Loving Your Wayward Child

by Jeanette Gardner Littleton


“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 teenage daughter was living with two older guys.  The girl who’d talked about being a youth worker was jumping into the 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 thoughts and values in a way that can be nerve-wrecking for parents but is a natural part of growing-up and adopting values of their own.  At other times, some kids make a series of bad choices but remain steadfast while some kids, rebel against parents 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 a child goes astray?

1. Don’t be too embarrassed to ask for support. 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 friends who also had prodigals.

2. Don’t blame yourself. When children enter the “real” world, we tend to think it’s wrong because we did something wrong.  We’re the ones who are to train our children in the way they should go so that when they grow old, they will not turn from it.  But this is not meant as a guilt trip, nor a guarantee.

Sure, we make mistakes, but ultimately kids make their own choices.  Parents are no more responsible for their own children’s choices than children are responsible for their parents’ choices. Young people leave family and their values because they decide to.

3. 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 realized 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 which means saying no.

4. 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.”

5. Realize 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.

6. 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.

7. 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 behavior in order to display their love.    That’s not so.  Your child has seen your love 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 you 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 police.

Make sure you child understands your boundaries and the consequences for over stepping them. Be loving but firm.

8. 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.

9. Look to a brighter future. In talking with dozens of parents, I learned that the “prodigal” season is just that, a season.  Amber outgrew her prodigal stage within a couple of years as she realized she didn’t like being a “wild child”.  Sooner or later, most children return to good relationships with their parents.

Meanwhile keep the big picture in mind.  While Alison’s daughter was doing drugs and having babies out of wedlock, Alison clung to her beliefs that her daughter would return from her wayward years.  Eventually she did.

As you continue to love your child, believe and have faith that this is work in progress.

Note: Names have been changed.

Jeanette Gardner Littleton is an author and editor, and is married to Mark.

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