Tom and Dena Yohe discuss the struggles they experienced with their troubled teen daughter Renee, who suffered from depression, substance abuse and self-injury. The couple talks about the difficult path to their family's healing and recovery, and offers hope to other parents of wayward teens. (Part 1 of 2)
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Man #1: Dear God, (sigh) I’m coming again on behalf of my Janie. Please, Lord, bring her back home.
Man #2: ...and only You know where he is. What he’s doing. Please protect my son, Lord.
Woman: I want to trust You, but it’s so hard. Help me really believe You love my wayward child.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: Prayers for a wayward child, and it might be that you’ve been saying a similar prayer for one of your children. This is “Focus on the Family” and today we’ll offer hope and strength to hang in there with your tough situation. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, there’s a lot of pain in many homes this very moment and for parents coming across our program today, I think you’re gonna be strengthened and encouraged by what our guests have to share. Their daughter, Renee, has dealt with a number of traumatic events in her life, from bullying to drug and alcohol abuse to sexual assault, depression, suicidal thoughts and mental health issues, as well. And uh … that’s only part of the story and I know as a parent, you might be in the early stages of this, where you don’t know if your child’s headin’ in the right direction or maybe on the back end, where your child has come back from that place that was so dark. Maybe you’re still in that spot right now and we hope that today’s discussion and next time will bring the hope in Christ that we believe will be there for you.
John: And if you are listening along, thinking I have to call right now, our number is 800-A-FAMILY. We’ve got counselors and resources and helps for you.
Our guests are Tom and Dena Yohe and they’re the co-founders of a ministry called Hope for Hurting Parents. And they’ve worked for many years together. Tom was a former pastor. And they share encouragement for other parents whose children have gone through what their daughter, Renee has experienced and Renee’s story was told in a movie called “To Write Love on Her Arms.”
Jim: Tom and Dena, it’s great to have you at Focus, even with the heavy subject, but maybe especially because of that. Welcome.
Mrs. Dena Yohe: Yes, thank you, Jim.
Mr. Tom Yohe: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us.
Jim: You have three grown children now. Michael, Renee and April. When they were younger, you began to have some unique challenges. I think every parent, John, is leaning in now, going, “So have I.” (Laughing) But what made your unique challenges, especially with Renee as the middle child? What caught your attention and what did you do in that moment?
Dena: The first thing that happened was that, where we really knew something more was going on, was when she 12 and she cut herself the first time. Now prior to that she had been a challenging strong-willed child.
Jim: What … what were the descriptors? How … how did she manifest that?
Dena: The discipline techniques I used for her brother and sister, who were very compliant, did not work very well for her.
Dena: So, she was very resistant to authority, to uh … discipline. Um … she was very, very sensitive to all external stimulus. So, she was the one that insisted on having all the tags cut out of her clothes.
Dena: Um … she would complain about brushing her teeth with the same toothpaste her brother and sister used. I just thought she was being difficult.
Jim: Out of the same tube, of course.
Dena: Of course. (Laughter) She was tormented by a lot of evil dreams, um … fear of death more than I had seen. I actually hadn’t seen that in her brother or sister. Those were some of the things and … and again, we just thought she was difficult and did not know that she also had something called a sensory processing disorder, which was not diagnosed until she was older, at the age of 17. And other issues had surfaced, as well, of which is depression and [we] learned that this was the reason behind all of this behavior that caused so much angst and insomnia, as well, that she also had.
Jim: And … and this was more difficult, but it didn’t throw up extreme alarms for you. You probably talked to people that said, “Yeah, I’ve got a child similar.” I … I’m trying to think of the environment where you have two, three, four children, and one or two might just be a little more difficult. That’s not uncommon.
Tom: When we got into the cutting issue, we had never heard of that before.
Jim: Right, and how old was she then?
Tom: She was 12.
