Counseling in the Hands of Emotionally Abusive Parents

Counseling in the Hands of Emotionally Abusive Parents October 25, 2014

One summer home from college, my parents insisted that I meet with our pastor. I was questioning evangelicalism and exploring other Christian faith traditions, and my parents were very concerned about me. So they set up a meeting and sent me off. I could have refused, I suppose, but I was living with them and dependent on them for transportation, so I really wan’t in a place to put up too much of a fuss. The meeting could have been a whole lot worse, and besides, it was just the one meeting. Mostly my parents’ pastor simply quoted scripture to explain why I was wrong about this or that issue, and I stood my ground. But I was recently reminded of this meeting—and my not-so-voluntary role—when reading a blog post by Cynthia Jeub.

My first sister was kicked out in the early 2000s, and at 18 years old she was given the option to live in Kevin Swanson’s basement, having counseling sessions with him and my parents every night until she succumbed to their authority, or to leave and never see us again. She lasted for two weeks before she couldn’t take it anymore, and I didn’t see her for three years.

I am everlastingly glad my parents did not do that. That single meeting with our pastor was awkward and painful, especially given that it came in the context of the emotional abuse I was suffering from my parents at the time. After all, it was set up by my parents explicitly in the hopes that our pastor would be able to bring me back onto the straight and narrow—to make me “see reason.” But compared to what Cynthia’s sister Alicia faced, it was nothing.

Cynthia goes on to explain her parents’ current conditions for her and her sister Lydia:

A lot of people are asking me why everything I’m saying must be public. Why not just go to counseling, why not sort it out privately? We have tried.

. . .

Mom and dad found a counselor last month who we planned to go see, but then they took the liberty of spending two long sessions telling their own story to this counselor before inviting Lydia and me to join the conversation, and asked us to write an essay about our top three grievances so they could deliver these to the counselor secondhand.

We gently informed them that we thought they were controlling and cared too much about their reputation, and they said they disagreed. We said there was physical, emotional, and financial abuse, and they didn’t reply. We backed out – there were too many red flags surrounding the attempt to reconcile. We later found out that this counselor was recommend by a family friend who gave Christian counseling to both my sister Alicia and me (conflict of interest), and who made me distrust therapy in general for a long time.

Cynthia and I grew up in the same conservative Christian homeschooling subculture. When children in the movement become rebellious independent thinkers, it is common for their parents to try to force them back onto the straight and narrow through counseling sessions, often with a pastor or elder. These sessions do not tend to go well for the children, whether they are teens or young adults, in part because they are already beaten down by their parents’ emotional abuse and in part because the sessions are themselves designed to force them back into submission.

In other words, these counseling sessions, whether with a pastor or other religious leader or even, in some cases, a Christian counselor, are a tool wielded by overbearing, manipulative, and emotionally abusive parents to bring their children back into line—whether those children are 14 or 18 or even 22.

Movement children who have reached the age of majority have every reason and every right to refuse to participate in such sessions. Unfortunately, I know from personal experience that refusing often appears more difficult than caving and going, to be beat down only more. It is similarly unfortunate that when we back out of these sessions, our parents can claim that we are the ones who are the problem, because we refused to go to counseling with them to work through our issues and heal the rift.

Am I saying that parents and young adult children who have a troubled relationship should not go to counseling? Absolutely not! What I am saying is that in all too many cases in the movement, emotionally abusive parents use counseling not as a way to resolve disagreements but rather as a way to browbeat young adult children back into line. They choose a counselor they know, or a pastor, or some other individual they already know will be on their side, and they poison the well before the young adult child has a chance to explain their side. In these cases, counseling becomes a tool of abuse, not a way to resolve conflicts.

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