Parenting a Prodigal
You feed them and rock them to sleep;
you teach them how to talk, and walk, and run, and jump, and how to tie their shoes. You teach them how to ride a bike . You teach them to drive a car. You teach them to be strong and confident in who they are. You teach them how to reason and think for themselves.
So, what happens when they do that…BUT “thinking for themselves” looks a whole lot more like defiance and rebellion?
Truthfully, there’s a lot you can’t do.
You can’t control another human being…this includes your child. You can’t monitor them 24/7 or make good choices for them. You can’t control the inevitable consequences that come into your life via your “prodigal”.
And you just can’t “fix” them.
However out of control things seem, there are some things
you can do right now!
I am the mom of a child who is living in the “far country”, far from our family, and far from God. I have felt ashamed and frustrated and like I have failed at the very thing I had devoted my entire adult life to. Then one day as I was chatting with a few other moms, one of them tearfully shared her pain in dealing with her own difficult child. She is an amazing mom, by the way.
HOW did I not know? WHY didn’t we talk to each other sooner?
And guess what?! She and I weren’t the only ones.
Since that conversation, the love and support that has come out of that one brave exchange has been invaluable. These thoughts are written from my own experiences. Everyone’s situations are different. Whatever yours may be, I hope that in some small way, the lessons I have struggled to learn will be helpful to you and will bring you hope!
Help 1: Forgive.
The reality of being the parent of a wayward child is devastating.
The cyclone of emotions can overwhelm and overcome even the strongest person.
If you’re living this right now, you know what I mean.
It’s like trying to live in the midst of the most intense storm, with no end in sight.
It is a constant emotional tornado of fear, anger, helplessness, bitterness, exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, dissappointment, shame, and GUILT !
This seems to be the one emotion that rises to the top when you’re alone and feeling the worst.
And the questions just roll over us.
What did we do to cause our child to behave this way?
What didn’t we do?
If only we had…If only we hadn’t…
Truth: we’ve ALL made some mistakes parenting…maybe even some big ones.
However, your prodigal’s poor choices and behaviors are theirs…not yours!
We are ALL responsible for how we respond to circumstances in our lives. And even now, WE are responsible for handling our heartbreak with grace. And so, we must start with forgiveness.
You’re already at the end of your rope and you don’t have the energy to do this! It’s much easier to think of everything your kid (& everyone else) is doing wrong right now. Regret, blame, and bitterness are all MUCH easier emotions to have. Forgiveness requires an enormous amount of effort. All true.
But to actually survive this you’re going to have to get up, and fight, and live !
It’s a choice only you can make. It’s the part you can control.
Think of it this way.
Most likely, you’re feeling like you’ve totally lost all control of life right now.
And clearly your child has. They’ve completely run off the tracks. It’s a dangerous and dark path they’re on. You know where it’s heading and it’s terrifying. Why won’t they just listen to you?
Let me just emphasize this point in case you haven’t figured it out yet (it took me way too long to get this through my stubborn heart )…You can NOT control them, nor most of the stuff they’re are choosing to do. As maddening as that is, it is the truth. The only thing you may have a little control over is YOURSELF.
If you want to help your child, start with yourself.
YOU must be strong and healthy to be able to shine light on their situation and help them find their way back onto the right track! Kind of like the instructions we hear every time we fly… put on your own oxygen mask first, so that you are ABLE to help your child put on theirs.
STOP reading right here if you are still in this stage.
Just let go of the all the guilt and FORGIVE yourself!
And forgive your husband.
Forgive your child’s friends. Forgive your child.
I KNOW from personal experience how much easier it is to say this, than to do it.
But if you are willing to work on this first step, you WILL get through this season.
You may have to forgive yourself (and others) over and over…sometimes many times in the same day.
Just keep doing it. Don’t stop.
Ask God for help. Forgiveness is kind of His thing.
Remind yourself that every time you do this, it is like putting on your oxygen mask.