Tom: And we were just blown away and just didn’t know what to do with this. We didn’t know … why did you do that to yourself? Who does that? And you know, we just were clueless and more or less were saying, “Don’t do that again,” you know. And uh … and Dena recalls that one time we said, “You know, if you … if you do this again, we’re gonna take you to a counselor,” like that was a bad thing.
Tom: And in reflection Renee says that probably would’ve been a good thing, at least given me the option—
Tom: --to go.
Jim: When you look back on that, when I read that in the book, that… and again, you guys are flying, you know, as parents, we’re not given a manual. We don’t know exactly what to do--
Dena: Sure, wish we were.
Jim: --at any given moment. So, I say this with that in mind. When you look back on it, do … do you feel like that was a mistake, if I could be that bold to say--
Dena: I would …
Jim: --counseling should’ve been uh … something to consider right there, maybe starting with the church. Now you’re… at that time, you’re in the ministry. I mean, you’re pastoring.
Tom: Well, we would transition to Campus Crusade for Christ. We were new staff members when this happened in … in Orlando. So … and we didn’t know other people who were facing this. Again, we had never heard of it before.
Dena: I … I was too embarrassed and ashamed to really believe that “My child needed counseling?” What did I do wrong? So, yes, I didn’t want to really believe anything was really wrong. This is just one incident. It’s like another temper tantrum and she’ll be okay.
Jim: Tom and Dena, allow me this question, too and we’re gonna get into some sensitive material today, so if I step over the line, just pull me back, that’s fine.
Dena: All right.
Jim: But um… do you think after going through these things that you’ve gone through, and we’re gonna get to those things, that other couples and families are actually experiencing these things, they just don’t talk about them, or everybody’s kind of embarrassed like you—
Jim: --said, Dena.
Dena: There’s a lot more than any of us could ever imagine, because like us, everyone is too embarrassed and ashamed, and we don’t want others to think less of us, to question who we are, what … what are we really doing in our home, or to think badly of our child. I also wanted to protect her and what other people thought of her.
Tom: And I think as men isolation is really strong. You know, they’re even [in] denial, you know, and just maybe, just throwing ourselves into work and saying… or all this… this is a phase and they’ll get through this.
Jim: Well, and that’s … that’s a common reaction, and I think all of us from the different angles that we’ll talk about this topic need to rethink those easy spots to go hide. And uh … you know, where to go to find help and obviously to seek the Lord in all of this.
Um … take us to that place again, 12-years-old Renee is cutting. You’re threatening her to say, you know, I’ll take you to counseling if you don’t stop. What were the next things that you begin to observe behaviorally that concerned you?
Tom: It seems like in junior high she wasn’t sure who she was. She seemed to identify with different groups in the school constantly. She would be with this group one time and then another … you know, six weeks later she’s with another group. And then six weeks later she’s dressing different[ly] and with another group. And we’re just looking and say like, “Wow, you’re really not sure who you are.” And uh … our other … again, our other kids didn’t seem to go through that.
Dena: Um … we had just moved before she went into her first year of middle school, so I think that was a big part of trying to figure out who she was and where she fit. But another thing we noticed over the next several years after that initial cutting incident, because it didn’t happen again for several years, was um … that she had great difficulty establishing and keeping close relationships. There was always turmoil in those, and her brother and sister did not experience that, so it was just a big piece.
Jim: In fact, you talk about bullying was a piece of this. Did that happen before the cutting or after or throughout?
Dena: Um … sadly, we only knew about it when she was a little bit older, but it happened first when she was in kindergarten and first grade. And um … there was an incident one day where she came home and told us about something that had happened, and Tom went and addressed it and we thought it was settled.
Tom: Yes, we … she came home and told us of a young boy who had bullied her, and so, we went to the parents and talked to them and … and again, we thought it was resolved, but as she reflected years later, you know, these things were going on in a fairly regular basis and she just wasn’t talking about it.
