When parents and children have differing religious beliefs, it can lead to stressful, painful, and overwhelming family conflicts and discord. Your age, if there is abuse present within the family system, whether you still live with your parents, and if utilize any of their resources can all impact how you may choose to deal with overly religious parents.
How to Deal With Overly Religious Parents
It's important to understand in the simplest terms that in a healthy and loving parent-child relationship, the love from the parent to the child should be unconditional. This means that regardless of your belief system, the love your parent feels towards you should not be based on any conditions.
- Your parent(s) accepts you for who you are and supports your growth into the person you were meant to be.
- Your parent(s) can accept that you have differing beliefs and values from theirs.
- Your parent doesn't reject you based on your belief system.
- Your parent(s) understands that you will develop or have developed into a unique adult and doesn't expect you to be a carbon copy of them and their beliefs.
If your parent is overly religious, but you feel he or she loves you unconditionally and accepts your individual belief system, you likely have a healthy relationship with them regardless of your differing beliefs. If you suspect you have an unhealthy relationship with your parent and your belief system is adding to the strain, keep in mind that your religious differences are not the root cause of the relational dysfunction you are experiencing.
How Do You Cope With Extremely Religious Parents?
Every situation will be unique, but in general, you can consider:
- Surround yourself with healthy and safe friends and/or family members who accept who you are and your belief system.
- Create a mantra for yourself that you can say when you're feeling upset about your familial circumstances. This may be something like, "It's okay to have different beliefs" or "It's important for me to be true to myself."
- Keep a journal that you can keep private and use it to vent your feelings and thoughts. Do not keep a tangible or easily accessible journal if your parent(s) has a history of going through your room or items and can be volatile.
- If you live with your parents and you are a minor and they are threatening abuse or have been abusive and you feel unsafe, find a safe place to go immediately, tell a trusted adult, call the police or a crisis line. Keep in mind that abuse tends to escalate, so don't wait and go with your gut if you feel you are in danger.
- If you will be living with your parents for several more years, you can begin to set personal boundaries. This means beginning to let go of the notion that you will agree with your parents regarding religion and privately embracing your own unique belief system. Remember, you do not need to share everything with your parents. You are entitled to develop your own belief system and you can definitely keep that to yourself if you feel doing so will keep you safe.
How Do You Tell Your Religious Parents You're Not Religious?
If you want to tell your parents you are not religious, it's important to consider what their reactions may be and whether you will feel emotionally and/or physically safe afterwards. While some parents may be accepting of differing beliefs, others may swing the opposite way and completely reject or disown their child.
- If your parent(s) are not abusive, and you believe it would be safe to tell them your thoughts, you can share your belief system in a neutral way without denigrating their beliefs.
- If your parent(s) have a history of being physically and/or emotionally abusive, it's best to keep your belief system private, as they are likely unsafe to open up to.
- If you live with your parents or they are providing some resources for you, think about how telling them will impact your ability to access these resources, especially if you need them for survival (food, shelter, etc.).
- If you don't live with your parents, are not taking any resources from them, and they do not have a history of being abusive, you can consider telling them in a neutral way.
Is It Legal for Parents to Force Religion?
It is not legal for parents to force religion onto their children. Under the United States Constitution, all Americans, including minors, have the right to freedom of religion. However, enforcing this right with legal action is pretty tricky and as long as a minor is provided for in terms of food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care, how a parent(s) choose to incorporate religion into their family is up to them. Using religion as a means to abuse or manipulate your child in any way is known as spiritual abuse and is not only extremely detrimental to the child, but is also grounds for Child Protective Services to get involved.
Why Parents Should Not Force Religion
A parent's job is to provide a loving, nurturing, healthy, and safe environment where their child or children are able to explore and develop into a unique individual without fear of parental rejection. When religion is forced in an overly rigid environment, the child is not given the opportunity to explore their own thoughts, belief system, and values. This can negatively impact the child as they develop into adults by:
- Reinforcing the notion that they can't think for themselves
- Reinforcing the notion that their beliefs are wrong
- Heightening household stress and discord, which can lead to internalized feelings of chaos as the norm
- Increasing their risk of developing mental health symptoms and disorders
- Negatively impacting their ability to have healthy adult relationships
- Negatively impacting their ability to trust their own gut
Controlling Religious Parents
If your parents are controlling when it comes to religion, chances are they are rigid in terms of how they live their lives and parent in general. Keep in mind that the subject of religion is likely just the tip of the iceberg and may stand more as a metaphor for what your relationship with your parent looks like. With overly controlling parents, you may feel or notice:
- Misunderstood, rejected, and belittled
- Smothered, on edge, and nervous to be yourself
- Low confidence in yourself and your ability to make sound decisions
- Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
- Finding yourself unconsciously drawn to rigid, intense, or controlling partners
Set Appropriate Boundaries
Because you know your parents best, you can use your history with them to understand if setting boundaries is a viable option for you. You can set boundaries if:
- There is no history of abuse- abuse is already a gross violation of boundaries
- You have set boundaries successfully in the past with them and they have been respected (for example: if you say, "I don't feel comfortable talking about that," are you pressured or pushed to discuss or are your boundaries respected?)
- You feel emotionally safe enough to set some boundaries with them
Setting appropriate boundaries may look like telling them you respect their religious views, but are exploring your own beliefs, or letting them know you aren't comfortable discussing a certain religious topic going forward. You may also decide to no longer attend certain religious events or participate in religious services. It is up to you to decide what you are and are not comfortable with. While some may feel comfortable with certain religious holidays, or attending a religious service, others may not want to participate in anything religious whatsoever.
Seek Outside Support
Feeling parental rejection is one of the most painful and visceral unconscious and conscious experiences a child, even an adult child, can go through. If you feel that your parent(s) has rejected you, doesn't accept you, doesn't understand you, or bases their love for you on certain conditions, it's a good idea to find a therapist who can help you process this. Even though religious disagreements may feel like the major problem within the family system, there may also be traumatic experiences and attachment issues beneath the surface.
Dealing With Overy Religious Family Members
Whether you live with your family members or not, there are ways to deal appropriately when your opinions differ:
- Remember that being a mature and healthy adult means understanding that not everyone will share your same belief system, so it's important to be respectful of your family's belief system, even if they aren't of yours.
- If your family members bring up religion and you feel uncomfortable, find ways to minimize contact and/or remove yourself from the situation in a respectful way.
- If your family members are highly combative regarding religion, don't engage with them. You can say, "I respect your opinion", "Let me think about that", or "I hear you" without further engaging in the conversation. If things get really heated, remove yourself from the situation.
- Remind yourself that it's absolutely okay to think for yourself and have different beliefs than your family members. While this can be painful and challenging to do, keep in mind that you can provide support and loving acceptance for yourself.
- Surround yourself with accepting friends who you can be yourself with.
- Find healthy ways to vent and process your experience with your family members.
How Do You Cope With Religious Parents?
Depending on your unique circumstances with your parents, you will need to thoroughly evaluate the situation before making any decisions regarding setting appropriate boundaries, sharing your thoughts, and seeking outside support.