Often words of counsel and encouragement are given to parents of wayward children. But what about the children of parents who have standards contrary to gospel principles? In this article, members who have faced this challenge offer their insights. To protect the privacy of family members, all names have been withheld.
When I joined the Church at age 18, my parents pressured me to live their lifestyle. They told me that since my church believed in the family so much, I should put my family first and do the things that pleased them. My mother wanted me to quit going to church and to spend Sunday with them. My stepfather tried to convince me that lying was just “good business,” gambling was fun, and coffee and alcohol were a part of adult life. My father felt immorality was normal and that I shouldn’t be a “prude.”
My parents felt I was judging and rejecting them since I wouldn’t do the things they were doing. In this tense situation, I prayed to know what I could do to make our relationship better.
Eventually I realized I needed to express gratitude to my parents for all the kind things they had done for me. I began sending notes of appreciation to them as well as letters focusing on positive experiences from our lives.
I have found it essential not to simply react to my parents but to act positively toward them. So when my parents periodically disowned me for not acquiescing to their wishes, I still wrote letters and cards, even if they ignored me. At those times I reminded myself that how I act is not dependent upon what they do or don’t do. I am in charge of my own actions.
Because I have a knowledge of true principles, I have the responsibility to be a leader in some aspects of our relationship. I must stand kindly but firmly for what I know is right. I also must never give up hope that my parents will someday understand the choices I am making now.
The Lord has given me the ability to love my parents even when I have felt deeply hurt by their behavior, and He has given me the strength to do what I know is right. As I have followed His guidance, I have seen my relationship with my parents improve.
From Mapleton, Utah
When I was a full-time missionary, my mission president paid me a special visit one day to inform me that my active Latter-day Saint father had chosen to pursue a homosexual lifestyle, that my parents would divorce, and that my father would be excommunicated.
Since then I have struggled to deal with my changed relationship with my father. Although I still struggle with the sadness of the circumstances created by his choices, I have learned many valuable things from the experience:
It is not my place to condemn or abandon my father. I can never fully understand the state of his heart and mind, the circumstances of his past, or the nature of the weaknesses he struggles with. It is my place to continue to love him, to look for and encourage goodness in him, and to be a good example. I also have a duty to protect myself and my family from negative influences.
It is important to see the divine potential in my father and to be aware and appreciative of the wonderful qualities he possesses. I am grateful for the lessons my father taught me and for things he can still teach me.
My father did not make his decision because I did anything wrong. It didn’t happen because I didn’t pray hard enough or because I failed to somehow “earn” the support of Heavenly Father. It happened because my father exercised his agency.
I, too, have my agency and can make what I will of this life and its opportunities. The scriptures tell us, “For behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves” (Hel. 14:30).
Heavenly Father loves us perfectly. I have felt His influence particularly during my daily scripture study and meditation and through other people who act as Heavenly Father’s ambassadors, bringing me His love through their actions.
When a parent strays, it can test our own faith and testimony. Yet if we respond as guided by the Spirit, the experience can draw us closer to Heavenly Father and reveal to us more about His plan, the Savior’s Atonement, and Their love.
From Fort Collins, Colorado
My teenage years were particularly trying because I started to see the difference between the lives my parents were living and the life I wanted to live. I started to speak up and ask my parents to stop swearing, drinking, and smoking. I expressed my opinion boldly and self-righteously about their wrongdoings. I tried hard to be a good example as I put the Lord first in my life. I wanted to be obedient to Him, yet I failed to see that I was being disobedient in one major way: I was not honoring my parents or showing my love for them.
My attitude started to change after I left home. I started to appreciate my parents’ respectable qualities that I had somehow overlooked because I was focusing on their negative traits. I saw how kind they were to everyone they met and how they made their home a place of warmth for anyone in need of a friend. I realized I had been trying to change my parents when they did not want to be changed.
We do not have to love what our parents are doing, but we can honor them at all times. Our relationship should be based on respect and love, not the similarities or differences in our lifestyles. We can let our parents know what makes us uncomfortable while still respecting them.
From Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
I grew up in a home where there was alcohol abuse, physical and mental abuse, anger, mistrust, and fear. From a young age, every aspect of my life, from the decisions I made to the friends I associated with, was tainted by a lack of the Spirit of the Lord in our home.
As the years passed, my life continued to aimlessly swirl in any direction. It was only when I reached rock bottom that I began to question the reasons for my existence and to kneel often in prayer, pleading to know Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
It was then that the Lord in His mercy let me know that I was not forgotten. All this time I had a Heavenly Father who loved me and who waited with open arms to embrace a child who walked in darkness. I also learned I had a Savior who loved me so dearly He paid the price for my sins so that I could again return to that Father who gave me life.
