An Open Letter to the Parents of a Prodigal

Let me start by pointing out the obvious- I am a 21year old kid, with no children of my own, and absolutely no parenting experience. I am, by no means, trying to offer parenting advice to any of you. Clearly, I have no ground to stand on in that area.

But what I can offer, is some perspective from this side of the fence.

In the past few years, I’ve walked through some dark days alongside close friends. I’ve witnessed people close to me make choices that went against everything they were taught. I’ve sat and listened as friends have recounted the positive and negative ways their parents handled their rebellious phases. We’ve hashed out past hurts and wounds that are still healing. I’ve watched the many different ways different parents have chosen to handle tough situations. And I’ve wondered how I would handle it if that was me one day.

It may seem like a weird discussion to have over morning coffee for a group of college kids, but several times close friends and I have discussed what could be the best approach to handling rebellious kids, and even if there is a single “best” approach? If I was that child, do I think there would be anything my parents could do to “fix” me? Or what would I want my parents to know or understand?

So, to those of you who are walking that difficult path of watching your child defy you and walk away, here’s a few things I think you should remember.

1. It’s not always your fault. More often than not, actually, it’s not your fault. I’ve seen so many parents spend hours analyzing every little thing they could have done wrong. What if I had placed more emphasis on family Bible study? What if I had spent more time explaining the importance of following God? What if I had done this better or hadn’t done that? What if I told you your child choosing a path that isn’t the one you taught them has little to do with you and a lot to do with them? Yes, if your child is 3 and goes around hitting other children, that might be on you. But if your “child” is 19 years old and chooses to go against everything they’ve been taught, that’s not on you anymore. At some point, you have to acknowledge that your children are going to make their own decisions. Sometimes, they make the wrong one. Sometimes, they make the wrong one 400 times in a row. But that was still their choice. They are responsible for that decision. Let them take responsibility for their choices, and stop blaming yourself for their mistakes.

2. Even if it feels like it, their defiance doesn’t stem from a hatred of you. Sure, there are some kids who do everything their parents tell them not to out of spite. But, again, that seems to be the minority. When your child goes against your wishes, it’s probably more likely that it was something they did because they wanted to. It wasn’t a silent message telling you they hate you. We live in a world where the Devil’s temptations are rampant and persuasive. Throw in the society that we currently live in, and you’ve got a pull strong enough to capture the attention of most kids. As humans, we are weak when it comes to temptation. We are going to fail. Sometimes, kids fall into things their parents could have never dreamed of. I feel sure watching your kids fall into Satan’s traps is one of the hardest things to watch. But assuming your child hates you because of how far they’ve fallen, makes it even worse. Don’t equate their disobedience to their level of love for you. Even in those dark days, they still love you. They may be running full speed down the wrong path, but they still love you.

3. The best way to restore your child, is NOT by retracting your love. As a friend, I have fallen into this lie before. I thought the only way to show my disapproval of their actions was to sever the relationship. Because continuing to show love and continue the relationship seemed to be approving of their actions. But, that’s not always the case. Especially, when you are a parent. Showing love to someone does not equal showing approval. And if your child has grown up knowing what you do and don’t approve of, they will be very aware of whether or not you approve of their choices. They do not need you openly diminishing your love for them to remind them their choices are not okay. If you do sever that relationship, or retract your love, you have given them nothing to turn back to. When the day comes that they wake up and get their lives together, they won’t feel like they have you to come back to. But if you keep those arms open, they’ll have arms to wrap them in love when they need it the most. And if you still aren’t convinced continuing to love them through it is the best approach, remember the story of the prodigal son. The father was watching daily for the return of his son. He hadn’t given up on him or walked away in disgust. He continued hoping and believing his son would return. And when he finally came back, he immediately rejoiced. He didn’t make the son earn back his love, work for acceptance, or prove that he had changed. He embraced him with love that had never wavered and rejoiced.

4. Never give up. When you are watching your child walk a path you want nothing more than for them to avoid, your days are going to be dark. Your path is going to be difficult. And you will have days where it seems that things will never get better. You will be tempted to think there is no hope left for the restoration of your child. You might even feel like they are too far gone to ever turn back. But Never. Give. Up. When you truly believe in your child, they can sense it. When you believe they can accomplish something, they start believing in themselves too. And when you give up, they can feel that too. And, in turn, they’ll be tempted to give up on themselves, believing the lie that tells them they are too far gone. It will be hard. It will be exhausting. Some days it might even bring more heartache to keep believing than comfort, but never give up. They need someone to keep believing in them. They need that more than anything.

5. If/When they do turn back, leave their past in the past. When the day comes that they come running back to you, rejoice with them. Embrace them with love. Shower them with support. And help them start fresh. But don’t hold them to an unrealistic standard. Eventually, they are going to mess up again. We all do. It might be something small, or it might be another huge mistake. Whatever it is, refuse to let yourself bring up the past. I promise you they have not forgotten the person they used to be. They probably remember those days with embarrassment and regret. They will always remember those days. But while they’re trying to move forward and start fresh, they don’t need you continuing to judge them by those past mistakes. When they make new mistakes, handle them accordingly. But leave the past in the past. Those days are gone. The damage is done. And they need forgiveness. As a parent, you don’t want to be continually reminded of all the times you failed as a parent. Your child doesn’t either. Offer forgiveness and keep moving forward.

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