Jim: You know, on the one hand, that could put a lot of fear into parents, ‘cause you think, you know, in an adult style, you’re thinking it’s dealt with. We had a discussion with the parents. Of course, the parents will talk to them and talk to that abusive child or bullying child and it’ll all be done. Um … how does a parent stay in touch? Now that you’ve been through it and you’ve learned from the environments you were in, how would you coach a parent today to not just have that discussion, but move to trust, but verify, I guess?
Tom: I’m not really sure that I’m qualified to say that I … or answer that. I mean, like I said, we … we tried to keep in touch with her. We tried to have her communicate with us what was going on, but she chose to keep things back.
Jim: So, kind of hiding that from you.
Dena: I know there is a lot more help now. There’s a lot of books and material out there to help people, basically recruit the school to help you more.
So, for example, a mom that I know, whose son was being bullied so much that he was becoming physically ill over it, and developing a lot of emotional issues, they arranged to have him only in school part of the day, and she homeschooled him the other part. That’s not possible for all people, but um … they even went to doing part of his day, virtual school, and then only part of the day at the school. And they did that a couple of years and knowing …
Jim: So, you’re suggesting find options.
Dena: Yes, there are many of them. Find out what they are, um-hm.
Jim: And protect your child in that way.
Dena: Definitely. Do everything you can to believe them and come to their defense and um … because this can have long-lasting effects, and it did with Renee.
Jim: Where did the more serious things begin to happen that you had? You know, I know some people are going more serious? That sounds serious as it is, but there was a progression here. Let’s go ahead and dive in and talk about that progression, how you reacted as parents, the things that concerned you, after the cutting in junior high.
Jim: What took place after that?
Tom: Well, she entered into high school, and we thought she was, again, doing very well, and she played soccer, and she made the junior varsity and was promoted to the varsity soccer team early. And she met a … another athlete, a girl that played softball and asked if she could spend the night. And so, we said, “Well, we need to meet the parents. We need to find out a little bit more about the family,” and what have you. And we did that and after talking with them, we felt like, okay this is … this will be all right.
What they didn’t reveal to us is they had moved from another town to get away from a toxic boy. That boy drove over in the middle of the night, and the girls snuck out, and they drank. Drank … Renee drank so much that she passed out.
Dena: And that was her first time.
Tom: Her very first experience with alcohol. And she didn’t realize it, or think about it at first, but something sexually happened. And it was… I don’t know how many … how long it was before she … she said she was raped.
Tom: We had called the police. We followed up with the parents. We tried to find out what we could do about … with this boy. Uh … and unfortunately, the police didn’t think anything could happen.
Dena: But at that point in time, we still only really knew that maybe he tried to do something, and so, we tried to do what we could. It was years later again, that when she finally remembered everything, she just couldn’t tell us. She didn’t want to hurt us. She was always very … as much as she would cause the angst, and we don’t know how many times we heard, “I hate you” and the door slam, um … she still didn’t want to hurt us, because she really loved us.
So, it was years later, before we learned after one of her more severe cutting incidences, when she had begun drinking, that she was raped back then, and it just broke our hearts (Whispering--emotion). It still does, because we … if we had only known, we could’ve gotten her some help, and we believe that really could’ve made a huge difference.
So, she started drinking in her first year of high school, unknown to us, experimenting, and what we now know is, she was trying to dull that pain, because what had happened to her caused her to think, just hate herself so much, that she wasn’t worth anything.
Jim: What you’re saying is touching the hearts of many people right now, because they may have a teenager in that exact same spot. It’s so tender what you just said, and we have to remember that, that what they’re often doing with that behavior is trying to cover shame.
Dena: (whispering) Yeah.
Jim: And um … I think that is a critical thing for us to explore a bit more. As a parent in that moment, you really have many options, emotionally, to respond to that child. You can throw more shame onto that teen. You can return just love, with no boundary, which seems inappropriate. What did you begin to do? And looking back on it, what were some things that were done well, and maybe some things that you would say, “If I had a redo, I’d do that differently?”
Tom: There were a couple things, and there was one particular incident that she was in the hospital as a result of some cutting. And I remember, I was out of town with my son and uh … driving back to the hospital, and just praying and asking God, “What do I say? How do I respond to this?”
And I just sensed Him directing me to just tell her that no matter what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you, we love you, and we will always love you and that will never change.
Jim: Could she receive that?
Tom: She did. She did.
Tom: She received that very well, actually.
Jim: Some would not. I mean, it’d still be hard for them to even hear, so that was a breakthrough—
Jim: --the fact that she felt that sincerity in both of you.
Dena: Well, he had invested a lot of time with her. When the issues were becoming more and more obvious that she needed counseling, and we had been doing that for a while, one of the days, the counselor said to Tom, “You need to connect with her heart. You need to figure out how to do that. That’s crucial.”
And so, he was like, oh, my, I just have to pray. I really don’t know how at this point. She was an angry 17-year-old, at that point in time. And the Lord gave him ideas, and he would go in her room late at night and sit on the floor and just encourage her to share the music that she liked. And we did not like a lot of her music. We were very, very strict about what she was allowed to listen to.
And um … so, he asked her to play “What was… What’s your favorite song today?” And he would grit his teeth and listen (Laughter), and then ask her, “Tell me about that. What … what do you like about that?” And so, things like that, and there were other things that they would do. So, he had invested a lot, even though it was very hard, and she didn’t always receive it, that led up to this point.
Jim: And what you’re describing is making a connection.
Jim: You’re making a connection, and I love the “grit your teeth” part.
Tom: Yes. (Laughing)
Jim: I mean, that’s … that’s beautiful. I mean, again, that … that in many ways is illustrative of … of Christ, you know.
Tom andDena: Uh-hm.
Jim: I’m sure when He was hangin’ out, I mean, I don’t know that gritting His teeth was the thing, but He was there to help human beings through suffering and through their pain.
Jim: And as a dad, that’s what you were doing.
Tom: Yeah. It was tough to hear that, you know, to say connect to her heart, and I’m thinkin’, I don’t know how. Tell me. You know, … and I know one time the counselor said to me, I called her on the phone, she goes, “You’re an adult; figure it out.”
Tom: And that was a … kinda like a slap in the face, but I needed that.
Tom: You know, grow up, so to speak.
Tom: Figure it out, you know, and that was helpful.
Jim: How long uh … when did you start counseling, and was it just for yourselves? Did Renee join you in that, or the rest of the family?
Tom: We started counseling. We were actually overseas when her issues intensified. And she informed us right before we were heading to another country for a conference that she had been very suicidal, and she had started cutting again and drinking.
Jim: And she’s how old at this point?
Tom: She’s 17? Sixteen or 17.
Tom: And we were afraid to even leave her at the time. We … we stayed with her for a while, but then we … we flew out to this conference, and then we consulted with people that we knew there, and they said, “You need to take her back to the U.S. She can’t get the help she needs.”
Tom: And so, we went back, and we stayed up all night, just listened, “We need to hear from you. We need to know what’s going on,” and stuff. And she began to open up more and more how depressed she’d become. And she hid it. She hid it so well. Her grades didn’t suffer. She was very active with sports in the school. Externally, we couldn’t see it, but …
Jim: Had to make it more difficult.
Dena: They can be just great actors when they want to be. And we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves. We were so hard … how could we not see? How could we not know that our daughter was in that serious of trouble? But it’s … we had to learn, no, don’t be hard on yourself. When they want to, they can hide it very well.
Jim: Yeah, you’re listening to “Focus on the Family.” Today our guests are Tom and Dena Yohe and they’ve written a wonderful book, a daring book I … I would like to add, courageous. You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids.
And again, I think too few talk about these challenges that they have in their own homes. I think for Christian households, particularly. We feel like we’re failures when we have a child or maybe more than one child, going off of the path. And what do you think drives that anxiety for us as Christian parents particularly? I realize not everyone listening falls into that category, but hang with us, because I think what we’re talking about will help you. But, why specifically with Christian parents? You talked about your strictness, and how you wanted to keep her on the right path. It seems like what we try to do is build stronger and stronger guardrails—
Jim: --higher, taller, thicker—
Tom and Dena: Yes.
Jim: --so they won’t go off that path, and that usually is met with rejection by that teen--
Dena: Oh, yes.
Jim: --particularly. So, in that moment of spiraling, what were you trying to balance with all this, with Renee?
Tom: We wanted her to follow the Lord so desperately. We knew, you know, having a personal relationship ourselves, how important that is and what life can be, you know, when you’re really living for Christ and we want our kids to know that. And we want to invest and do everything we can, that they will come to know Him and … and live out the plan that He has for them.
So, when they start to go off on their own, it really causes a lot of pain and … and anxiety within us in that, oh, my, you know, what’s going on? And can we bring them back? And there’s so many things out in the world today that they can get into, and you wonder, will they come back? We know of parents whose kids have taken their lives.
Tom: And I can’t imagine the pain that, that is to walk in that.
Dena: I think we had so much guilt and shame as parents in ministry, especially, because my children were my ministry. I chose not to work, but to be home, so I could focus all my attention, my effort, my energy into who they would become, pouring myself and my faith, and living it out in front. And so, to see your child begin to harm themselves and go down this dangerous path is so horrifying. But I think the guilt is much more intense for us, because we’ve taken parenting so seriously um … that we … we just can’t even conceptualize that things could go wrong.
So, the guilt and the shame are huge, I think in the Christian community. And then we all seem to have, somewhere along the way, adapted this belief that there’s some magic formula that if we just do, you know, A and B, we’ll get C. And we really believed that. I… I bought that and listened to your programming for many, many years and tried to follow it to the letter and bought all the books and went to the um… seminars and so on, and I really believed that, that was how it worked.
And it did work pretty well with our other two children, but not with Renee. And so, we were just convinced it was something about us. It was hard to… to let go of that beating ourselves up and forgiving ourselves for … there must have been something.
Jim: When you look at it, how do you see God’s perspective in your story? What is He doing with you, with Renee, with your other two kids, Michael and April? What’s that bigger story look like?
Tom: Well, it’s a bigger story than we ever imagined—
Tom: --actually, and not a story we actually asked or looked for, but something He designed and did. And again, I… I say, we saw the fingerprints of God all over this.
And uh... one of the times, when she was really at her worst and she had met some people at our church on a Sunday evening service and one of the men was giving his testimony.
He’s an ex-drug addict, who had come to Christ. And they became friends and even when she was out on the streets, she would stop in at his Bible study, even drunk sometimes. And they would just let her come in and let her—
Dena: Just loved her.
Tom: --ask questions or rant or whatever. And he kept tabs of her. And he knew that she was getting really, really bad. So, he called us one night, and he says, “We’re gonna go have a ‘come to Jesus’ talk with Renee, and we want you praying. We’ll let you know what happens.”
Tom: So, we did and we were praying and in a couple days he called us. He says, “We got Renee. Uh … keep praying. We… we’re gonna get her into a treatment center, so keep praying.” So, we did.
Well, what happened was, they had found her. She was in an apartment with a bunch of other people. They just pooled their money, bought all these drugs. They were havin’ a big blow-out that night.
And there was these two groups that collided. Come; get out of here. You need help, you know. And then the people who were… she was doin’ the drugs with were saying, “Oh, not. It’s not so bad. Don’t pay attention.”
