The Mormon Therapist on “Honoring” our parents.

John DehlinMormon 16 Comments

I have been depressed off and on for the thirty years since I joined the Church and almost ten years before that when I wanted to join. I was a teenager at the time and due to opposition and threats from my parents, waited until I married. Since the time my husband and I were baptized, we have been obtusely criticized/put down, not invited to certain family gatherings but required at others, and our Church activity ignored.

I can’t believe we took this treatment all these years. It makes me wonder what is wrong with me. I can now see the effect it has had on one of our children and our family as a whole. Recently one morning I awoke and realized that I didn’t have to take the disrespect and unsupportive behavior. In fact, I told the Lord I can’t do it anymore. I am not speaking to my extended family – all whom have been involved in this to one degree or another. I never talked to a Church leader until last year as I had become suicidal.  He was gentle and very understanding and said that I could “honor them from afar.” Am I sinning? My parents are in their eighties and I realize they will not change. Their opinions and beliefs are more important than a relationship with me. Where do I put my guilty feelings? I have turned into a pariah in the extended family but do not try to defend myself because I have seen that doesn’t change minds or hearts.

It is sad to hear when family relationships are a source of anxiety and depression instead of love and support. Unfortunately, in many cultures (including Mormonism) people choose their belief systems and traditions over the more important Christ-like acceptance of their loved ones. This happens all too often when family members choose something “different” within the issues of religious dogma, sexual orientation, traditional/cultural mores, prescribed behaviors, etc.

There is a great family theorist by the name of Murray Bowen who speaks of “differentiation.” This is where an individual can be comfortable within their individuality AND be comfortably connected to their family. It is where family members are mutually respectful, can set and adhere to appropriate boundaries, and the family system does not need to “fall apart” just because a member chooses to behave outside of the prescribed “family rules.” There is tolerance in this type of system. There is room for differing thoughts, ideas, beliefs and behavior even when disagreements are present. “I can be connected to you without needing to think, act and believe as you do.” The more differentiated we are, the healthier the family system.

The alternatives on both sides of this spectrum are individuality (only the needs of the individual are deemed important at the expense of the family) and enmeshment (the needs of the family take precedence over an individual’s). Families are in a continual dance somewhere along the fluidity of this continuum. When families are “rigid” then the system is not fluid. It cracks under pressure. When families are “disengaged” they are not connected enough to even know where they stand with one another. When families are “enmeshed” they cannot function individually without affecting the entire system.  These are all terms that can be helpful in understanding family dynamics. We want to be shooting for terms such as “flexible” and “connected.”

We are commanded to honor our parents, specifically. So, how do we go about defining the word “honor.” Is it “honorable” to allow inappropriate or abusive behavior? Is it “honorable” to meet another’s needs at the continual expense of our own? Is it “honorable” to not be true to oneself? My answer to all of this is a resounding NO.

So, how DO we go about showing respect?

You have the right to set the types of boundaries you expect to be treated by along with the consequences if they are not respected (i.e. “I will not allow family members to put my religion down in front of me or my children. If they want to have a respectful discussion then we can do that in a setting that is appropriate. Due to the protection of myself and my children, I will sadly not be able to attend family gatherings if this is not adhered to. I hope you can understand why this is important to me because our relationship is also important and I would prefer to stay connected. I cannot, however, stay connected at the expense of myself or my children.”) We can make these types of statements in a direct and loving way – controlling our facial expressions, tone and volume of voice, and reactivity to their response. This can be done face-to-face, over a telephone call, and/or in letter form. It can be done with each family member individually that you need to address or in a family meeting.

You cannot control other people’s behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Your family may or may not respect your wishes. You need to be prepared that as you begin to set appropriate boundaries you are in essence changing the “dance” everyone is accustomed to. Toes will be stepped on and squacking noises will be made. Families react to unwanted change much like a toddler temper tantrum. But much like with toddlers, as long as you keep your cool and keep to your guns, the tantrums diminish in length and in volume over time. Defending self, begging and pleading are unnecessary to this process and are usually ineffectual.

We are respectful to others by allowing and insisting them to be respectful to us. When we allow others to treat us with disrespect, we enable incorrect behavior. This helps no one in the journey towards progression.

I will warn that people who choose a complete cutting of the ties, “cut-off”, usually do not find themselves in a healthy position either. It is amazing how much power an extended family can have over your psyche and your own family dynamics even when you haven’t spoken to or seen them for years. It may come to the point of not being able to speak to or have contact with toxic family members – however, the communication around boundary-setting should be tried first.