It will give you the air to breathe and the vigor you need to do the grueling work of parenting a prodigal.
Help 2: Love.
Don’t think too hard about it.
Jot it down.
I once believed that love was mostly a feeling toward a person, a place, or a thing.
I love Jesus. I love my husband. I love my children and grandchildren.
I love freshly baked bread.
I love to read. A sentiment or feeling.
For example, memories of little pink baby toes, toddlers scampering around in their footie pjs after bath time, their wide eyed wonder and excitement on Christmas mornings, and all the sweet and silly personal family memories we have made together over the years. The feeling of intense LOVE that wells up when I think of those days is what came to mind first when I thought of this word.
Recently, I have been learning that there is a much, much deeper meaning than I have ever known. I am still learning. And defining. And redefining.
Exploring this word is imparative for parenting a prodigal.
What happens when the people closest to our hearts, the ones we “love” the most (perhaps the very ones that grew in our own bodies) curse us and spew hate and anger?
What happens when their poor choices slowly infect our entire lives like a cancer? What happens when we are lied to, and used, manipulated and threatened, and scoffed at, over and over again?
Most don’t FEEL a lot of warm fuzzies after living this.
This separation of parent/child relationship is a pain akin to death.
Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but if you haven’t experienced this, it’s hard to understand. It feels like the deepest loss and the ultimate rejection.
And many things do die.
Sibling relationships. Family traditions. Birthday celebrations. Holidays together.
And if we aren’t very careful, love does too.
Here is where it becomes important to think deeper about LOVE.
When defining a word it is often helpful to start by thinking about it’s opposite meaning. I would say one opposite of “love” is “hate”.
If we don’t have love right, hate (or whatever) sneaks in.
<Hang with me…there’s a point to the rabbit trail 😀 >
Most of us would not say we “hate” our wayward children.
But do we LOVE them still?
Practically speaking, many times they have used up all our time, money, patience, energy, hope, and even faith until we feel like we have no more to give. The extreme physical and emotional fatigue that creeps in and empties us can be frightening. With no reserves left, our relationships with our spouses, other children, family, and close friends are all affected.
So what can we do?
Our natural inclination ? Fight or flight.
Blame (or hate) somebody or give up.
If we decide to fight, and don’t have love rightly defined, anger/hate is the usual
and easiest emotion to go with. I mean after all, this person to whom you have given your life to has totally destroyed your world. They’ve pushed you to this breaking point with their total disregard for you. You deserve to feel angry even. Heck, and while we’re at it why not be mad at your husband, your other kids, your friends who don’t understand, your troubled child’s thug friends who surely made him/her do these things, your parents who should’ve warned you, and if truth be told, God Himself. Surely He knew this was all coming down on you! Why didn’t He just stop it? I can say without a doubt, that the more you dwell on how you FEEL right now, the farther away from love you will go.
If we decide to run from it all at this point we are probably depressed and have chosen to isolate ourselves. For some strange reason it can seem logical to us that if we withdraw from the people who love us the most, our hearts can’t be hurt further. WHAT a big, fat lie that is ! Or maybe we tell ourselves that if our child sees us so broken they will feel remorseful and return.
What usually happens instead, is a long and deep valley in the shadow of death where we ask “WHY ME?” and “Why not them?” and “If only!”.
Futile waste of time…I know. How?
Well, I may have thrown myself the world’s biggest (and longest) PPM Party (poor pitiful me party) ever !
Fighting or flight”ing” without continuing to risk loving will end with the same result: a heart that feels like a big, heavy rock in your chest.
Or worse, a heart that feels nothing at all.
Trust me. It can happen too.
Please don’t let it. Talk to your Pastor. Call your friend. Message me.
Just don’t let it.
Now for the good stuff !!
There is however, a third option.
Love your prodigal !
It’s by far the hardest one to do.
But it’s good for them and it’s good for you!
AND it’s a no fail option!
Wait. We haven’t defined love yet have we? 🙂
This is what I have learned that love is
(swiped very loosely from 1 Corinthians 13):
– showing patience <when I want to blow up and just react>
– being kind <when I feel like it’s undeserved>
– not envying <when I want to compare our family to those who
have it all together>
– not boasting <when I just want to prove I was right about everything>
– not being prideful <when I really just don’t want to admit I was wrong>
– not dishonoring <when I just want to tell how awful my child has been>
– not selfish <when I just want it to be about meeee!>
– not easily angered <ugh…when i just want to be angry!!>
– not keeping score <when I want to bring up the past to prove I’m right…again>
– rejoices in truth <I will tell the truth about sin even if it’s uncomfortable…
and celebrate when truth is received…mine and my child’s>
– protects <I will nurture and tend and protect…when I feel like punishing>
– trusts <I will put my trust in the Truth…when I feel like doubting>
– hopes <I will not lose hope. I will hope when I feel like giving up>
– perseveres <When I feel like quitting…I won’t give up!>
– never fails <Though I may fail, love will not. i will remember this when
I feel like it’s useless to love>
Make your own list as well ! You might want to post it somewhere too.
I have mine taped to my bathroom mirror…daily reminder.
I think MOST importantly maybe, we have established that
love is not how we are feeling.
Matter of fact, how we are FEELING has little to do with love at all.
This is EARTH SHAKING, AMAZING, WONDERFUL, FREEING news !
It means even though you don’t feel full of warmth and affection, you CAN fully and completely love that kid that you really dislike right now! It means you don’t have to FEEL like being nice or kind or generous or patient or hopeful. You just keep practicing DOING those things as you go about your life.
No more guilt!
You don’t have to fight and grow hard and cold…or take flight and become isolated or depressed either.
Just take a deep breath and choose to love !!!
With the new, revised definition of course!
And as you do it, you will be changed and your heart will be healed.
It will no longer be breeding hopelessness, and bitterness, and hurt, and anger, and pain, and disappointment and FEAR. I know that this sounds risky, putting your heart out on the table and totally loving that prodigal…but, practicing perfect love, casts out all fear <3.
Love God. Love yourself. Love your spouse. Love your kids.
Love your family and friends. Love your neighbors.
Love your prodigal.
And don’t give up!
LOVE NEVER FAILS !
Help 3: Act.
Don’t react .
Yep. Another hard thing to do.
But totally necessary for life and limb when dealing with your prodigal…and actually, this is a fantastic principle when dealing with difficult people & circumstances in general !
Breathe in…breathe out.
Count to 10.
Recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Scream into a pillow.
Whatever it takes to put a few minutes between the moment the bomb drops and the moment the fallout begins .
It goes something like this around here…
I’m having a great fields of daisies kind of day (read about what that is here lol) and minding my own business.
And then the drama hits the fan
(ie…someone <not me> makes a poor choice and subsequently, the consequences thereof enter into my life and promptly kick me in the stomach).
My first instinct is to______________.
(Options: Lose all control of myself, freak out, panic, cry, yell, worry, get sick, hide in my closet, throw a tantrum, never speak to kid again, scream things I later will regret at kid, bail kid out of trouble for the 100th time, leave kid to face consequences no matter how grave, cry some more, withdraw, feel really sorry for myself, etc… ).
And here I am giving YOU advice ! <eyeroll>
I do have some hopeful bits below. Please keep reading ! 🙂
I don’t know exactly when it happened.
One day I just woke up and told myself, “Enough is enough. I can’t live this way anymore. I WON’T live this way anymore. I’m tired of living consumed with anger, and fear and worry and anxiety.
I’m sick of feeling/being out of control because my child is out of control.
Something has to change!
I knew my own reactions to my child’s behaviors were doing nothing but adding to the cycle of rage and unresolved conflict and constant contention.
Really, I was fueling the fire.
Wait… ME again?
