Coping with parental resistance: explanations and possible solutions

Coping with parental resistance: explanations and possible solutions

ONE SATURDAY EVENING, a few of us monks were looking for a movie to watch after compline. Since it was the feast of St. Bernadette of Lourdes, Brother Zachary suggested the 1943 black-and-white classic, Song of Bernadette. I had never seen it, nor had many of the mostly younger monks who occupied the TV room to watch the truly inspiring, if somewhat sentimental, account of St. Bernadette Soubirous—the 19th century adolescent who, in the face of mounting opposition from nearly everyone around her, pursues a mysterious call to relationship with the Blessed Mother and ultimately God.

As drawn as I was to the beautiful character of Bernadette, I found myself equally riveted by the plight of Bernadette’s mother, who struggles to relate to her beloved daughter who is drawn into something that she (Bernadette’s mother) doesn’t understand. Her struggle manifests itself in a panoply of emotional reactions including concern, frustration, embarrassment, disapproval and even a desire to temporarily disown her daughter, as she attempts to send Bernadette off to live with an aunt, hoping she might pass though this phase and stop bringing shame on the family. It struck me as I watched the film, that the vocation stories of many of our younger monks are actually quite similar to that of Bernadette: a call to a deeper relationship with God which parents struggle to understand and often respond to with discouragement if not outright disapproval. After several years working as a vocation director and a psychologist conducting evaluations to screen candidates for seminary and religious communities, the issue of negotiating negative parental reactions to the decision to pursue religious life or priesthood impresses me as not only common, but often quite important in the discernment and initial formation of many young men and women considering a call to religious life.

Many reasons behind opposition

If there was a time when parents almost uniformly experienced great honor at having a child become a priest, sister or religious brother, it is probably in the past. Still, I suspect that even some of the older members of our communities met with resistance from their parents when they decided to join religious life. Today negative reactions from parents and family take many forms, including questioning the child’s decision, expressing outright disapproval, and even offering to pay for the trappings of an alternate choice. I have heard, for example, of parents who offer to buy their child a new car or pay for graduate school tuition if the child would change his or her mind. In even more extreme cases, I have known of breaks in communication between a parent and child as a result of her expressed desire to pursue religious life.

Many factors contribute to such resistance from parents, and these factors can act together in different combinations. Some parents are suspicious of priests and religious following the child sexual abuse scandal. Others have had negative or limited experiences of priests and religious growing up themselves. Outdated or stereotyped impressions of religious based on Hollywood depictions are typically not helpful to a parent’s understanding of the religious life the child hopes to pursue (we find this particularly true in monasteries), and the prospect of not having grandchildren or having the family name discontinue can also make it difficult for parents to support their child’s choice to enter a religious community. Some parents distrust celibacy as “unnatural” or “unhealthy,” and in situations where the candidate is a more recent convert to Catholicism, parents may still be feeling resentment over their child’s migration away from the family’s faith tradition. In these situations, the decision to join a religious community feels like insult added to injury.

Even if none of these factors are at play—even if a son or daughter has grown up in a Catholic family with accurate impressions and supportive attitudes regarding religious life, a child’s decision to pursue a vocation may still elicit a reaction of grief from parents. I say “grief” because, whether the choice is a religious vocation or the decision to follow a different career, move to another part of the country, or marry someone the family doesn’t know, parents often experience a sense of loss when their child makes a choice that diverges from the path they (the parents) had in mind for their son or daughter. Adding to this grief is the likely reality that parents simply don’t—and perhaps can’t—understand what their son or daughter is experiencing when they say they “feel called” to be a sister or a monk, a brother or a priest. At the very core of this grief is the discovery of a part of their son or daughter that they didn’t know, don’t understand—are unfamiliar with. “I thought I knew her,” a mother thinks to herself. “Who is this son of mine who wants to be a monk?” a father wonders. It’s difficult enough to watch your child grow up and out of the house, but there is a true sense of loss when the child whom you thought you knew well reveals a dimension of herself that you not only don’t know, but can’t quite understand.

