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.

  • Tim

    Richard.  I have nothing but admiration for a masterful answer. 

  • David McNerney

    When you look at the video that came out with Mitt Romney talking in between segments on the radio show, I thought he came across as reasonably sane, even if a bit silly – which suggests that there must be reasonably sane people working in the Mormon church that have a reasonable grip on reality.

    Maybe some contact with someone in the church who can talk some sense into the parents, while at the same time being senior enough to be respected by them would help.  They must be out there.

  • Muggin15

    I’m not 100% sure about this, but I thought that once you are an ex-Mormon (which LW did not state right out) you are not allowed to even communicate with other members of the church and they are encouraged to shun him, so going back to an authority in the church may not be an option. May or may not be the case, just something I had seen in some documentary. 

    Other than that some very good advice. I always enjoy these letters. 

    • Jake

       Your are thinking about the Amish, not Mormons. And even then, it is only some Amish communities that do this.

      • freemage

        Actually, conservative Mormons do in fact practice shunning behavior–it’s not ‘official’ the way it is with Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Amish and the Church of Scientology, but it DOES happen on an informal level–someone who leaves the church will often find that their friends and even family members will refuse to speak to them. 

        Found a discussion of the topic here:

        http://exmormon.org/d6/drupal/Being-shunned-common-if-you-decide-to-not-join-Mormonism

      • Muggin15

         Yeah, I didn’t think all Mormons didn’t just the extreme fundamentalist ones, which it sounds like LW’s parents may be a part of. I can’t remember but I think in the documentary it was the ones that belonged to the Temple right in Salt Lake City. Could be wrong though.

    • RK

      In my 30 years as a Mormon (now ex-Mormon) I never once heard anyone preach that you should shun anyone.  All talk was always about trying to fellowship people back into the church.  As an ex-Mormon I get approached by well meaning people at moderate intervals to see if I won’t come back into the church.

  • Jake

    That is strange. Mormons generally do not focus on the “End Days”. This is something you would expect to see from evangelicals, not LDS.

    • Maria

      You must be talking about a different LDS than what Concerned is talking about. It’s even in the name “Latter Day…”

  • bluepiano

    I grew up in a very religious household, and the private church school my youngest sister attended had teachers that would say all sorts of things that would scare her.  There wasn’t any point in saying they were lying, she wasn’t to that point in her thinking,  but I did find there are ways to calm down and insert a subtle voice of reason even at the point where she was a total believer.  

    If the primary concern is easing fears, there are actually religious arguments/rationalizations that one can say, or leading questions that can help calm someone down, such as “do you believe that God is really in control?  If so, doesn’t that mean he’s got you covered no matter how bad things get?”  or “What’s the ultimate end of things?”  to which they reply “Good/God wins, believers are safe in heaven, etc.  Stuff that asks them about what they believe happens after the end of the world, such as afterlife, will point to the parts of their beliefs that is comforting, rather than the parts that scare them. 

  • Concerned

    OP here:

    They are very fundamentalist Mormon. Every Prophet states that the world is going to end in the lifetime of the congregation that he speaks to. I’m trying to see if I can take my little siblings out. Most of the Ward no longer speaks with me, but my parents are generally loving people. They’d never physically hurt anyone, even when I was removing my name from our listings they weren’t violent. 

    I’m going to just assure them that they are good people and that they will be taken care of.  My youngest brother is only seven, so It’s hard to explain much to him (we have an extremely large family by most standards).  Thanks for the tip on using their own terms. I’m also contacting a great aunt who still keeps in touch with one of the Elders. Hopefully we can all work together to ease their fears for the time being. 

    Thanks again, everyone. My parents really are good people, just delusional from time to time.  

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

      i don’t mean to be rude, but given you’re asking for advice in a public forum, i hope this comes across to you in the helpful spirit it is meant. 

      your parents are not “good people.” any parent who tortures a child is by definition not a good parent, or person. telling a 7yo that he is going to die, or watch many of his neighbors and unbelieving friends die, in some fiery holocaust brought about by a wrathful, super powerful being is cruelty, defined. you need to accept this. 

      i have so much compassion for your younger siblings. ironically, i can give you the atheist version of this story. my parents were good people, and for that reason, they restricted the amount of television we were allowed to watch as children. you may recall the popular movie in the 80s about what would happen after a nuclear war, “the day after” i think it was called. my sister and i were not allowed to view this. but i was a naughty child, and i lied to my parents and told them i wanted to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover the night it was on to play but not watch TV. we watched it, because her parents let her. 

      for years, and to this day even, i was traumatized by it. young children should not be subjected to images of mass violence and death. they do not have the mental faculties to deal with it. coming from parents, reinforced regularly, this is what ‘torture’ means.

      i suspect there is little you can do to remove your siblings from such a damaging environment. so i ask you to face the consequences of doing nothing, which is risking your siblings’ mental health and future sanity and stability. i have worked with students for many years and i’m going to tell you frankly: those raised in a sheltered religious household of homeschooling and religious brainwashing do not function well in a wider world. whatever helped you escape that, you should find a way to give to your siblings now. again, i mean this with compassionate sincerity. 