Regardless of who our earthly parents are, we all have a Father in Heaven who loves us. If we will be humble and pray often, He will lead us in righteousness, that we may find happiness and one day return to our spiritual home.
From Ogden, Utah
For years I felt a deep sense of shame over my mother’s adulterous lifestyle. I worried that her decision to defy God was due to some heritable defect that could have been passed down through her genes. And I wondered if perhaps I came to such a home because I had been less valiant in the premortal existence.
Then I read of Father Abraham, who was born to a man whose heart was “set to do evil” (Abr. 1:6). The sins of his father did not taint Abraham. He made his own righteous choices and was blessed. I realized that my mother’s decisions did not have to determine who I was.
However, I continued to worry that other people would think I had been influenced by her choices. I expressed this concern to some trusted friends who knew of my mother’s failings. They assured me they considered me all the more remarkable because I had been able to live according to the principles of the gospel in spite of my mother’s bad example.
After my concern for myself was resolved, I focused on my mother. For 20 years I tried to get her to change her ways. Eventually I realized I had to let it go. I had spent so much energy and tears worrying about her salvation that it had consumed my thoughts and influenced my relationships with others. I found peace only when I decided to leave her progress in the hands of Heavenly Father. He truly understands her heart, and He is the only one who knows how to save her.
I grow closer to forgiveness every day as I pray and seek guidance from the scriptures. I am grateful it is Jesus Christ, the only truly qualified judge, who has the responsibility of judging my mother.
From Jacksonville, Florida
When Lehi briefly complained against the Lord, Nephi still went to him as head of the family and leader of their group to ask where to find animals to hunt. The same principle applies to us when we have parents whose lives are contrary to gospel teachings.
After my parents left the Church, I continued to ask for their input regarding decisions about college, finances, and relationships, as well as to just share my life events with them. I reminded myself that the Lord teaches us to love one another and to work on our own faults, not focus on those of others. Applying those teachings and remembering that my parents were the ones who first taught me to believe in the Savior have helped me renew and maintain my relationship with them. Things have not gone smoothly for us all the time, but my parents and I enjoy each other’s company, and the gospel—rather than causing division—has helped bring us closer.
From Bitburg, Germany
My father, a successful businessman, was also an alcoholic and was emotionally abusive. As a boy I determined that if I ever was a father, I would try to do things differently somehow. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do, but I determined that I would never drink alcohol.
As a youth, sometime after my parents divorced, I was introduced to the Church. The gospel answered my most basic questions, and I learned it even teaches us how to be righteous parents and children. I began to have hope through the gospel as the Spirit of the Lord helped me grow.
I have realized that no one has perfect parents. Each of us must make decisions as to what parental traditions we pass on to our own children. The Spirit and the gospel make it much easier to recognize which traditions of men to discard and which to retain.
I now have a temple marriage and seven valiant children. My father lives in a comfortable care center, and I’m able to visit him weekly. He has apologized to me for his conduct when I was younger, and I’ve truthfully told him I love him each time we visit. I have learned that the command to forgive (see D&C 64:10), if followed, will bring peace otherwise impossible to achieve.
I’m not sure how things will work out in the next sphere, but I do know that in his own way my father taught me valuable lessons. My adverse experiences in life are minor compared to many, but like the Prophet Joseph Smith, I have found that if we turn to the Lord and try to learn from our experiences, they can “be for [our] good” (D&C 122:7).
From Las Vegas, Nevada
As I struggle to have a meaningful relationship with my parents, it is important to remember that loving them does not mean lowering my standards. It is possible to establish appropriate boundaries with them in a kind way. For example, I don’t allow my mother to smoke around my children, and I gently correct my father’s obscenities. I have found that if I follow up with more love after such an instance, they usually are not offended (see D&C 121:43).
I have found ways to strengthen our relationship through family history work. By researching our ancestors I have come to understand my parents better. I have grown closer to them as they have shared with me stories from their youth. I feel the strength of the family as I do temple work for my deceased relatives. Through special temple experiences I know that I am not the only member in my family, even if I am the only living member.
I admit I wish I had a mother and father I could turn to for spiritual advice. But an all-loving Heavenly Father has blessed me with friends in the Church to fill this need. I have found “mothers” in Relief Society and “fathers” in the priesthood brethren. And I have faith that as I stay close to Heavenly Father and do my best to follow Him, He will continue to guide me in my relationship with my parents.
From Tehachapi, California