Parental resistance, window to maturity

Given the frequency of parental resistance, we ought to expect it and perhaps even anticipate it when talking with men and women who are interested in our communities. Rather than seeing opposition as a potential threat to a young man or woman’s vocation, I suggest that vocation directors approach this fairly normal crisis as an opportunity for growth and a chance to explore both the maturity of the candidate and the freedom with which she or he is choosing to join the community. Let me explain.

One of the significant developmental tasks of late adolescence and early adulthood is separation and individuation from one’s parents and family of origin. Few sons and daughters follow exactly the same path, make every one of the same choices, and associate with exclusively the same people that their parents have steered them toward throughout their childhood. The turbulence we typically associate with adolescent “rebellion” comes about when a teen begins to question the values of his family of origin and the choices his parents have been making for him throughout his childhood. As part of this natural preparation for adulthood, teens include among their circle of influential people, peers and sometimes other adults (teachers, role models of their own choosing) who assist them in building a new, adult identity—one which is typically related to, but no longer entirely dependent on her family of origin. This “individuated” young adult becomes increasingly responsible for his own decisions and works to pursue and defend them with growing confidence. While this transition is challenging and risky for the emerging adult, it is also plenty challenging for the parents who have to make the adjustment from seeing their son or daughter as a dependent child to recognizing him or her as a trusted adult. I suspect that when we talk about the “turbulence of adolescence,” we are equally referring to the turbulence experienced by parents as that of the adolescent!

One of the characteristics vocation directors hope to find in young men and women who approach our communities is self-possession or, in other words, an adequate degree of separation and individuation. This ability to make and defend one’s own decisions, is critical if he or she is going to freely enter into an adult relationship with another—in this case, a religious community who will ask for obedience and expect to exert a new and profound influence on his or her identity. A candidate who approaches community life while still overly dependent on his or her parents is likely to run home when community life gets hard, or struggle when, inevitably, the desires or opinions of the community diverge from those of the candidate’s family of origin.

Brother Christian Raab, OSB embraces his parents

Brother Christian Raab, OSB embraces his parents after his solemn vows ceremony.

Seen in this context, observing how a candidate handles parental resistance can offer vocation directors a window into the emotional and developmental maturity of a candidate. I am always careful when interviewing candidates to ask how their parents feel about their choice to pursue religious life or priesthood. Although I am certainly interested in knowing whether or not parents are supportive, I am more interested in learning how the candidate copes with disapproval or discouragement from parents. Reactions of extreme anxiety or secret-keeping (i.e., “I haven’t told my parents yet because I am afraid of what they’d think”) signal the possibility that more work needs to be done in the arena of healthy separation and individuation. On the other hand, responses such as, “My parents are really struggling with this, but it is important to me and I know that they will eventually come around, especially when they see how happy this makes me,” suggest a level of self-possession and confidence that is not dependent on parental approval. While a vocation director may not wish to dismiss a candidate based solely on how he or she handles parental disapproval, concerns in this area may mark psychosocial maturity as an area of potential concern and provide some impetus for dealing with separation issues as a part of ongoing discernment and initial formation.

For some candidates, the decision to pursue a religious vocation may itself be an act of rebellion—the first time he is confounding the expectations of his parents. I realize that sounds a little funny—religious life as a form of rebelling. But when we consider that adolescent rebellion is really about asserting one’s independence by pursuing ideals, goals and values, even when they differ from what our parents would choose for us, then it makes perfect sense. Rebellion does not necessarily have to take the form of antisocial behavior or disrespectful attitudes toward authority. For most of us, rebelling looks like choosing to major in history when your parents have been pushing business, or wearing baggy jeans and sloppy sweatshirts even though they offend your parents’ more tailored tastes. Seen this way, choosing to enter a monastery may very well be a sort of rebellion, particularly if you come from a family of non-church-goers!

Even among the most well-put-together candidates, parental resistance, when present, is bound to generate some anxiety. Consequently, helping the candidate or new member cope with his or her parents’ reactions may be important in facilitating his or her discernment and promoting fuller participation in the formation process. Following are a few ideas for addressing parental resistance.

