When Spiritual Abuse Comes From The Home

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Julie Anne Smith’s blog Spiritual Sounding Board. It was originally published on June 15, 2013 with the title, “Adult Children Shunned by Homeschool Parents: Selah’s Story.”

On my blog we recently discussed the challenges that some former homeschool students face when they leave their home.  This story is quite different from the last story, but it, too, deals with painful and strained relationships with fundamental Christian parents who were influenced by the subculture of the Homeschool Movement.

The pseudonym, Selah, was chosen for this personal account:  ”a Hebrew musical word that merges the modern concepts of pianissimo and fortissimo.”  For those not familiar with musical terms, pianissimo is a dynamic marking indicating the music should be played very softly, and fortissimo, very loudly. Selah continues,  ”In Jewish worship it is that moment of silence to mediate on what’s past, but an admonition to prepare to be dynamic.”

I love that description.   It will come more clear why she chose the name when you read her story.

I had the opportunity to talk with Selah and she shared her disturbing story with me.  Selah is 30 years old and left home 7 years ago.  Her parents had dysfunctional backgrounds, but both wanted to get things right in their lives and attempted to do a good job living their faith. Selah’s family was one of the first families to begin homeschooling in their small community. In fact, her family was ostracized for doing so.

Her family went from church to church trying to find the perfect church.  They eventually traveled to all churches within a 30-mile radius of their home, a total of 23 churches in all. They dabbled in the Shepherding Movement, had church in their home for several years, experienced some pretty destructive churches with affairs and sexual abuse occurring by church leaders. R.C. Sproul, Jr., was among her father’s influencers.

Eldest children in homeschool families often get burdened with a lot of childcare responsibilities and Selah’s family was no exception.  Selah is the oldest of six children.  While her parents worked, Selah took care of her younger siblings.  She had an outside job, but took the responsibility of making her siblings breakfast in the morning, went to work, and then came home to make sure they had their lunch, later giving them baths and putting them to bed.  Selah was the one who took most of the responsibility for caring for her two youngest siblings, yet her parents complained that she didn’t do it right.

Through her teens, Selah experienced suicidal thoughts and depression.  At the age of 19, Selah took a full-time job, but wanted to go to college.  Like many homeschool families, her parents embraced the courtship model for Selah and wanted to oversee all aspects of her romantic life.  At the age of 23, Selah’s parents interfered in the relationship with her boyfriend and eventually kicked her out of the home.

Currently, Selah is living away from her parents, but struggles because she wants to have a relationship with them and her younger siblings.  God has provided other people in her life, but the void of her family is ever-present.  This was the comment that Selah posted on the Spiritual Sounding Board Facebook page:

What do you do when the Spiritual Abuse comes from the home? I have left. I have no contact with them, which is their choice, not mine. And in a recent letter to my boyfriend, my mom (who is at the crux of this) stated that I am a threat to them and has stated to my pastor and other friends that I am mental.

I have been on my own for seven years, hold a good job and regularly attend church. They refuse to go to church stating that the corporate church is apostate. They state that until I am married, they should have the final say in my life.

I must esteem and honor them, and any perceived deviation from that has repeatedly gotten me expelled.

If they were ‘just a church’ or ‘just some people’ I could maybe just let it go. But it’s my mom and dad, and my five siblings.

There is nothing harder than telling the man you want to marry that he can never know his inlaws and that your children will never know their grandparents.

Is there a solution to this? Or will it look like this forever?

This is really heart wrenching.  What adult child deserves to be abandoned by their parents? Why is it that some fundamentalist Christians are willing to completely sever ties to their adult children when they don’t measure up to their Christian standards?

What kind of love is this?

Let me share with you what I found on Wikipedia on shunning with regard to family relationships:

A key detrimental effect of some of the practices associated with shunning relate to their effect on relationships, especially family relationships. At its extremes, the practices may destroy marriages, break up families, and separate children and their parents. The effect of shunning can be very dramatic or even devastating on the shunned, as it can damage or destroy the shunned member’s closest familial, spousal, social, emotional, and economic bonds.

Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature. When used by church members and member-spouse parents against excommunicant parents it contains elements of what psychologists call parental alienation. Extreme shunning may cause trauma to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.

What can we as a church body do to help people like Selah?

How can the church body respond to her?

I cried unto the LORD with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.  

~Psalm 3:4

11 comments

  • First, we need to offer them safe spaces where they can understand that they are not alone in their experiences. I have also been shunned by my family for breaking from their beliefs as an adult. We are not alone. No, it is not easy, but the pain does ease… especially as we become more and more self-sufficient and recognize that we did nothing to deserve the treatment we received. More and more of us need to be reaching out with this message. I needed it so badly when I was first going through the pain of losing my family, and I can only try my best to offer that same message now.

    Speaking honestly, I cannot say whether it will ever change. We must accept that, if our parents choose to forgo a relationship with us, we cannot force them to be open to us again. It is not our fault. We are not responsible for their feelings about us. Accepting this truth, as horrible as it is, actually helps bring great healing. It leaves us in control of our own future and helps us let go of the parts that we cannot control. After all, shunning is primarily a manipulation tactic, and relinquishing any responsibility for the parents’ bad behavior makes this manipulation ineffective. I hope these sorts of things help.

    • Galacticexplorer – It sounds like you are really seeing a clear picture of what happened to you. Of course it doesn’t diminish the pain, but you are dealing with is honestly and know that there is nothing you can do. I’m very sorry that your parents have shunned you. I was drinking some thick Kool-Aid and was very close to shunning my own daughter when she left our home abruptly. Something deep from within told me to buck the system I was in. I’m so thankful. She is on a different path from the way we raised her, but we have a great relationship. I hope your parents one day will accept you. A lot of parents think they are doing the right thing – – they are blinded. It’s so sad.