Well, finally she said, “Okay, I will go with you to treatment tomorrow, but I’m partying hard tonight.” And she did and she used a bunch of drugs and stuff, felt so guilty in the morning that she carved “F Up” in her arm, and then they came and got her the next day. The treatment center wouldn’t take her, because she had fresh wounds and she wasn’t detoxed, and they didn’t have a detox center. So, they took her for five days and just kept her safe, until she could get into the treatment center.
Jim: Let me ask you what it felt like. I mean, that’s amazing. That is kinda the bottom of the pit, isn’t it?
Jim: What did it feel like as the parents to get that phone call from that person--
Jim: --to say, we’re after her; we’re gonna talk with her. We’re gonna engage. We’ve been following her in the most beautiful way. When you hung the phone up, what’d you say to each other. How did it make you feel?
Dena: I think we fell on our knees in praying and weeping... just could not believe how God was answering our prayers.
Tom: Yeah. We… we were just… we kept praying and praying, and finally, we get to the end of our rope and just say, “God, I don’t know. Just have Your will.”
Dena: Do whatever it takes.
Tom: “Do whatever it takes. Glorify Yourself. Glorify Yourself.”
Jim: Was that enough hope for you - to see incremental engagement like that?
Jim: Because I think for so many of us, when we’re in that despair, we have a script we wanted to play out and it’s the phone call that says, “We got your daughter. She’s committed her life to the Lord. She’s totally clean now and it only took us 36 hours.”
Tom andDena: (Chuckling)
Jim: That’s not typical.
Jim: It can happen in some very unique situations, but typically it’s a journey.
Tom: Yes. Yeah.
Jim: And you were on that journey.
Tom: Yeah. But every moment or every little bit of good news, we … we’d just soak it up.
Tome: It’s just… it’s just like water in an oasis, you know. And so, even that little bit of glimmering hope, we… we just oh, grabbed onto it.
Jim: Well, we have run out of time in this segment, setting this up and talking about it. Um … I really appreciate your vulnerability. Again, it takes a lot of courage. I can just see the humility in both of you, you know. You’re doin’ the best you could do, and you got good advice, and probably some not-so-good advice along the way.
And I want to come back next time and continue the story about how God has intervened in your family and some of the good things that have occurred, some of the continued struggles that you have, and then advice for the rest of us in our different stages, and where we can engage our… our preteen, our teen, our 20-something, who may still be struggling. Can we do that?
Jim: All right.
John: And we hope that today you’ve heard that word of encouragement that Tom said he and Dena were holding onto, and we’ll have more next time.
Meanwhile, get a copy of this book, if you’re struggling with your child and some of the decisions they’re making, whether it seems kind of light right now or it … maybe it’s a really heavy moment. The book is You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids. It’s written by Dena Yohe and uh … and Tom and Dena have shared so much with us. Get a CD or a download of our conversation and review that and listen to it with a friend, perhaps. You’ll find these and other helps at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Of course, as we’ve mentioned, we have counselors here, and your generous financial support enables us to have this broadcast ministry and offer that kind of help. So, please, if you can, make a donation today.
And for a gift of any amount we’ll send Dena’s book to you. It’s such a great resource and I know you’ll appreciate that as our thank-you gift.On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I’m John Fuller. Thanks for listening to FOF. Join us again next time, as we continue the story and once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Tom and Dena YoheView Bio
Tom and Dena Yohe (pronounced "Yoy") are the co-founders of Hope for Hurting Parents, a ministry dedicated to helping parents who are grieving over the destructive choices of their teen and adult children. The Yohes' ability to bring advice and encouragement to parents is born out of the dark times they experienced with their formerly troubled daughter, Renee, who suffered from addiction, depression, self-injury and suicidal thoughts. Renee has recovered and is now enjoying a successful career as a singer-songwriter and jewelry designer. Her story is the genesis of a global non-profit movement called To Write Love on Her Arms and a movie by the same name. Tom is a former pastor and Dena a former social worker, and both have served on the staff of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). Dena is author of the book You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids. Tom and Dena reside in Florida and have three grown children.