Elicit concerns, provide guidance

Vocation directors may wish to ask about parental reactions to the candidate’s interest in religious life early in the vocation director-candidate relationship. By simply asking the question, a vocation director helps to normalize the experience for an individual who might be dealing with these concerns. When broached early in the discernment relationship, a vocation director may be able to head off unnecessary grief on the part of the candidate, helping him better understand the sources of his parents’ reactions, some of which I have outlined above. For the inquirer who is uncertain how her parents might react, anticipating the possibility of resistance helps her not to be surprised or unnecessarily discouraged by negative parental reactions. Anticipating the reaction might also allow the vocation director to help her develop effective strategies for dealing with the resistance early on. Along these lines, helping candidates to clarify how they feel in the face of parental disapproval (i.e., guilty, fearful, anxious) may further assist them in seeing how these feelings are affecting their discernment. In extreme cases where fear of disappointing parents immobilizes a candidate, the suggestion of working with a counselor may be appropriate.

Strategies for bringing parents on board

There are many simple and practical strategies we employ in our community to help our candidates’ parents adjust to their child’s decision to pursue a religious vocation with us. Our goal is typically to allay parental anxieties by answering questions, dispelling myths, and fostering a relationship between the community and the parents themselves. Providing parents with videos and literature about the community’s life, as well as familiarizing parents with the community’s website can go a long way in giving a concrete and more accurate impression of what their son or daughter is actually exploring for him or herself. We often encourage serious inquirers to bring their parents with them for a weekend or day-long visit to the monastery so that they can meet some of our members and see for themselves what their child is choosing. On these occasions, it is particularly helpful if the community hosts a small, informal gathering at which parents can meet other young men or women in formation, as well as formation directors, community leaders, and even members of the community who are close to the parents’ age. These are normalizing experiences for parents—particularly when they see their son interacting and being himself in this new and unfamiliar environment. In our community, we know we have been successful when parents confess to their child: “Wow, everyone here seems so normal! I especially like Brother So-and-so.” When parental visits are not possible, it is certainly worth considering a visit to the parents in their home environment, again providing an opportunity to ask questions and express concerns they might have. Your efforts to meet them where they are may be a powerful witness to your concern for them and their child.

After entry: smoothing the transition

Even once the young man or woman has entered the community, more can be done to assist both the parents and the child with the transition. We sometimes suggest that a new member in the community take pictures of his new life—his activities, his friends, the living arrangements—and include them in emails or letters to their family back home. Real images are always more helpful than imagined ones, particularly when the imagined ones are based on Hollywood stereotypes or pictures painted in the media. Parents are also relieved when they see their child looking happy and healthy and being themselves in their new home.

Finally, when assisting a candidate in negotiating parental resistance, it may be helpful to remind him or her that even though parents tend to eventually grow more comfortable with a religious vocation, the candidate can expect it to take some time. Parents may point out to the candidate that he, himself, needed time to get used to the idea of a religious vocation and that his comfort level only grew as a result of gathering more information and gaining some actual experience of the life.

To return to the film that prompted my thoughts about parent reactions, in The Song of Bernadette, Mrs. Soubirous (Bernadette’s mother) becomes one of Bernadette’s most ardent supporters, and we see the parent-child relationship evolve from one of worrying about the child, to admiration of the spiritually gifted young woman. In my experience, it is relatively rare that a parent does not eventually “come around” to the idea of a child joining a religious community. In fact, many have told me that their initially disapproving parents became the ones who would be the most disappointed if they ever left the community.

Surely, one of the developmental tasks of parents is to see their children settled in life. It is a great comfort to parents knowing that their child has a place to live, stable work and, most importantly, meaningful and lasting relationships. When these are in place, parents feel that they have done their job. Their duty is fulfilled. While it may not be immediately apparent to them, they will ultimately come to learn that the religious life can and will provide these important necessities of life for their son or daughter. As religious vocation directors, we already know this; so we ought to confidently tell our candidates that this life will similarly prove itself to them and their parents. As this occurs, the parents may begin to appreciate the courage, self-confidence and fortitude that their child exercised in following his or her call. They may take great pleasure and pride in knowing that they raised a strong and resourceful child, despite their own doubts and fears about parenting along the way.

Brother John Mark Falkenhain, OSBBrother John Mark Falkenhain, OSB is the vocation director and assistant formation director at St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. A clinical psychologist, he teaches in the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology and conducts research and writes in the areas of human development, celibacy and sexuality, and formation for religious life and priesthood.



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