We sent our oldest daughter across the country to an Latter-day Saint school and felt a sigh of relief as we hoped she would be surrounded by goodness, faithfulness, and similar morals. Unfortunately, we discovered that instead, our child is now smoking weed and drinking alcohol, among other things. After finding this out we were completely heartbroken. It is hard to describe the feelings in a parent when your child makes these choices. It’s one of the most terrible and painful things I’ve ever gone through, and I am very familiar with grief and heartache.
We have always done everything right: Family Home Evening every week, scriptures, and prayers every night, church every Sunday, all the church activities, …. literally textbook happy, Latter-Day Saint family. We never saw this coming. While this child struggled with her testimony often…. we were still completely blindsided by this.
We have come to terms with everything and have come to a place where we have accepted it. Unfortunately, for all parents everywhere…. free agency exists. We, of course, will never stop parenting and have our opinions, thoughts and standards be known, as well as our sadness and disappointment. We have made sure to let her know we still love her. So much! And thankfully, our relationship has survived, and we still talk often and happily.
However, there’s one problem we find harder to figure out. This child is the oldest of five kids. Eventually she will want to come home to visit. I would rather she not come at all. I want to protect all our impressionable, young, still developing kids…. some who look up to her so much!
We are terrified of the effect she will have on our other children. We dread the example she will set. We can’t stand the thought of these things happening in our house. We feel the heartbreak all over again when thinking of explaining all of this to our other children. How will we prepare them? How will we protect them? How will we explain it?
We obviously can’t tell our own child to not come home. But how do we let her come home?
You’ve worked hard to accept the reality of your daughter’s current priorities and it sounds like all this work has been done at a distance. It’s quite different to experience the contrast in person while wondering what influence and impact she’ll have on your efforts to guide your children at home. Even though you can’t program any of your children’s paths, you can still have peace and maintain close relationships with them. Let’s talk about how you can do this.
Before we get into the logistics of how to handle your daughter’s homecoming, I’d like to address your response to the doctrine of agency. In your question, you used the word, “unfortunately”, when talking about the reality of agency. While I do understand the parental pain of watching agency in action as a child disregards God’s laws, I believe it’s important to not blame agency as the problem. In fact, agency is the solution to our fallen state! Elder Robert D. Hales reminded us of this core truth:
“Our agency—our ability to choose and act for ourselves—was an essential element of this plan. Without agency we would be unable to make right choices and progress. Yet with agency we could make wrong choices, commit sin, and lose the opportunity to be with Heavenly Father again. For this reason, a Savior would be provided to suffer for our sins and redeem us if we would repent. By His infinite Atonement, He brought about ‘the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice.’”[i]
I want to invite you to trust in agency and rejoice in the fact that you, your daughter, and all your children possess the ability to choose their own path. Even though your daughter isn’t following God’s laws right now, she is living the plan of salvation. Resist the tendency to believe that it should be any other way. You are conscientious and intentional about guiding your children back to the presence of our Heavenly Parents, so I see how painful this is for you. I also believe that when we fully embrace the truth about moral agency, it can flood us with peace and purpose as we trust in God’s plan.
Another truth that can bring you peace is recognizing that your daughter’s journey is far from over. She is currently discovering the law of opposites and will have firsthand knowledge of tasting the bitter, “that [she] may know to prize the good.”[ii] Remember that our Heavenly Parents built a world full of surprises, temptations, dangers, and tragedies. It’s a wild and unpredictable classroom designed to help their children grow to be just like Them.
None of us know what she will choose next or how long it will take for her to learn these important lessons. However, it’s critical that we don’t limit the love and patience of our perfect Heavenly Parents and our Savior, Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis discovered this Divine Love in his early thirties after years of stubborn atheism:
“I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? . . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation”[iii]
You are doing all you can do to guide and bless your daughter and your children at home. Please don’t forget that you’re co-parenting with the loving partnership of our Heavenly Parents who are the architects and champions of the role of agency in their great plan of happiness. President Harold B. Lee reassured all earthly parents with this important reminder: “We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”[iv]
As you contemplate her returning home and eventually exposing her siblings to her lifestyle choices, it’s critical that you hold tightly to the principles I’ve shared above. I don’t minimize the pain of watching your children practice their agency in ways that bring regret and sorrow. It’s truly a soul-stretching experience that we both love and hate. However, your response to her and your other children will be influenced by your trust in the principle of moral agency.
When your daughter returns home, she’ll be returning as an adult guest who can be expected to follow the house rules. Even though she’s familiar with the home rules and routines, there’s nothing wrong with reviewing your expectations. Speak kindly and clearly to her about what you expect from her as a guest in your home. I also think it’s important to remind her that respecting your rules also means not undermining your authority and influence on your other children. She’s not their parent and can practice deference and respect while she’s in your home.
Even though you can decide whether she enters your home, she still might choose to contact them outside of your home and share her experiences, behaviors, and beliefs with your other children. This is where it’s important to once again embrace the principle of agency and hope that all your children will sense the difference between bitter and sweet. You’ve taught them the sweet and they will eventually encounter the bitter (which may initially taste artificially sweet). Continue offering them light and truth by precept and example.[v]
Of course, you don’t need to broadcast her choices or your disappointment in your daughter’s path. At the same time, you don’t need to hide the reality of her life from your children when it’s presented to them. When your other children discover her lifestyle choices, you can stay close to them and process what they’re seeing, feeling, thinking, and experiencing. You still have a responsibility to reinforce your standards and teach truth to your children. These are excellent opportunities to help them embrace the law of opposites and decide what matters to them.[vi] It’s a gift to your children to help them make sense of opposing feelings and thoughts in the supportive presence of loving parents.
This is also a powerful opportunity for them to learn how to treat others who are different from them. They can learn how to be inclusive, loving, and open to their sister and others. Your children can learn lessons about agency and love as they observe you interact with your daughter. As they watch you stay connected to your daughter and treat her with respect and love, they will know that nothing can separate them from the love of their parents.[vii]
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@ge**********.com
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Moses 6:55
[iii] Lewis, C. S., & Barfield, O. (1955). Surprised by joy: The shape of my early life. Chicago. pp. 228-229
[iv] Harold B. Lee, “The Influence and Responsibility of Women,” Relief Society Magazine 51, no. 2 (Feb. 1964): 85.
[vi] 2 Nephi 2:11-28
[vii] Romans 8:39