One of the first topics you will face after a faith crisis is how to approach the subject with family. Everyone’s family dynamics are different, so there are a variety of ways to approach this subject. The most general advice is to look for clues on how your family might react to your faith crisis, then act accordingly.
Assessing Your Family:
The reaction to coming out to your family about your beliefs can be wildly unpredictable. For a lucky few, their family will be completely open and accepting and things will continue on as normal. For an unlucky few, their family will fly into a rage and make every attempt to destroy your life including (but not limited to): withdrawing financial support; reporting you to your bishop, the honor code office, or even the police; or spreading malicious lies about you to turn friends, coworkers, and extended family against you. Most of your families will be unhappy with the situation, try to argue with you a few times, and decrease contact with you; but over time most also become more open and accepting until the current situation becomes normal in their eyes.
In determining how your parents will react, look back at their parenting style, or (if possible) look to previous cases of people close to them leaving the church. The most obvious indicator is any time a sibling of yours has left the church before you. In that case, their reaction will likely be similar. If you have no precedent, analyze their relationship with the church. How rigid does your family adhere to every teaching and commandment in the church? If your family believes that adultery should be punished by death and interracial marriage is a bad idea, they will likely react negatively to your news. Even smaller things, like being okay with the mother working a job, drinking caffeinated soft drinks, or watching movies and playing video games on Sunday, can act as litmus tests for your family’s position on faith transitions/crises.
How diverse is the social network of your family? If your family associates with nonmembers, members of the LGBTQ community, or people from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds, they will likely be more open-minded. Family members that only interact with white, rural, Utah-Mormons may not be so liberally-minded. The number of openly-gay or ex-mormon people within your extended family should also be factored in.
Lastly, symptoms of behavioral disorders–such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder–are important to take into consideration. Church power-structures tend to attract and foster these sorts of behaviors, so it may be more common than you think. Any behaviors that would fall into this category are major red flags and indicative that your family may react badly to your news.
How to Approach Your Particular Family:
After taking all these factors into consideration, you should have at least a rough idea of where on the spectrum your family lies. In most situations, it is best to tell your family as soon as possible about your faith transition. As hard as it is to stay undercover at BYU (or any CES school), it is significantly harder to continue to present as Mormon to family. Failing to tell your family about your faith crisis could also potentially lead to a breach of trust and damaged relationships. However, if you have good reason to suspect that your family will attempt to jeopardize your place at BYU or otherwise sabotage your life, you may want to consider waiting to break the news to them until after you graduate. If you wait to tell family, you will need to keep up Mormon appearances with them, which means following the advice under the “Maintaining Appearances” section when interacting with family.
Evaluate whether you would rather leave your Mormon roots in the past or continue to interact with Mormon ideas going forward in order to decide how best to proceed.
If you want to avoid conversation about LDS topics:
When breaking the news to family, you need to describe your belief in absolutes. You want to lessen the blow, but don’t do it by saying things like, “I’m not sure the church is true,” because your family may interpret this as you saying you are simply doubting, and start trying to strengthen your faith. Instead, use phrases like: “I have learned that the church is not true” or “I no longer identify as a member of the church”.
If you want to have open conversation about LDS topics:
If you are willing to have lengthy discussions about the validity of church claims with family, express to them an openness to reconsider Mormonism, or even believe again, if presented with sufficient evidence. Most members will interpret this sort of statement as a challenge to reconvert you, and will be more willing to discuss your issues with the church; however, this may lead to increased arguments and possible animosity as well.
For most (if not all) family types:
Express acceptance and understanding to your family for their beliefs and way of life. Express a hope that they can return the same acceptance and understanding to you and your new beliefs and way of life. Make it clear that you don’t wish ill will or harmed relationships with anyone in your family. Also make it clear that it is not your objective to pull them out of the church. Emphasize the importance of open dialogues based on mutual respect. Avoid emotionally-driven conversations or arguments when dealing with this topic, as it is extremely easy for people in this situation to lash out in anger or sadness on both sides. Avoid going much in depth into the reasons why you left the church; expressing why you left, especially at first, can be easily interpreted as spewing anti-Mormon lies towards your family. You may want to instead refute their default thinking as to why you left the church. For example, point out that you didn’t leave simply because you were offended or wanted to sin. Emphasize that you didn’t leave because they were bad parents, and express appreciation for their parenting.
Communicating Schooling Status:
If you have decided to stay at BYU for schooling and you have determined your family will not attempt to sabotage your educational goals in any way, you may want to discuss this with family. Help them understand why you want to stay at BYU. It may be helpful to let them believe that by staying at BYU you may be pulled back into the church. Likewise, if you are transferring out of BYU, you should also express this to family.
Overall, family interactions can be some of the most complex parts of navigating a faith crisis/transition. Take care to approach the situation with the finesse it requires. Poor communication or mediation can set the trajectory for years to come if not resolved early on. I don’t want to make the situation more stressful than it is, but I also know more than one person who have inadvertently created situations that they could have avoided if given proper attention early on. Good luck and have some moral support as you confront this issue: