1. Recognize that your missionary has changed and your relationship with your child has changed. Missionaries may leave home as immature teenagers or college students, but they return as adults. Treat them like adults, not like the child that left home eighteen or twenty-four months ago. Your relationship with them is now a relationship of adult-to-adult more than parent to child. Rather than providing them with all they need to live – housing food, clothing, recreation, etc. – your role is to help them become self-reliant. You are no longer in charge of their life, rather you will become a trusted and loving friend, advisor, and mentor. And if you are humble, there is much you can learn from them.
2. Let them talk. They have just come home from a life-changing experience, and most people they talk to never go beyond asking, “So, how was your mission?” They often feel that no one really understands the magnitude and gravity of what they have experienced and how they have changed. They need to share their experiences, their feelings, and their thoughts. Ask good questions: what were some of the most important things you learned on your mission; what was your favorite area, and why; who did you teach there; how did you find them; tell me about your mission president; tell me about your companions. Let them talk. Listen.
Some families schedule a family vacation as soon as their missionary returns. This can be a wonderful time to become reacquainted and re-establish family connections. But don’t go to Disneyland or the beach. Your missionary has probably been teaching and serving people who will never go to Disneyland, and few venues are more uncomfortable for a recently returned missionary than the beach. Go somewhere where you can be together as a family, play some games, take a hike, and talk. Use this as an opportunity to let your missionary download his or her experiences and feel that someone other than former missionary companions now understands what they have felt and experienced. Try to feel what they are feeling.
3. Don’t rush their transition. They will feel awkward, especially in social situations. They will feel a little lost without the structure of the missionary schedule. They may want to put on missionary attire every morning (those are their comfortable clothes), study the scriptures for two hours each day, and attend the temple multiple times each week. Isn’t that what you hoped for before they left? Support them in keeping the same standards they kept as a missionary – getting up early, having personal prayer, studying the scriptures – and include them in regular family prayer, family scripture study, and family home evening.
Help them get some new clothes, but remember that they don’t need a two-year wardrobe – start small. Encourage them to have the demeanor of a returned missionary, to dress and groom like a returned missionary, to act like a returned missionary, to keep that returned missionary glow. Let them live a missionary schedule for as long as they can until other obligations require more of their time. They don’t want to be “normal” and you don’t want them to be “normal” – they are returned missionaries; we are, after all, a peculiar people. There are plenty of people out there who will urge them to revert to who they once were – friends who didn’t serve missions, friends who didn’t change as much over the past two years, even family members. Encourage your missionary to remain extraordinary.
4. Learn to speak their language. For the past eighteen or twenty-four months they studied Preach My Gospel every day. If you know the language of Preach My Gospel, you know their language. When you use language from Preach My Gospel, they understand you. You don’t need to learn Spanish or Portuguese or Thai – if you can speak Preach My Gospel, you can communicate!
5. Help them be responsible adults. In the mission field they did their own budgeting, shopping, housecleaning, laundry, and took care of their medical needs. Life at home, however, is more complex, and they will probably need some help and guidance from you. Help them arrange for medical and dental check-ups. Ask them about their plans for school and work. Provide encouragement but not pressure. They are used to setting goals and making plans, but their life was so much simpler in the mission field. They will need your encouragement, gentle guidance and support as they move forward with their life.
6. Help them stay busy and productive. They are used to being fully engaged and occupied from 8:00 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., and they are happier when they are busy. They will be tired when they arrive home – exhausted physically and emotionally; help them get a couple of good nights of sleep, recover from their jet lag, and then get busy. In the critical gap between their release by the stake president and beginning a job or school, help them find worthwhile things to do. They are accustomed to serving others – help them find service opportunities in the family, the ward and the community. Encourage them to attend the temple, go out with the missionaries, do family history work. They may need a few days rest, but hard work is immensely satisfying and service refines us and brings us happiness.
7. Encourage them to get a church calling immediately. They don’t need a break from serving. It’s perfectly acceptable for them to ask the bishop for a calling right away. If they don’t have a calling in a couple of weeks, approach the bishop yourself. If you live near a temple, encourage them to become a veil worker. The Bishop needs to make the recommendation and endorsement, but it is a calling that does not require any adjustment in the ward organization, and it is an extremely rewarding calling for newly-returned missionaries. Remember that they have been entrusted to do gather God’s children and declare the gospel of repentance, many of them have conducted worthiness interviews, and some have served as leaders and even branch presidents. They need to continue working in the Kingdom.
8. Encourage them to select a ward and stay with it. Young Single Adults have the option to be members of a YSA Ward or to remain in a conventional ward. Sometimes a returned missionary will attend a conventional ward for a few weeks, then attend the YSA ward, then return to the conventional ward. Encourage your returned missionary to stay in one ward, have a calling, develop a relationship with priesthood and auxiliary leaders, and build friendships.
9. Help them set goals, make plans, and carryout those plans. They practiced these skills in the mission field (see Preach My Gospel, Chapter Eight), but many returned missionaries struggle to apply that skill in a much more complex environment which includes education, career choices, social life, dating, marriage, etc. Ask good questions, encourage, and discuss various alternatives. If they are having trouble setting big goals – what to major in, what career to pursue – help them focus on smaller goals until the bigger ones become clear. But ultimately, having goals and working towards them will propel them forward in their life; the absence of goals can result in a great deal of wasted time and effort (see quote from Elder M. Russell Ballard in Preach My Gospel, p. 146).
10. Help them remember that the best is yet to come. Not all missionaries are happy to be home – they loved their mission and hated to see it end. It really was the best eighteen months or two years of their life, and they sometimes feel that the best of their life is now over. Help them understand that their mission was only the best years of their life so far. Help them understand that the best things in life still lay ahead of them, and that their mission has prepared them for even greater and more rewarding experiences.