What a blessing for missionaries all over the world to be able to call and talk to loved ones regularly! This gives both parents and missionaries an opportunity to offer mutual support, share experiences, and mourn, cry, celebrate, laugh, and pray together.
As a parent, however, I also know how hard it can be when a missionary reports circumstances, setbacks, or emotions that trigger worry, frustration, or guilt in them—or in me.
While serving as both a mission leader and as a psychologist with other health professionals, researchers, and ecclesiastical leaders on the Church’s missionary mental health committee I came to appreciate even more that while missionaries’ challenges are many, our support from home can make a big difference! Here are a few practical ways parents and friends can help missionaries.
1. What if I sense my missionary is struggling but they don’t share?
People have many reasons for not wanting to share a personal struggle. For example, they may wonder:
- Can I trust you not to freak out, blame yourself, or jump in to take over? Or will I have to reassure you, take care of you, or stop you from doing something I’m not ready for?
- Can I trust you not to blame me or judge me? Will you be disappointed or angry?
- Are you in a position to listen to me now, or does this need to wait?
Before pushing a missionary to talk, I might first check how I feel about their struggles. Do I see their experiences as a sign of failure, or as an opportunity for learning and growth? Do I worry too much about what others might think? Have I responded to my child in the past in ways that might make it hard for them to share? If so, it may be time to apologize, sincerely and freely. Then I could ask if they would be willing to tell me how I could make it easier for them to share now. (For example, your child may want you to just listen, not blame them, not express how disappointed or ashamed you feel, or not jump in to fix it.)
Importantly, in these situations, there are three attributes we should strive to be: calm, curious, and compassionate. When I am calm, curious, and compassionate with my own worries, frustrations, or self-doubts, that will help me be more calm, curious, and compassionate with my missionary as well. Then, I might “prime the pump” to help them open up by saying something like, “I know missions can be pretty hard for lots of reasons. Is this one of those times for you?” Or simply, “You sound a little down. What’s going on?”
2. If they do share a problem, what should I say?
From a calm, curious, compassionate mind and heart try these four steps:
- Ask: “What’s going on?” “Tell me more.” “What are you feeling at this point?”
- Restate: “So let me make sure I’m understanding: Your companion believes…; the person you are teaching said …; your zone leader did….”
- Empathize: “I hear you feeling … pretty frustrated… kind of lonely… really discouraged… truly scared… a little confused….”
- Check: “Am I getting that right?” “Is there anything else?”
If this is not how you usually talk, find your own words to express, “I want to make sure I understand what is going on and what it means to you. Is this it? What am I missing?”
3. How can I help them figure out what to do next?
When God or His messengers interact with us, they ask questions like “What desirest thou?” (1 Nephi 11:2) or “What will ye that I should do?” (Ether 2:23). That’s a good next step for parents too. I might ask:
- What’s the problem you want to solve?
- What’s important to you in resolving this? What values are you trying to live?
- What do you want—not just now, but most?
Once the missionary has a clearer picture of what they want, resist the instinct to give advice or jump to the rescue! I’m learning that giving good advice or jumping to solutions may empower or relieve me, but it does not engage others’ agency or hope. More empowering questions might be:
- What have you tried? (This keeps you from wasting time on suggestions they’ve already tried while moving toward constructive action.)
- What else could you try? (This engages their problem-solving and planning skills, or helps you see where they may be stuck.)
Depending on their answers, other helpful questions might be:
- How could you get more information or ideas?
- Which option are you leaning to?
- If you went that route, what obstacles might you run into? How would you get past them?
- What is one small step you could take to start?
- Who could support you? What could they do?
- How can I support you? What can we pray for for you?
4. Is there anything I should avoid?
This may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve learned that my cheerful reassurances and faith-promoting solutions fall on deaf ears when someone is struggling with deep feelings of loss, inadequacy, anger, or fear. I imagine myself coming across like a doctor who hears one of my symptoms and quickly offers me a medication they take, saying, “This works great for me whenever I’m sick!” I can see that I wouldn’t feel heard, and I probably wouldn’t trust them or their advice!
Generally, it is only after I have been willing to shoulder some of the emotional, spiritual, social, physical, or intellectual burden someone else is carrying that they are open to my testimony of God’s love and wisdom. Rather than implying that their burden really isn’t that heavy or that they should just put it down, we can try to heft its heaviness with them. Then they may be more ready to talk about how to yoke themselves to the Savior to help bear the weight (see Matthew 11: 28–30).
5. What can I do with my own feelings of worry, stress, or inadequacy?
What parent would not feel worried to see their children struggle? We wonder: Do they have the skills they need to succeed? Can they get through this challenge? Will they regret their decision to serve, or lose their faith? Is it my fault? Theirs?
Similar questions were asked about the man born blind in Jesus’s day. Was it the blind man’s fault? His parents’ fault? Christ’s answer was simple: “Neither...” (John 9:2–3). In fact, He shows how God’s work can be manifest even in a situation like this as people turn to Christ for healing, help, direction, and compassion.
So when faced with a stressful situation with a missionary, let’s take a step back, take a deep breath, and choose to trust the Lord’s deep compassion as we all try to grow. It can help both parents and missionaries to think through:
- No matter what happens, I want to __________________. (Examples: keep praying with trust in God; express love; keep my sense of humor; live my highest values of _______ and ______; remember we’re not failing—we’re learning.)
- When I look back on this I will feel better about how I handled it if I _______________. (Examples: didn’t let worry about other people’s opinions take over; sought wise counsel; kept trying and didn’t give up; accepted that we made the best decisions we could with what we knew at the time, and that God can help us make that enough.)
Under the calming influence of genuine compassion and curiosity, we all feel less defensive, more hopeful, and more able to change—not less. Humans are weak by divine design, we are all learning, and God’s work is best manifest as we practice responsibility and agency, not shame and despair—especially amid circumstances we cannot fully control. (You can learn more about this by studying Ether 3:23–28.)
6. What resources might help?
The Church’s publications available to all missionaries include Adjusting to Missionary Life and Adjusting to Service Missionary Life. Each offers concrete tools for common challenges of missionary work. Becoming familiar with these resources yourself can help you help your missionary—and you might even decide to try a few of these ideas yourself!
Missionaries also usually have access to Ensign and Liahona articles. You or they can search on ChurchofJesusChrist.org for topics like “missionary mental health,” “anxiety,” or “homesickness” to find articles with helpful ideas relevant to their particular concern.
7. How can I move forward in faith?
Neither parents nor missionaries are going to sail through a mission without challenges. Sometimes those challenges are more than can be handled safely or appropriately in the mission field. If your missionary comes home for any reason, welcome them with open arms. Ask Church leaders about available resources. Continue to listen, being calm, curious, and compassionate. Use the questions above to help them decide what they want next and make plans. Think through together what they want to say or want you to say when people ask about their mission or future plans.
Accepting my human weakness and moving forward with trust in God despite deep disappointment or even regret is not a cowardly excuse or rationalization for sin or failure. In fact, it was apparently Lucifer’s assumption that we could never be content with forgiveness or redemption and that only never making a mistake would satisfy us.
Taking risks, learning from mistakes, experiencing regret and disappointment, yet trusting the Savior’s Atonement to be enough even for us—this is how we come to know that the Father’s plan of agency and genuine growth is not only enough, but perfect.
▶ You may also like: 15 ways to support your missionary besides sending a package