Prodigal Children (Part 3) – Helping Parents

Prodigal children. They seem to be more plentiful these days. Time after time I am seeing children from solid Christian homes rupture their relationships with their family and the God who loves them. They are not just leaving for a couple months. Many of them have been gone for years. The broken hearted parents are struggling to have hope their prodigal will ever return.

A prodigal can sap all the energy from a family. Their misdeeds are emotionally and financially draining. The physical toll on parents can also be substantial. The stress can cause physical illness.

How do we respond? How should we respond? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Don’t quote Proverbs 22:6 to them. I don’t know how many times people told me. “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” They meant it as an encouragement. ( I hope) What I heard was an accusation. “I must not have done it right.” You need to remember that Proverbs is not a book of promises. Proverbs is a book of life principles. It consists of guidelines for wise living. There are many promises in scripture. Proverbs 22:6 is not one of them.
  2. Don’t tell them you know their child will turn around. They just need to be patient. The hard reality is you don’t know if they will. There are prodigals in my own family who never did come to faith. Certainly the hope is there, but some prodigals never repent. Our job is to pray that they do, but we can’t promise someone they will.
  3. Do ask the parents how they are coping. Often there is concern for the child in trouble when the parents are the ones who are bearing the brunt of all that is going on.
  4. Tell the parents you are praying for them and for their child. Don’t ask a lot of questions. Most parents would rather not review the latest trouble with you. If you ask them they will either answer “fine” (which isn’t true), answer vaguely or won’t answer at all.
  5. Give them an opportunity to tell you what their latest struggles are, but don’t ask them a lot of questions. Don’t be offended by silence. They simply might be unable to vocalize the trouble to you. Just that you brought it up can be a comfort to them.
  6. Listen when they talk about their child. That they are talking at all is good. I once had a woman ask me how I was doing. When I told her “It’s been a very bad week” she responded by nodding her head, turning around and walking away. She never asked me that question again.
  7. If they have to meet with law enforcement or their child has to go to court, offer to go with them. To have a familiar friend sitting beside you can be the difference between hope and despair.
  8. Tell them you are sorry. They are grieving the loss of their hopes and dreams for their child. Grieving what might have been. They need to know that others are grieving with them.
  9. Don’t be afraid to cry with them. I once had a friend who lived in another town call to ask how I was doing. When I told her the awful things that were going on she didn’t offer advice, she wept with me. Those tears are still precious to me.
  10. Don’t make a point of telling them how well your children are doing, or how proud you are of each one. If they do ask about your children, however, tell them the truth. When I was going through the worst of it with one of my children I often called a friend with charming children. I would start the conversation with, “I need to hear about some kids that are doing well.” I mean it, but I was the one to ask. She never brought it up.
  11. Don’t tell them what they did wrong. Most people who give advice have no idea what parents are going through. They see a very different picture in public from what goes on at home. Prodigals tend to be very charming with the outside world. They also are very good at twisting reality. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with a nineteen year old who was explaining to me what we were doing wrong. I responded with one or two comments and then silently listened. He obviously believed one side and I didn’t have the strength to explain it all to him. Thankfully he left after about 30 minutes.
  12. Continue to include them in things. They feel isolated already. They assume people don’t want to be around them. Even if they decline your invitation, they will be thankful that you thought of them.
  13. Above all, pray for them. Pray that they wouldn’t become utterly discouraged. Pray that their focus would shift from their own lack to God’s amazing grace. Pray that their child would turn their heart back to the God who loves them and the family that longs for reconciliation. Pray for the family as they go through some of the hardest days, months or years they will ever know. Pray that they would learn day by day to cling to the God who loves them in spite of their imperfect parenting skills. Most importantly, pray that their joy would be found in God alone, not in their children.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:10-12, 15, 16 NASB)

Surviving Trouble

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A few years ago my family was going through an extended crisis.

My sister wrote the following letter to me on one of her handmade paper cards. I have kept it as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and care. I ran across it again this past week and wanted to share it with all of you that find yourselves in discouraging and/or impossible circumstances.  Now, a few words from my sister, Nancy.

“Dear Karen,

I’m writing to tell you that I am praying for the safety and well-being of you and your family. Today I was reading I Kings 18 & 19. Elijah had just defeated the 450 false prophets by calling down fire on his sacrifice. But then he got scared off by Jezebel and “ran for his life.” He was in the wilderness asking God to let him die. Did God give him a sermon? No. He sent an angel with fresh hot bread and a jar of water, and gave him a good sleep. Then the angel came a second time with food and drink. After that Elijah was able to go on in strength for 40 days and nights.

Karen, I am praying for those 40 days and nights for you.

Love, Nancy”

My family and I survived the crisis. It wasn’t easy, but as I look back the only explanation was that God helped us. God didn’t just give us strength for 40 days and nights, but God gave us strength for months that turned to years. He can do the same in your life.

Whatever circumstance you find yourself in today. God sees and hears you. I pray you would receive the supernatural help you need each day you walk this path.

“’Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’

Behold, all those who are angered at you will be shamed and dishonored; Those who contend with you will be as nothing and will perish.

You will seek those who quarrel with you, but will not find them, Those who war with you will be as nothing and non-existent.

For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’”

Isaiah 41:10-13(NASB)