–>Side note: I am beginning to think this prodigal kid stuff has more to do with me changing than my kid!
I needed a plan of action instead of reaction !
I STILL can’t seem to do much about my child’s behavior, but mine is slowly improving.
I’m learning to ACT and not to simply REACT.
There’s a huge difference between those two words.
It’s been another sharp learning curve and taken lots of practice <read lots of “episodes”> to get to the point of being able to stop my unhelpful REACTIONS and ask myself HOW to ACT instead. But if I can do this you can too !!
So, practically speaking, here are some things that worked
~ Define the major/recurring issues.
You could make a short list of the top 5 issues affecting your family for example.
It could consist of character issues (lying, self centeredness, manipulation, etc. ) or other destructive behaviors (addiction, abuse, theft, arrests, ect.) that your child exhibits/struggles with most. In order to really be helpful, this list should not be an account of every hurtful thing your child has ever said and done to you. Remember the goal is to “overcome evil with good” , not to win a fight with your kid with all the daggers you’ve been storing up in the “war chest”. Don’t let this fire you up and make you feel validated in your angry responses…cause thinking this list through might rile you up…just saying.
~ Make a plan of action.
Think through each of the problem areas you listed above, carefully.
Educate yourself when possible (particularly if addiction is involved).
Look into groups and/or programs that offer help in your area (if only for the knowledge that they are available should you need them).
Write a few possible ACTIONS you can take in response to repeated behaviors that are occurring.
You could also make a cheat sheet if you think it will help you remember and keep calm(er) when the next incident occurs.
The next time this happens, I CAN respond by
That might sound silly, but you never know. It might be useful…when trouble strikes, in the time it takes to go and get your list, it could keep you from biting your tongue in half 😀
~ Be consistent.
Remember the lovely days of two year old tantrums in the grocery store and the angsty thirteen year old melt downs ? If you were fortunate enough to never have had to deal with those, you are blessed and HIGHLY favored !! Anyway, there’s some real nuggets of parenting wisdom to be recalled from those good ole’ days.
Top of the list… CONSISTENCY.
You may crack occasionally. You may blow it and just flat out react sometimes and totally lose it. But don’t give in. Keep practicing your action plan and practice not being a reactor <– they blow up ya know!
Day in and day out, rise above all the drama and pain and exhaustion and just keep your focus on what YOU can do, and on living (see Day 5 for details !).
You WILL see positive results, I promise!
In the meantime, while the craziness of parenting a prodigal presses in from all sides, IT IS OK to set some boundaries.
Sometimes, we just need to hear that this is ok.
It isn’t selfish or unkind or short circuiting the process of healing.
Your life and health and safety counts.
The life and health and safety of your family matters.
A rebellious child seems to have a way of becoming the center of attention, the sole focus, and consuming occupation of a family. Set some lines in the sand that aren’t allowed to be crossed (taking younger siblings out, bringing anything illegal into house, angry phone calls in the middle of the night, etc…).
Set your boundaries, include them in the action plan, and consistently enforce them!
My heart and my mind are so full of love and hope for all of you who are still reading this VERY long post. I had so many thoughts I wanted to share. The goal was to bring encouragement and to empower you to keep pushing through this difficult season into the next one that will bring refreshment and joy!
Help 4: Hope and Faith.
Parenting isn’t for sissies. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. By far.
And parenting a child who won’t receive your counsel is the icing on the cake.
I wanted to write about hope today.
But after an “eventful” week I found myself feeling discouraged and honestly not very inspired to write about hope.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” (and tired too!)
So I went to breakfast with a friend. It’s good medicine you know!
And since you’re only now reading this…you didn’t even know I was gone all morning, did you? 🙂
So why is hope a “help” for parenting a prodigal?
I mean we “hope” all kinds of things…kind of like we “love” all kinds of things.
We hope it doesn’t rain this weekend. We hope we get the raise at work. We hope our children grow up to be good and kind and honest and hardworking…
But what happens when we don’t get what we hope for?
