How do we relate to an adult child in prison? It's painful to admit this, but through a series of unfortunate circumstances and poor choices, our grown son has been incarcerated. I can't even begin to describe how horrible we feel. How can we reach out and support him without enabling or appearing to condone what he's done?
Our hearts go out to you and your spouse. You're to be commended on your commitment to support your child in a healthy and redemptive manner. Your main concern at this point is to establish healthy boundaries with him. As you do so, remember that you can only take ownership of the things under your control. Keep in mind that your son is an adult. His life is highly regimented right now, and you can't possibly make his decisions for him.
In spite of these limitations, you may find some reassurance in knowing that the Lord loves your son as if he is the only person on earth. His heart's desire is to bring healing into his life. Remember, too, that the final chapter of your son's story has yet to be written. God can use his errors to teach him valuable lessons. He can still bring him to a place of humility and repentance. This is evident from the examples of many biblical characters such as Jacob, Joseph's brothers, and Jonah.
What can you do to help him as he moves through this difficult process? You're obviously operating under some severe limitations, but there are at least three ways you can offer your support and express your love during this time.
First of all, you can pray. It's surprising how often Christians forget about or minimize the power of prayer. Circumstances like those your family is facing right now have a way of putting faith to the test. They force us to answer tough questions about what we really believe and don't believe. Our God is a living God. He can reach down and touch places in your son's heart that you didn't even know existed. What's more, He has a way of doing this most effectively when the human heart is at its lowest: "The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit" (Psalm 34:18). It's possible that your child is more open to the work of the Holy Spirit now than at any time in his life. This is the time to ask the Lord to bombard him with the message of Christ's forgiveness and love.
Second, you can write. The art of letter-writing has been largely lost in contemporary culture, but a situation like this, where contact by phone, e-mail, or text message is out of the question, is powerful motivation to rediscover it. A letter is an excellent way to express your thoughts with care and deliberation. This is exactly what's needed under the circumstances. To the prisoner on the receiving end, it's a ray of light and hope from the outside world. So write regularly and often, at least once a week. Use the written word to reassure your son of your unconditional love.
Third and last, you can visit (if the facility where your son is incarcerated is not too far away). Face-to-face visits from loved ones mean more to prisoners than most of us on the outside can easily grasp. If time is limited, it may help to write out what you want to say in advance. Then you can read it aloud to your son at the time of your visit.
This last suggestion can be important if you and your incarcerated child are dealing with any "heavy" emotional issues or deep-seated conflicts. Has he accused you of anything unjustly or tried manipulate your emotions? If so, it might be a good idea to discuss your response with an objective third party - a friend, a family member, a pastor, or a professional counselor. Do this before putting anything down on paper. Remember that the purpose of the message you will convey is not to change your son's mind or to convince him that you're right and he's wrong. No one can control another person's thoughts or reactions. The most you can hope to accomplish is to share your heart and express your feelings in an honest, straightforward fashion.
In all of this, make sure that you have a strong support system in place. Make a determined effort to stay in close contact with loving and understanding friends during this challenging period in your life. Preserving your sense of perspective is essential to safeguarding your own health and sanity.
If you need referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area, Focus on the Family's Counseling Department can provide you with a list of carefully screened candidates. Our counselors would also love to discuss your situation with you over the phone - they're available to take your call at this number.
Peacemaking for Families (book)
Bringing Home the Prodigals (book)
Prison Fellowship - Prison Fellowship seeks to transform the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families by equipping and empowering local churches and volunteers to reach out to them with the love and hope of Christ.