “[H]old on to the truth that our children are God’s children and ultimately, whatever happens in their lives is between God and them. We must let go of our desire to control the situation and release responsibility for the outcome so we can hold on to the truths that will guide us.”
Accept the new reality and love what is. That’s the advice of Robin Zenger Baker in her book Finding Peace when a Child Chooses Another Path. She cautions that your tendency will be to ramp up your worries to a fevered pitch: “My child won’t know how to be a nice person. Our family is broken. I will never be happy with this.” Just stop it! I’m a “glass half empty” person, so I understand your pain. But if you look around you’ll notice that you’re the only one who is miserable and your misery is not changing the outcome for your child.
Give yourself credit for loving your child. That love is at the root of your suffering. American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a book, Lament for a Son, to honor his young adult son who died in a climbing accident. In the book, Wolterstorff advances the controversial notion of other philosophers and some religious scholars that God himself suffers because of his children and expects us to suffer as an extension of our love:
“But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”
So, if you’re suffering much, it’s because you’re loving much. Things could be worse. You could love not at all and care not a bit.
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