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    If a person suspects a minor is being abused in the state of Massachusetts he or she can alert the state anonymously, and the authorities will investigate . I don’t know what the law is in your state, but it is worth reflecting on.

  • RK

    The attitude that Mormons think this election signals the end of the world is just plain not what the general Mormon Church believes.  It seems obvious that the above mentioned parents are just nut-cases and do not represent any thing like the general membership of the Mormon Church. (I’m an ex-Mormon and atheist and very well versed in both the accepted doctrines and the fringe ideas of Mormons)

    • SabsDkPrncs

       I have quite a few Mormon friends on Facebook from high school, and all of them are talking about “Doomsday prep” and stocking food, fasting and praying for days on end, and generally freaking out about the election results.  Maybe it’s an Arizona thing.

  • Marco Conti

    As a pre-schooler my parents had the fantastic idea to send me to a school run by nuns. Beside punishing us by spraying DDT in our faces, they also instilled in us the fear of the end days anytime rain clouds appeared in the sky. I can still remember, 40 years later, the sheer terror.

    Fortunately my mother (whom otherwise believes in crop circles, Sasquatch and other nonsense) took me out of that school as soon as she realized why I was acting so strange.

    This was a Catholic school in a well to do neighborhood in Rome, Italy. Not some bible belt hellhole.

    To the OP, I am sure your parents are kind and wonderful in normal times, but to them these are not normal times. I am willing to bet that in a large majority of tragedies where a family member went nuts and did something irreversible, the other family members had no idea he or she could have gone so far.

    I would err on the side of caution and I would do it as soon as possible. Is there any chance that you could at least take the young ones out of there with some pretext? 

  • http://twitter.com/davehodg Dave Hodgkinson

    Proof by induction: plenty of end of time predicitons, none true so far. Keep calm and carry on.

    BTW, I was at school in the 80′s at a time of US-Soviet nuclear tensions and one guy in my year went mad thinking about it. And nothing happened.

    • http://twitter.com/cr0sh Andrew Ayers

      At least that guy in your school had some form of reality behind his fears, though; these people are getting worked up about a complete fantasy!

      Today – humanity still has enough nuclear weapons to fairly well scour this planet of much life; at the very least, it would make living for the survivors very, very rough. Even so, most people don’t even think about this – that we are still living under an insane level of nuclear threat. Today, there is even a “blase” attitude toward nuclear weapons. I tend to wonder how many people are even alive today that have witnessed a nuclear device detonation? Probably not as many I would like (and many would probably be French).

      I tend to wonder, as time goes on, if this diminishing fear of nuclear weapons and the real threat they pose will cause there to be a clammor to use them, leading to a partial or full exchange of some sort, simply because people forgot what “never again” actually meant…

  • Bdole

    Aw, every Christian I know thinks it’s the end of the world. And now that the Muslim, atheist, Kenyan, socialist, NAZI, antichrist has been re-elected their expectations of the imminent return of the 12th Imam, er, I mean, Jesus Christ have piqued/peaked.

  • advancedatheist

    Many christians fear that their world will end because they know on some level that christianity has started to decline. The ones who believe in the rapture have basically the right idea: All the christians will eventually disappear some day, but not because something spooky happens to them. Rather, they will die off organically, and atheists will replace them and not notice their absence. We’ve seen this happen in much of Europe already. Phil Zuckerman in one of his books relates an interview with an American woman who had spent some time in a Baltic country and felt that she had entered a “Jesus who?” world like something out of science fiction. The people in this country didn’t even know how to pronounce Jesus’ name in their own language, and they viewed the christian story as an obscure foreign myth from ancient times. 

    Or as I like to say it, atheists give American christians the creeps because we look like an invasion of time travelers from an era after christianity’s extinction.

  • Santiago

    Please reassure your siblings things will be fine. Then do what you need to do to be safe. This makes me sad and angry at the same time.

  • Bellj

    Christians and Mormons are going nuts over this election right now. I have a real doozie on my fb page and it’s all about his state (Texas) seceding from the Union. Not only this childish behavior, but I remembered this guy as being brilliant in school. What happens to these people? 

