As a therapist specializing in working with people navigating a LDS faith transition, I have been witness to the agonizing pain, fear, sense of betrayal, and heartache that many people experience early on in this process. When a loved one goes through a faith transition, it can be a delicate and sensitive time that requires understanding and support. In this article, I want to explore what not to say to a loved one who is experiencing a faith transition, offering insights from a therapist's perspective. By avoiding these pitfalls, you can foster a nurturing environment that promotes open dialogue, as opposed to saying or doing something that could damage or destroy the relationship.
Don’t say: "You're just confused.”
Minimizing their experiences by labeling them as confused can invalidate their genuine search for meaning and understanding. Instead, acknowledge that their faith transition is a complex process and respect their journey.
Don’t say: "You're being influenced by negative forces.”
Attributing their faith transition to negative influences can cast judgment and fuel a sense of defensiveness. For many, their decision is influenced not by “negative forces” or Satan, but instead by discovering troubling issues of church history, or being conflicted with cultural issues such as the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues.
Don’t say: "You're abandoning your values.”
Assuming that a faith transition equates to abandoning one's values oversimplifies the process. Recognize that individuals in transition often reassess their values, seeking to align their beliefs with their evolving understanding of themselves and the world. Implying that you need to be a church member to have morals and values is dismissive and inaccurate.
Don’t say: "You need to find your way back.”
Pressuring them to return to their previous belief system dismisses the growth and self-discovery inherent in their faith transition. Allow them the freedom to explore new perspectives without imposing expectations.
Don’t say: "You're disappointing your family.”
Using guilt or emphasizing disappointment can add unnecessary stress to an already challenging period. Recognize that their faith transition is about their personal journey, not an indication of their worth or the quality of their relationships. I have had so many clients come to feel that love from family is conditional, and based on whether or not they are active members of the church. For parents, remember that their faith transition is about their personal growth, not a reflection of your parenting.
Don’t say: "You just need to have more faith.”
Encouraging blind faith or dismissing their doubts and questions undermines their intellectual and emotional exploration. I had a family member challenge me to re-dedicate myself to regular scripture study and prayer. What they couldn’t understand is that I HAD been doing that more intensely than ever. I desperately wanted to restore my faith in the church, and avoid the turmoil I knew would come with my decision.
Don’t say: "You're being selfish.”
Labeling their faith transition as selfish overlooks the fact that personal growth and self-discovery often require self-reflection and introspection. Acknowledge that their journey is about finding authenticity and living a meaningful life.
Don’t say: "This is just a phase.”
Assuming their faith transition is temporary denies the potential for growth and transformation. Respect the fluidity of beliefs and allow them the freedom to navigate their journey at their own pace.
As someone who has navigated a faith transition myself, one of the most hurtful things I heard from a loved one when I left the church was “You’re taking the easy way out.” If she only knew the sleepless nights I endured wrestling with my decision, the tears that were shed, the friends who stopped associating with me, and the identity crisis that followed when everything I ever knew had crumbled, I’m certain she would no longer say that I was “taking the easy way.”
Here are some suggestions for parents on how to best respond when a child is going through a faith transition:
Listen with empathy: It's important to create a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Allow them to openly share their doubts, questions, and concerns about their faith.
Validate their experience: Let your child know that their feelings and experiences are valid and that it's natural for beliefs and perspectives to evolve over time. Acknowledge their right to explore and question their faith.
Avoid overreacting or blaming: It's important to remain calm and composed even if their new beliefs or doubts challenge your own beliefs or values. Avoid assigning blame or criticizing them for their changing perspective.
Educate yourself: Take the time to understand your child's perspective better. Educate yourself about their questions and concerns. This will allow you to engage in more meaningful and informed conversations with them.
Maintain open lines of communication: Keep the channels of communication open with your child. Encourage them to share their thoughts, doubts, and questions. Assure them that you are there to support and love them unconditionally, regardless of their beliefs.
Seek support if needed: If you find it challenging to navigate this transition on your own, consider seeking support from a trusted religious leader, a counselor, or a support group. They can provide guidance and help you process your own emotions while supporting your child.
Respect their autonomy: It's crucial to respect your child's autonomy and allow them to make their own choices regarding their faith journey. Avoid pressuring or forcing them to conform to a specific belief system. Instead, encourage them to explore and find their own path.
Love unconditionally: Above all, continue to love and accept your child unconditionally. Let them know that your love for them is not dependent on their religious beliefs. Reassure them that you will support them on their journey, even if it looks different from your own.
Remember, each person's faith transition is unique, and it may take time for both you and your child to adjust to the changes. Patience, understanding, and open-mindedness are key during this period of exploration and growth.