Bill") Gaultiere, Ph.D.
of New Hope and Psychologist for ChristianSoulCare.com
mother-in-law keeps destroying things that belong to my wife or
I. I don't know if it's because of her dementia that she does
this, but every time we object she quotes the commandment in Exodus
about honoring your father and mother. How far does this commandment
obligate us? Must we put up with the destruction of our
personal property just because she's my wife's mother?
This is a question I am frequently asked by Christians who want
to live by God's Word. It comes up for some people when deciding
on plans for Thanksgiving or Christmas or when dealing with a
parent who is an alcoholic or abusive in some way.
case, it sounds like you're torn between anger and guilt.
Anger at her destructive behavior and guilt that you're angry
and you need her something from her when she's suffering from
dementia. You're in a very difficult position.
your desire to honor God in your response. And your concern
to honor your parents in the right way.
fifth of the Ten Commandments in the Bible is:
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long
in the land the Lord your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12)
Interestingly, it's the only commandment with a distinct, promised
blessing for those who obey. Jesus underscored the importance
of this commandment (Matthew 15:3-6) and instructed us to care
for a parent in need. And the Apostle Paul applied this commandment
to young children obeying their parents (Ephesians 6:2) and older
children caring for a parent or grandparent who is a widow (1
I find there to be quite a bit of confusion around this issue
because people don't understand what "honor" means. Honor means
treat with respect and it is based on distinguishing between that
which is good (or honorable) and that which is bad (or not honorable).
And like all the commandments and teachings of the Bible, honoring
your parents is connected to honoring God. Following God's instruction
is not only the right thing to do; it is also the wise thing to
do because it is good for us.
Your situation illustrates the problem that many well-intentioned
Christian people have. You mother's behavior is not honorable.
Permitting her to destroy your property or to be use Scripture
to manipulate and guilt-trip you and your wife is not honoring
her. And it's certainly not honoring the God of righteousness
because her behavior is wrong.
"But she has dementia. She can't help it," someone
might say. This is the other aspect of your problem that
makes it so difficult: your mother needs help. She needs medical
help, patience, and much compassion, but not the freedom to be
abusive. And I don't think this behavior of hers is caused
by her dementia, except in that she may have quite a bit of frustration
and irritability due to her disease and be taking it out in these
I think it's natural that you would feel violated and angry by
her behavior and want to protect your property and your persons.
You've probably already been running around hiding your valuables
and breakables as much as possible. If not, I'd do that
immediately. Self-protection is instinctive and normal. Even
Jesus protected himself (Luke 4:28-30). The exception is if you're
enduring persecution for the sake of Jesus and as a Christian
You should consider talking to her about her inappropriate behavior
and setting a boundary with her. You might calmly "speak
the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) to her, telling
her it's not okay for her to keep destroying your property.
And consider telling her your understanding of what it means to
honor her as your parent.
As far as your guilt is concerned I think you need to appreciate
that you're showing her honor by looking after her needs, being
patient with her, and wanting to respond to her in a loving and
If talking to her about these issues doesn't improve things then
you may need to set some consequences in response to her abusive
behavior, just like you would with a disrespectful child.
This means finding a way to enforce your limits, perhaps taking
away a privilege you're providing for her. Ultimately, if her
bad behavior continues you may need to consider finding another
living arrangement for her.
And if communicating these issues with her becomes argumentative
or is not effective then you may need the help of an intermediary
- a doctor, counselor, pastor, or elderly caregiver.
I pray that God gives you (and others struggling with the issue
of how to honor a parent who has hurt them) the grace and strength
to speak the truth in love and to maintain boundaries that show
respect for her and for you. I believe that to be an honorable
response that pleases God, cares for her, and, ultimately, will
William ("Dr. Bill") Gaultiere, Ph.D. is the Director of New Hope
Crisis Counseling at the Crystal Cathedral and a Psychologist