Q&A with Geoff: How do I protect our younger children from the unhealthy influence of their older sister?Nov 17, 2021
We sent our oldest daughter across the country to a church 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 beliefs often, we were still completely blindsided by this.
We 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 reality of her ability to direct her own life. In your question, you used the word, “unfortunately,” when talking about the reality of her agency.
While I do understand the parental pain of watching agency in action as a child disregards what you’ve taught, I believe it’s important to not blame agency as the problem. In fact, our ability to choose is our greatest resource to be happy. To control or diminish her ability to choose is what brings misery and suffering.
I want to invite you to trust in her right to choose and celebrate 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 the direction you’ve taught her right now, she is following a path that will teach her lessons you can never teach her. Resist the tendency to believe that it should be any other way.
You are conscientious and intentional about guiding your children, so I see how painful this is for you. I also believe that when we fully embrace the power of choice, we can surrender and allow others to learn customized lessons for their own growth.
Recognize that your daughter’s journey is far from over. She is currently discovering what matters to her and what priorities she’ll embrace. As much as you might want to pad all the sharp corners of life for your children and spare them from painful experiences, it’s much worse to rob them of the learning that is vital for their own development.
Life is wild and unpredictable, and no one can be spared from having to intentionally direct their own life. You can’t know what any of your children will choose next. It’s also important to remember that none of us ever stop learning and having experiences.
As you contemplate her returning home and eventually exposing her siblings to her lifestyle choices, it’s critical that you hold tightly to the principle of individual choice for all of your children. I don’t minimize the pain of watching your children practice flexing their ability to choose 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 this process. Please be patient with yourself and your children. Stay close to them and let them know you’ll always be there for them so they don’t have to make this life journey alone.
Please note that 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 release control of your children’s ability to choose and hope that all your children will sense the difference between healthy and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.
You’ve taught them what you believe and they have to ultimately decide if they’ll internalize it or not. Of course, you don’t need to broadcast her choices or your disappointment in your daughter’s new 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 that differ from what’s taught in your home, you can stay close to them and process what they’re seeing, feeling, thinking and experiencing. Of course, you can continue to teach your children what you believe is best for them.
This is a parent’s prerogative and privilege. It’s also essential that you teach them to think for themselves and decide what matters to them. They will be presented with countless ideas and beliefs as they develop and they need to know it’s important to develop critical thinking skills that can help them build their own personal belief system.
It’s a gift to your children to help them make sense of opposing feelings and thoughts in the supportive presence of loving parents.
And please don’t forget that 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 choices 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.
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