Ask Richard: Religious Parents Terrifying Their Kids About the End of the World

Richard,

Ever since the election, my Mormon family has been strongly convinced the “end of days” is upon us. My parents have terrified my younger siblings to the point where they can’t sleep at night, and my father is sending out numerous emails to prepare us all. I hate seeing them this upset over an imaginary fear, but nothing I say seems to make an impact. I can’t exactly tell my little siblings that their parents are wrong without making more drama. I love my family and just wish that I could do something to make them feel better. This is real fear they feel, even if it’s not something real that they fear. They tend to get worked up about the end of the world every so often (they believe the world will end in their lifetimes because of a prophecy) but this is really bad. Should I just let this all blow over as usual?

Thanks,
Concerned

Dear Concerned,

My first reaction is always to assess the possibility of danger. Families that are headed by a parent or parents who are as obsessed with fearful scenarios as yours sometimes end up as murder-suicide stories in the media.

The fact that they’ve gone through this cycle of fear more than once before might suggest that this latest episode will not end in tragedy, but if it is following a pattern of escalation, then that is an alarm going off. If either parent’s expressions of fear and despair are more intense each time, and/or if either one is making preparations for the death of family members, then you might need to speak with the police and whatever local agency is in charge of protecting children so that they can investigate the possibility of danger. I get only an impression from your letter that you are not living in the household, but that is another factor that could implicate risk for you as well. It would be better for you to err on the side of caution and have to deal with the “drama” of your parents being angry at you than to suffer the grief of being the only surviving member of your family.

Even without the likelihood of lethality, it sounds like what your younger siblings are experiencing rises to the level of emotional abuse, and without intervention they might sustain long-lasting psychological harm.

Like it or not, fair or not, qualified or not, because only you know all the details, it has fallen upon your shoulders to make the initial assessment of the level of danger and/or abuse, and to decide if you should consult outside authorities, or if this is something that will “blow over as usual.” Consider the well-being of your younger brothers and sisters first, and your own comfort second.

These issues aside, there are some things I think you can do to reduce your younger siblings’ fear. You said, “I can’t exactly tell my little siblings that their parents are wrong without making more drama.” Actually, I think you can, if you approach your siblings privately. You can be the voice of reason that they desperately need to hear. I don’t know how old you are, but you seem to be the closest thing to a credible and rational adult that they have available. They will be grateful to hear you assure them that they can love Mom and Dad, and they are still good kids even if they don’t believe everything their parents tell them. You can gently point out to them that your parents have gone through this nonsense before, and each time the end of the world didn’t happen. Explain to them how for centuries there have been people who were convinced that the End of Days would come in their lifetimes, but they lived out their whole lives with needless fear. Make a private agreement with your little siblings that you will be their anchor of common sense and their safe and discreet person to talk to whenever Mom and Dad go off the deep end. You can be their sane parent.

Another resource you might have could be to consult a person in your parents’ church, or some other Mormon with seniority outside their church who has some credibility with them, but who is rational enough to not buy into whatever this scary prophesy is that they’re believing. Using whatever religious argument is appropriate, he or she might be able talk them into relaxing their panic, especially for the sake of their children.

Concerned, you are the one in your family who is free of the bondage of superstition. That freedom, as with any freedom, always comes with responsibility. Being the one who sees through the veil of fear, shame, and lunacy means that you are responsible to help those who are the most vulnerable to harm by those things. For the sake of the innocent, rise to the challenge, grow into your role, and please keep us informed about how things are going.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.


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