“I don’t have to put up with this. I’m outta here!” Amber stomped to her room.
I don’t remember what the issue was, but a couple of hours later, Amber was gone. Several frantic days later, we discovered that our leaving cert student was living with two older guys. The girl who’d talked about being a youth worker was jumping into the sinful lifestyle she had previously decried.
Amber isn’t the first child, and certainly won’t be the last, to abandon the values he or she was raised with. Sometimes children question their faith in a way that can be nerve-wracking for parents but is a natural part of growing up and making faith their own. At other times, kids make a series of bad choices but don’t walk away from God. Some kids, however, rebel against parents, God and anyone else who gets in their way.
No matter the scenario, it can be a time of stress, anxiety and heartbreak. What should a parent do when their child goes astray?
- Don’t be too embarrassed to ask for support and prayer. When Amber left, I felt like such a failure. But when my husband and I admitted to others what was going on, we found comfort, understanding and wisdom from Christian parents who also had prodigals.
- Don’t blame yourself. When children enter the prodigal world, we tend to think it’s because we did something wrong. After all, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” But this Scripture was never meant as a guilt trip, nor as a guarantee.
Sure, we make mistakes, but ultimately kids make their own choices. Parents are no more responsible for their children’s choices than children are responsible for their parents’ choices. Young people leave family and faith because they decide to.
- Know the difference between helping and enabling. After Susan’s runaway son, Jon, was kicked out of his apartment for not paying bills, Susan welcomed him back home. But Jon often partied all night, and Susan fielded the calls from his employer, making excuses for Jon when he didn’t arrive at work the next morning.
Finally, Susan realised she was enabling her son’s irresponsible behavior. She stopped covering for him and let Jon face the consequences of his actions. Parenting a prodigal often means practicing tough love. Helping him in the long run often means saying no.
- Don’t forget the rest of your family. One day I was complaining to my friend Rhonda yet again about our prodigal. “What’s going on with your other kids?” she asked. “Yes, you love Amber. But you have two other kids and a husband who need you. Stop focusing on Amber so much that you ignore them.”
Sometimes we have to entrust our prodigals to the Lord—and let Him work while we continue with the rest of life.
- Realise your parenting has changed. “Even if your daughter comes home tomorrow, it will be different,” a co-worker told me. “She has emotionally removed herself from your authority. Now you learn how to parent an adult child.”
When a child leaves a parent’s care and protection, the relationship changes forever. We can let our prodigals know we love them, but we have to let go of our responsibility for them.
- Build a unified front with your spouse. After Tami left home and got into financial difficulties, her parents decided together how they would field the requests for money they knew would come. They even role-played scenarios. They agreed to tell Tami, “I’ll talk to your mom/dad about it, and we’ll let you know.”
Also, don’t forget to work on your marriage relationship. Make sure you don’t spend all your time together talking about the prodigal. Change the subject, and enjoy each other.
- Set boundaries. During a prodigal season, otherwise lovable kids are often at their worst. They may become rude, demanding, manipulative and abusive. Some parents think they have to put up with bad behaviour in order to display God’s love. That’s not so. Your child has seen God’s love through you for years. The prodigal benefits more from the parent who says, “I love you, but I won’t tolerate disrespect.”
Set boundaries in any area that concerns you, especially if your child wants to move back. For instance, when Mike’s son asked to come home, Mike let his son know that if he brought drugs into the house, Mike would call the Gardaí.
Make sure your child understands your boundaries and the consequences for overstepping them. Be loving but firm.
- Deal with your feelings. Parents of wayward kids face many emotions: anger (at the child, at themselves, at a mate, at a child’s bad companions), grief, sorrow, depression, guilt. Whatever the feelings, we have to acknowledge them before we can deal with them.
- Remember God loves your child more than you do. Parents of prodigals feel helpless. That’s why we must lean on God and His grace. He constantly draws them to himself and will be with them even when we can’t.
- Look to a brighter future. In talking with dozens with parents, I learned that the prodigal season is just that—a season. Amber outgrew her prodigal stage within a couple of years as she realised she didn’t like being a “wild child.” Sooner or later, most children return to good relationships with their parents and their heavenly Father.
Meanwhile, keep the big picture in mind. While Alison’s daughter was doing drugs and having babies out of wedlock, Alison clung to her faith that God could redeem her daughter’s wayward years. Eventually her faith was rewarded, and today her daughter faithfully serves God.
As you continue to love and pray for your child, have faith that your child is God’s work in progress.
© Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Jeanette Gardner Littleton is the author of When Your Teen Goes Astray. Note: Names have been changed.