      • Thank you for your kind comment! I think there is no chance that my parents will ever accept me, although they have “allowed” me into their lives in a minimal way since I was first kicked out of their home for being a lesbian. This isn’t much of a relationship though and, at this point, the effort of fighting for a better relationship doesn’t seem worth the stress and pain and abuse I would have to make myself vulnerable to. Only time will tell, however.

        I’m so glad that you escaped that sort of toxic belief system yourself before you risked losing a child. I know there are plenty of parents (mine included) who honestly believe that they are doing the best thing for their child by shunning them. It is considered a necessary sacrifice to protect their child’s soul. Even to this day, my parents do not believe that they did anything wrong. They admit that they are “sorry you were hurt” but say that they don’t think they could have done anything differently. It is so much harder to reach any form of forgiveness or reconciliation if the other side refuses to acknowledge any form of wrong-doing. I acknowledge that my parents had good intentions, but sadly, good intentions are no excuse for bad behavior. It warms my heart to see someone who dodged that bullet. Your daughter should be proud.

  • Yet what about when all of the criteria applies with regards to shunning / familial excommunication and yet the family insists they aren’t, that any distance is the responsibly of the adult child? Criteria like: not invited to holiday dinners, no communication except to share scripture about being those undervthe power of satan, and assurances of prayer, and begging to “return to The Lord” even though one hasn’t officially “left” The Lord? (It is all based upon familial perception/doctrinal differences/projection of worst fears.)

    One is left with all of the psychological, emotional, and physical experiences due to shunning without the concrete- ness or actual closure an official shunning can offer… Thus a nebulous and yes, excruciatingly torturous and grief-laden experience which still can’t be pinned down or owned.

    • The Quiet One – – I wanted to scream when I read your comment. Let me call it what it is. It is emotional and spiritual abuse. It is wrong!! You can’t coerce someone to be a Christian. They are so caught up in their system they are missing what true Christian love is. I’m so sorry your parents are treating you like this. I hope that you will find other people in your lives who will love you unconditionally, as your parents should have done. 😦 My heart really goes out to you!

    • Your comment tugs at my heart because I have been there too… where the shunning is considered “conditional” and therefore the parents claim “it’s your fault that you are being shunned; you could stop this at any time by doing x, y or z.” This is such a deceptive trap for a hurting adult child, but I had a girlfriend who thankfully revealed this to me as nothing short of emotional abuse and manipulation. You do NOT have to play their game. They are the ones who made the decision to make the relationship conditional. If the conditions are not worth the effort you would have to make, you are fully justified in rejecting them. Family relationships should NOT be conditional.

      In my case, I was told I would be kicked out of my house if I visited my lesbian girlfriend. They later insisted that they had never banished me because “you could have chosen to break up with her and we made it clear that, if you did that, you were welcome to be here!” They afterwards agreed to keep communications open with me, but only if I never mentioned anything to do with her ever again. Since I am now preparing to propose to this same young woman (I hope!!!) it will soon become too much work for me to edit her out of my life every time I try to speak to my family. They will have to remove their conditions of communication or else lose what few scraps of relationship they have with me left. I am not ashamed of making this ultimatum anymore. It was their choice to make their love for me conditional. I demand something closer to all-or-nothing. As children who have done nothing wrong, we deserve that. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. I am wishing you all the best.

  • Parents really run into problems with this when ALL of there children become apostates. Basically, they’re left alone in a house with a bunch of adult children who want nothing to do with them.

    Parents have all the leverage when kids are under 18, but after that, the balance of power changes dramatically… especially when grandchildren come into the picture.

    I’m sorry for Selah. I guess if I had any advice, it would be to try and keep relationships with your siblings, especially once they become adults. They may look to you for guidance.

  • This also calls to my mind, of course, how in many instances the pressure to stay keeps some bound to such families as these. It flows from a perfectly natural attachment to one’s parents too. As Selah says above, they’re not just some church or group of people: they’re mom and dad.

    Her parents had dysfunctional backgrounds, but both wanted to get things right in their lives….

    This leapt off the page too. I have consistently detected a tendency in these situations for the authorities to be compensating for their own perceived shortcomings. Again, there’s something natural about it: we want to avoid the mistakes of our pasts or the mistakes our parents may have made. Here, though, it seems that the spiritual abuse of parents rests in the false belief that, whatever was wrong with them–whatever “total depravity” they knew themselves–is exactly what is wrong with everyone else, most especially their children, and so they treat them accordingly. On the assumption that they need to be controlled in some very particular ways, that is.

    Thank you for crossposting this.

    • Lesseter – BINGO! That’s exactly the trap that we fell into – we were trying not to make the mistakes we felt our own parents had made. We went overboard and couldn’t see what was happening before it was too late. 😦

  • Pingback: Is That You, Jesus? | Ever So Gently

  • I have an extremely similar situation. Have been estranged (shunned) since 16, now almost 32 (16 years). No hope of resolution with my father, his wife and my brother unless I “give my life to Jesus”, in the way that they see fit. It’s been a forever heart break and I’ve built my life without them. Not convinced it even makes sense to have a relationship again. They no longer even know me, nor I them. I still think regularly…”What should I do? What can I do? ” and continuously come up empty handed of ideas. They have a conditional family offer that I cannot deliver on. I’m so sad for anyone who goes through this horrible life experience. Only thing you can do is make your own life one of light and unconditional love, with or without Jesus. Everyone has their own journey. ♡♡♡

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