Honoring your parents includes respectfully standing up to them, disagreeing with them, being thankful for the things they were able to do for you, forgiving them for the things they fell short on, being polite, not disparaging them in front of others, treating them with honorable communication skills, etc. Honoring them never entails dishonoring yourself or allowing yourself or your children to be dishonored.

As you embrace this process you will find it much easier to let go of inappropriate guilt and levels of depression should improve. You will feel empowered in the knowledge that you are creating a healthier state for yourself and your family overall.  Please be patient with yourself through this process. If you continue to have suicidal feelings, please get professional help. This is not a problem worthy of your self-destruction.

MM Readers:
What advice do you have for this situation?
How have you dealt with similar situations in your own life?
How do you define the commandment “honor thy father and mother?”

Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist.  She blogs at

Comments 16

  1. Oh where do I begin?

    I’m all for setting boundaries. I’m also for writing a clear concise letting to let the other person know exactly where you stand and how you felt. I recently had to do this with my brother.(a former bishop and SP)

    I grew up in the foster care system so my family connections were tenuous at best. I recently attempted contact with my brother after twenty years of not speaking. I had talked to my SIL by emailed, I told her that I had almost died two weeks prior because I had another bleeding incident where I almost bled out. My sister-in-law made me beg and my brother couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone to call me.(Mind you as a BP and SP he had made these kinds of calls plenty of times.)

    Prior to this his son lambasted me for not explaining to his satisfaction, why I cut off contact for twenty years. At this point, I emailed both him(threw his wife) and my nephew and I told my nephew and my brother this is not acceptable to me and that as my brother its’ one thing to think that he doesn’t care about me, yet quite another to absolutely know it. And by his latest actions of not bothering to pick up the phone it tell me he really doesn’t give a crap. I told him in plain clear language that this was unacceptable to me.

    I didn’t ask my brother for anything unreasonable. But my brothers wife and indeed my brother himself made it seem as if I asked him to kill his firstborn son.

    What am I trying to say here is this, You need to have two people come to the table and have a relationship. If the other person isn’t willing, I don’t feel guilty for not keeping the relationship. This includes parents, siblings, extended family whatever. I’d much rather be alone and on my own two feet and healthy, then in a relationship with these people and feel like I’m begging to be a part of their life. I think actions speak louder than words and in some instances, they may say one thing, but they are doing something completely different(this may be conscience or not) either way its’ not good

  2. What advice do you have for this situation?

    Exactly what you said. I really think you nailed it perfectly.

    How have you dealt with similar situations in your own life?

    Fortunately, I had some similar advice given to me a while back and I tried to handle it exactly as you have described here. I think the results are okay. I think the family member felt I was being belligerent by not engaging in conversation with them. But it is certainly civil and respectful at this point.

  3. What advice do you have for this situation?
    How have you dealt with similar situations in your own life?
    How do you define the commandment “honor thy father and mother?”

    To honor one’s father and mother may not have anything to do with them personally, imho. Just living an honorable life, trying to love and serve others is honoring them, no matter what kind of people they are.

    I don’t know enough about Bowen to comment on that aspect, but I like to look at these issues from a “relational functions” viewpoint. These functions basically spell out the end result or “when the dust settles” after interactions with one’s family. The first is “relational connection” – how much emotional closeness and contact, interdependency, etc. is wanted to keep the relationship afloat. “Relational hierarchy” is how much control or influence members try to exert on each other, usually based on roles (e.g. “I’m your father” or “I’m older” etc.) or resources (we have the $, so listen to us). Generally hierarchy is not a very good way to go about things. It sounds like the parents in this case are going with hierarchy (re: threats and opposition) which doesn’t work very well.

  4. So, when I get into similar (though not as severe!) conflicts with in-laws or etc. I try to focus on these functions. That way, when some negative interaction occurs, or their is some ongoing negative pattern, I try to consider that whatever solution I or (hopefully) we all together come up with honors each person’s differing needs for connection and/or independence, and I try to understand how people much older than myself may have instilled in them a hierarchy of sorts. I try not to violate that, or blame them for the problems (even though it’s easier to). I agree though, boundaries must be kept. I also agree with Natasha – cutting off all ties, although ultimately MAY be necessary in very few cases, is just continuing playing the game. SO many people say, “I’m not going to play these games with them, so I’m not talking to them about x.” That is just playing the game though.