In the absence of hope is hopelessness.
It’s a danger zone. It begins with disappointment.
It is the step you take after hope is deferred. And deferred again. And again.
It is depression thinly veiled and can swallow you up if you
don’t recognize it.
At one of my lowest moments, when I was doubting everything I believed, and drowning in hopelessness, I had a moment of clarity (a gift from my loving Father).
It was a bit of a chastisement, but it felt like a warm hug.
You have HOPE all wrong.
Hope FOR your child and not IN your child.
No wonder I was walking around feeling bitterly disappointed all the time.
I had all my delicate hope eggs riding in one quite undependable basket !
Every bad choice and poor character issue left me believing that my lost child would never return and be whole and healthy and happy again. Every time hope rose up it would be promptly squashed. This endless cycle of hoping and being let down nearly killed me. Thank God for His mercy. Thank God He still speaks to us.
If you are feeling hopeless, please keep reading.
There is a big difference between hoping FOR and hoping IN your child.
I hope for my child to find God. I hope for my child to mature. I hope for my child to find purpose. I hope for my child to choose good and not evil.
I am learning to “hope for”. When I see one of these things I’ve hoped for happen, I am glad. When I can’t see these things happening, I am not crushed.
My hope is IN a new place.
Add this to the list of practical things you CAN do too.
So if we change our thinking and begin hoping for our child, and not in our child, what do we hope in? Do we just live with no expectation at all?
No. This is where faith comes in.
Faith and hope go hand in hand.
The dictionary defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”.
The Bible defines faith in the book of Hebrews as “the substance of things
HOPED for, the evidence of things not seen”.
Hoping IN anything or anyone other than God will eventually leave you disappointed and disillusioned.
You can put all your hope IN Jesus.
He is good. He is constant.
He doesn’t change or get moody or hold a grudge.
He is the only one who has access to your prodigal ALL THE TIME !
This is the faith part. <see definition above for a reminder>
You can put your complete trust in Him. He will not disappoint you.
And He ALWAYS does what He says He is going to do.
Things like, “I am with you always. I will never leave or forsake you”
“In all things God works for the good of those who love Him”
“I can do all things through Christ who is my strength”
So by faith we can be FILLED with Hope !!
Remember where we coined the term “prodigal son” ?
It’s from a beautifully honest story in the Bible (you can read the story HERE).
The parenting lessons are great!
I used to read this story and wonder why the father didn’t go after his son and try to convince him to return, knowing his son’s situation was grave. And I wondered how he could wait and watch and wait and watch for so long…and be nothing except elated when his son returned home.
But I think I have an idea now… 🙂
We do not know exactly what the prodigal’s father was thinking or feeling but maybe something like this…
Hope for his son…hope in God.
Faith that God would do what He said He would do.
And thousands of years later people are still being encouraged by this story.
I hope one day you will be telling your story too !
So, hope for your child. Hope in God.
Have faith He will do all He says He will do.
Watch and wait. Wait and Watch.
Have the feast plans ready !
**If you don’t know the kinds of things God has promised all who believe in Him, you can read some of the 5,467 promises found in the Bible… HERE.
It’s a great thing to do when you are feeling discouraged.
Help 5: Live.
Since you’re still reading and you’ve stuck with me this long,
I feel like I can tell you anything.
Like the fact that I have an issue with motion sickness. I get car sick and boat sick and kiddie rides at the fair sick…and the worst ever is ROLLERCOASTER SICK! Ugh.
The feeling of going up, up, up…then the downward plummet that takes your breath and makes your stomach flip over is just NOT for me.
I feel woozy just writing about it.
I’m pretty sure that my family is secretly glad that I have this severe rollercoaster aversion though. I am and forever will be the “Here hold my <coat, sunglasses, purse, wallet, backpack, souvenir slurpee light up cup…> ” mom.
Oh yes. Back to the point.
Parenting a prodigal child can be like riding a rollercoaster.
