• Rachel Ramer

Part II: Helping Minor Children of Religious Toxicity

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

Read Part I: Children of Religious Toxicity

While I was researching for an article about isolationism and authoritarianism, I recall speaking to a brokenhearted grandmother. She told her story about not being allowed to see her grandchildren because she wasn't religious enough in the eyes of her daughter and son-in-law. She attended church, but not the “right” church. She longed for these relationships, but they were withheld unless she met the religious requirements of her grandchildren’s parents.

If you know of children or have relatives in this or a similar situation, what can you do to connect?

I believe there were adults around my siblings and me who, seeing how our religious father created a sense of depression and authoritarianism, wanted to help. Some of them may have overtly addressed our family problems out of my earshot; yet, most adults quietly ignored or accommodated. Now, I see how difficult it was for those who saw the spiritual toxicity, but who had no authority or power to address it.

I recall a few brave souls who attempted to help. One was an aunt, married to my father's younger brother. They were missionaries in Brazil for many years. I remember on one of her few visits to our home when we were alone together, she offered a listening ear, telling me that I could write to her any time. What she didn't realize is that my father had already accomplished a vaccination against her. She was "liberal," outspoken, and I distinctly got the message not to trust her.

I recall a woman at church who may have also attempted to address the issues. But that church was getting too liberal, so when I was in fifth grade, we left it for a more conservative church where the women knew their places of submission.

I remember the orchestra director at school who asked me to babysit for his children. He never spoke against my parents, but he had a heart of compassion. My sister and I recently went to his memorial service and learned just how active he was in his church and how outspoken he was as an individual. I wonder what his thoughts were while we were under his tutelage. I wonder how many times he bit his tongue, for example, when he found out our father would not attend orchestra concerts because he didn't approve of all the music or the long, flowing black culottes we were required to wear.

These people contributed to our lives, but could they have done more?

What Can Adults Do to Help?

The problems adults face when concerned about children in overly religious homes is that they soon become the enemy. They might take cues from Jesus' scathing rebukes of the Pharisees, but that got him crucified. They might think that religiously toxic people, who claim an interest in logical argument, might benefit from reasoning and common sense, but they quickly find that is a dead end.

Unhealthy religious parents and churches will:

  • demonize them

  • create suspicion around them

  • require extra rules especially for Christians (nonChristians sometimes get a pass)

  • gossip about them

  • limit time with them or limit their children's time with them

Instead, consider the following when dealing with minor children from overly religious homes:

  • love them in the situation

  • don't criticize their parents

  • understand they have a filter and will reject outside ideas--for now

  • maintain long-term relationships when possible

  • avoid offering advice

  • say "you might be right," or "I see this is very important to you," or

  • find ways to open up other possibilities in their thinking without insisting on those other ways, such as “there are other ways of looking at that issue.”

  • minimize your reactions to extreme thinking to help lessen its power over the child, but don’t act as though that thinking is the norm. Ask, “What causes you to think that way?”

  • understand their emotions have been minimized so they may struggle with emotional fallout

  • avoid arguing or thinking you are making progress logically, yet offer what reasonably makes sense

  • maintain healthy boundaries. Understand that emotional neglect can trigger transference when someone shows they care.

Eventually, if given the tools while young, these children will begin to parent themselves. There is a danger in them getting stuck, unable to maneuver a roadblock to recovery. They have a greater chance of healthy adulthood if you model what that looks like.

In an attempt not to pass on these same traits to my own children, I used Jeff VanVoneren's book Families Where Grace is in Place and Valerie Bell's Getting Out of Your Kids Faces and into Their Hearts. Both these books countered the dangerous teachings at that time within Christianity that promoted excessive discipline and limited thinking.


Jesus addressed people with religious concerns when he told his disciples: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica

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