    Gosh I hope some of that was coherent! 🙂

  5. Three cheers, Natasha! Well written, and great advice.

    I especially appreciated the paragraph on differentiation:

    “… and the family system does not need to “fall apart” just because a member chooses to behave outside of the prescribed “family rules.” There is tolerance in this type of system. There is room for differing thoughts, ideas, beliefs and behavior even when disagreements are present.”

    How I would have appreciated learning this earlier in my life than I did, as I have adult children who have travelled different spiritual paths than the one I would have chosen for them. I actually came to terms with their departure before they did, and sometimes they still speak as if I bear some ill will, which I do not (and have not for years). But I think they may worry about this same issue of how to honor me and walk a different road.

    Kudos to you for an excellent post.

  6. Useful concept this,differentiation.I recently spoke to my daughter in relation to some of her choices,indirectly.I found that I am OK with her choices.I’m not sure that it’s currently possible for her to understand that,so I’m going to work at letting her know.We never got to this point with our parents who saw our choices as a rejection of them,and rejected us in turn,so there’s some improvement there.I’d like very much not to repeat history,either one way or another.

    I think it helps to see ourselves as on our own respective spiritual paths,and to trust that God will do His own work with family members.It doesn’t have to be me.I just have to play my part.I have to learn to manifest the love of God,and hand judgement over to Him.It may be different for others.For me,it’s about letting go of control.

  7. Thanks Paul.

    I agree that control issues are at the heart of a lot of these types of issues. And since we have very little control, if any, in relationships then we are constantly in varying degrees of anxiety. How we choose to deal with these feelings is at the very foundation of the relationships we have.

  8. The Ensign has an answer to this question in an issue about 10 years ago now I believe. I could not find it off hand as I don’t have much time to look into it during my lunch break.

    Basically what the answer they gave was to withdraw from the abusive source for a while (months, years, whatever is best), even if it is parents, but leave the lines of communication open in case they decide to try and work things out before you do. This is basically like setting up boundaries, but the boundry is basically not having any contact with them unless it is on a neccessity basis. But do not break off all contact.

    I would first go with the above advice that most have given you before you get to this point. But according to the church abuse of any kind is not tolerated and you need to get yourself and your family away from it before it does any permanant damage. You need to look after your own salvation first, then others, but you have a responsibility to your children in this regard as well (ie to look after their salvation). The fact that you still have love for your parents and feel bad about thinking like this shows that you still respect and honour them. But remember, we need only respect, honour and obey if they hearken to the voice of the Lord. If not, then we must make our own path.

  9. The commandment says honor thy parents. It doesn’t say to honor them only of they were terrific and wonderful. We are commanded to honor them.

  10. Re Natasha-

    I agree that control issues are at the heart of a lot of these types of issues. And since we have very little control, if any, in relationships then we are constantly in varying degrees of anxiety.

    For me, there is an important differentiation here to be made since I think “control” gets a bad rap most of the time. I think that it’s control of other people that is at the heart of these issues. I think the recognition that it’s only ourselves over which we have control, and thereby get to define our involvement with those who hurt us, is exactly the concept you are trying to describe. When we talk about not being “controlling” what we really mean is to stop trying to control and manipulate others. But the realization of control over self is empowering, healthy, and allows us to enable healthy relationships.

  11. #11 — The commandments also teach that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave unto his spouse, suggesting at some point the parent-child relationship becomes secondary to others, and especially to the marriage covenant. So there must be a way to honor parents while also remaining united with our spouse and supporting our spouse.

    Parents who engage in abuse are not honored by being allowed to engage in continuing abuse. In fact, one might argue they are more honored by being allowed to face the consequences of their abuse, including losing the relationship with those they abuse.

  12. Wonderful Paul.Eventually,I learnt that we honour our parents with the truth.Your comments would have helped me manage the anxiety that I felt in the face of our own parents difficulty with our choices.This was a conversation that I had to have with God,my husband and my own soul,which I found lonely and isolating.

    I really learn most from the gospel when we are personal and explicit.

  13. There is room for differing thoughts, ideas, beliefs and behavior even when disagreements are present. “I can be connected to you without needing to think, act and believe as you do.” The more differentiated we are, the healthier the family system.

    This sounds like a great recipe for dealing with my “ward family” in a healthy way!

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