…and even if you love riding them at amusement parks, this one isn’t so much fun.
Up, down, up, down,
crazy loop, crazy loop,
Child is doing well, mending relationships, making good choices…. UP,UP, UP.
Bad choices, big fight, gone again…. DOWN, DOWN, DOWN.
Wrecks car, gets drunk, owes money…. CRAZY LOOP, CRAZY LOOP.
The ride is infinitely long…it just keeps going and going and going.
And the controller doesn’t seem to notice at all when you’re turning ghostly pale and 50 shades of green.
Are you feeling queasy yet ?!
Not trying to tell you what to do …but, get off that rollercoaster and stay off !
This may be the hardest of the “helps” to do yet. You may learn to forgive, to love, to act and not react, and to have faith and hope for your child… but getting off that lunatic rollercoaster and staying off when your child’s mess is driving your every day is critical.
Did you notice that?
Yes. You still have one outside of the madness.
It’s true and it is IMPORTANT !
You must keep living…not just treading water… LIVING !
It’s different than surviving you know.
You can only tread water for so long.
You can’t pull your kid off that rollercoaster, but you can get off.
No matter how awful the circumstances may be, this is one more thing you CAN do.
And you don’t have to feel guilty about taking this step either.
Jesus Himself said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they (you & I) may have life and have it abundantly.”
Maybe you have forgotten what it feels like to wake up and look forward to the day. Or to even look forward to anything.
Maybe you’ve forgotten what you enjoy doing.
When is the last time you went out to dinner with your spouse? Or took your other children somewhere fun and laughed till your face hurt? Or had coffee with a friend? Or slept for the whole night? Or read a book (not on parenting)? Or volunteered?
Or surprised a neighbor with a homemade treat? Or shared your own story to encourage someone else?
*Note: ^^^These things are LIFE !
When you’ve been riding the rollercoaster there either isn’t any time to do these things OR there isn’t the reserve energy to do them. The physical and emotional and financial drain will suck the life out of you if you allow it.
But we are designed to enjoy ABUNDANT LIFE !
Sounds good to me! Sign me up!
So how do we get from doing crazy loop, crazy loop, up, down
at 100mph to breathing, feeling human, and living abundant life?
Unbuckling the seatbelt and jumping out is the hardest part.
~ Cancel that PPM (poor pitiful me) Party you had planned this weekend.
Decide you aren’t going to be a victim (you’re only a victim if you make yourself one by the way, you can choose to be an overcomer).
CHOOSE to get your life back on the tracks.
Your child may not be the only one whose life is out of control.
ALLOW good to come from all the struggles you’ve been through.
Allow these hard days to grow you and teach you how to REALLY live…above circumstances and above anger, bitterness, and hurt and grief.
Put those things under your feet and LIVE !
~Define abundant life.
Write down your own definition.
Jesus talked about it a lot too…the book of Matthew is a good place to look.
You can read some good thoughts about abundant life here and here.
What parts of those definitions stood out and stuck in your heart?
~Make a list of 5 specific things you can do this week.
It could be taking a walk each morning and listening to music that inspires you. Or going out for dinner with your spouse. Or reading one chapter of a book you want to each day. Or signing up for a Bible Study. Or baking some cookies for a neighbor and visiting for awhile. Or writing down 5 things you are thankful for every day. Or taking 30 minutes each day to quietly meditate on what abundant life means and how you can live it fully.
I wrote another post once about KEEPING a Quiet Heart… you can read that
If you’ve read through all of these ramblings, I am so grateful.
My prayer is that Jesus will take my jumble of words and turn them into a healing balm as you read. I fully realize that all our journeys and experiences are different. I hope that by sharing mine, it will help someone out there to know they aren’t the only one.
May your hearts be filled with peace and joy and hope and faith again.
May strength rise up in you, powerful and sure.
May perfect love flow freely from your every word and deed.
May it wash over your wayward child and bring them back home.