    Richard is right. You need to step up.  The parents may be nice and good in most circumstances, but they have demonstrated fundamental instabilities. They cannot handle the normal stresses in life, which by the way include having your candidate lose. I’m not even going to mention that the outcome of the election is supposedly “god’s will”. Oops! 
    But seriously. No child should shoulder the burden of that. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    When I read this stuff about crazy end times teachings in the US I really do shake my head in disbelief that the end timer nonsense still has any traction. Really guys its a full on indiction of the way US faith heads have turned religion into sado-masochistic death cults.

    Y see I attended strict Catholic schools during the 70s (all the way from 8 to 18). I was taught by Salesians to be a stormtrooper for Catholicism….which probably explains why I left school an atheist. However, even back then in RE class we were taught that the Apocalypse end book was a very clever analogous story about the Roman Empire under Nero and particularly the city of Rome, and was a sort of sly prayer for the downfall of the Empire. Anglicans were taught exactly the same thing, possibly thanks to our state education systems. Anglicans and Catholics alike also taught evolution as science from 12 onwards in Biology class, and I got more of it in Geology class, Geography class, etc.

    Only in the US is this end times nonsense taught as prophecy. Only in the US is it widely ascribed to by the faithful.

    There is a sickness, a cancer at the heart of US religion. And its really time for a case of physician heal thyself, and you rational people to put a full stop to it before the Waco’s and Ruby Ridges start to pile up sky high. You guys by your own choice live in a country that has more guns per head of population that frickin Somalia. Adding whacked out millenial end times death cultism to that mix is like sitting on a powder keg smoking a stogie.

  • Maria

    I am a former mormon. When I read the letter, it sounded exactly like what I experienced as a child. Fear is a daily occurrence when a mormon, it is how they keep members faithful. I would even go as far to say that what is happening in the letter is a normal occurrence for a mormon family. To someone outside of that sphere, it may seem like there is a murder-suicide danger, and maybe there is, but this family (sorry, Concerned) sounds like the same overzealous idiots I was forced to be around in my youth. I’m more afraid of the children’s psychological damage – I was diagnosed with OCD in my late 20s as a result of my upbringing in the mormon church. Good luck, Concerned.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Concerned,

    I thought religious people were supposed to look forward to a blissful afterlife and by logical extension, would actually look forward to the “End of Days” because then they would be going to this wonderful afterlife.  If they are fearful of the prospect, then that means they have conflicting emotions or ideas about their religion.  On one level, they accept the prophesy that an “End of Days” will come.  On the other hand, they fear that things won’t work out well for them or their loved ones. 

    Assuming your siblings are much younger and you are not living with your parents anymore, it will probably rely on your parents to find a way to temper their own personal fear.   To minimize their fear, they would need to adopt one of the following strategies:

    1. Come to believe that the “End of Days” is still quite far off and not triggered by this election outcome.  This would allow them to put off confronting any issues of doubt within their faith and continue on as normal.
    2. They could start to question the whole concept of an “End of Days” prophecy and therefore not get worked up over disappointments like their preferred candidate not winning an election.  
    3. They could upon self-examination conclude that they are “good with God” and even if the “End of Days” comes, then that would be good news since they would assuredly be going to heaven.

    Perhaps you could help them with one of these strategies or think of another path.

  • Allmatty

    Mormon readers amongst us may be familiar with this prophesy, but most
    of us aren’t. The White Horse Prophecy is a statement purported to have
    been made in 1843, by Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon religion).
    According to the prophecy, the Mormons would “go to the Rocky Mountains
    and … be a great and mighty people”, identified figuratively with the
    White Horse described in the Apocalypse of St John. The prophecy further
    predicts that the United States Constitution will one day “hang like a
    thread” and will be saved “by the efforts of the White Horse”. “A
    terrible revolution will take place in the land of America, such as has
    never been seen before; for the land will be left without a Supreme
    Government, and every specie of wickedness will be practiced rampantly
    in the land. Father will be against son and son against father; mother
    against daughter and daughter against mother. The most terrible scenes
    of bloodshed, murder and rape that have ever been imagined or looked
    upon will take place.” Smith believed that the US Constitution was
    written by the inspiration of God and that the Mormon religion would
    save it – and America during this time he prophesied.
    http://listverse.com/2011/03/11/top-10-prophecies-you-dont-know/

  • http://www.facebook.com/katherine.appello.5 Katherine Appello

    I was raised Catholic, but have looked into protestant groups, New Age, Bhuddist, but came back to Catholicism for two reasons: 1. Sola Scriptura and individual interpretations create a mess 2. The wisdom of the Catholic Church to see the bible as a seed of historical, along with allegory, and symbol for the times, with recurring historical themes that are still with us, not as literal word per word.  Those who are focused on doomsday and foster it on their kids, are in error.


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