Over the past several years, I’ve listened as many parents of teens or young adults have openly grieved about a prodigal child. They often have no idea what caused a son or daughter to cut them out of their lives. They wonder when or if they will see them again. Some feel the loss of a grandchild they have not yet met and the sting of one more special event without any contact. There is a great sense of loss, not just for the estranged loved one but for the dreams of that son or daughter that seem to be drifting away.
While some kids who stray never return to a relationship with their parents, many prodigal children do. Parents can find hope in understanding, empathy, prayer, and faith.
A Prodigal Child Defined
To begin with, let’s make sure we all understand what a prodigal is. The original story of the prodigal son is in Luke 15:11-32. The Merriam Webster definition of a prodigal child is:
A son/daughter who leaves his or her parents to do things that they do not approve of but then feels sorry and returns home. Often used figuratively.
Pay attention to the part of this definition that addresses the intent of doing something of which the parents disapprove. Not all kids who create some distance with their parents are prodigals.
Reasons Kids May Stray
Some children are just trying to negotiate the complex, changing relationship with their parents as they grow from children to teens to young adults. They are looking to find some time and space to explore what they believe to be true about themselves and the world. Kids who have good connections with their parents and love and respect them may be afraid that their parents will be hurt as they begin to explore life independently.
Their intent is not to do something that their parents wouldn’t approve of but rather to allow themselves to be exposed to new information and come to conclusions without interference from their parents. These kids tend to have self-imposed boundaries that allow for exposure to some new experiences but not all. They’ve learned that there are limits on how far one should go to explore various aspects of life, and they’ve stuck to them. Testing the limits as a young adult allows them to experience the positive and negative consequences of their actions but without risk to life, limb, or negative long-term effects. These experiments serve to solidify their inner behavioral, spiritual, and moral compasses more fully.
1. Seeking Growth and Maturity
The first reason teens and young adults stray is to provide opportunities for personal growth and maturity. This behavior is completely normal and healthy. It’s important for parents not to overreact when their emerging adults begin to look at various points of view and learn about different religions, political ideologies, or cultural issues from a wide range of perspectives. Instead, parents would be wise to allow for that time of exploration, ask questions, resist the urge to lecture, and hear what a son or daughter is learning. And let it play out. Most young people will take several years before they arrive at a solid understanding of their faith, beliefs, and personal identity. Those new perspectives can be discussed adult to adult if those explorations result in radical changes in sons or daughters. But often, the changes are not significant.
This first type of young adult is not “a prodigal.” Instead, he or she is likely responding to an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents encourage appropriate limits, independent thinking, personal responsibility, care and concern for others, and open communication.
2. Seeking Freedom or Searching for Significance
Unfortunately, sometimes certain parenting practices may contribute to a child becoming a true “prodigal” son or daughter. It’s common for people to reassure hurting parents that they shouldn’t blame themselves for their emerging adults’ actions. That’s good advice. It’s also important for parents not to brand themselves as “failures” when they experience problems as their children grow into adulthood. However, while it is often true that there is nothing parents could have done to prevent a son or daughter from straying from the faith and his or her family, that is not always the case.
The authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful parenting styles may contribute to a teen’s or young adult’s desire to leave home and sever ties with parents. Authoritarian parenting depends on many rules, harsh consequences for breaking them, and high expectations with little nurturing from parents. Kids raised by authoritarian (sometimes overbearing) moms and dads may turn their backs on their parents when they leave home to find the freedom to live and grow without so many imposed rules and punitive consequences.
On the other hand, permissive parents show love toward their children (sometimes smothering) but provide few guidelines, impose few rules, and provide very little structure for them to be successful. Parents who practice neglectful parenting often produce children, teens, and young adults who feel unloved and are more likely to be bullied and have poor academic performance. Kids of permissive and neglectful parents may also have few healthy peer relationships, which may cause them to launch out on their own, searching for evidence that they are significant as individuals, looking for meaningful relationships, and seeking success in life. Because they often see their parents as responsible for their past social and academic failures, they may decide that future success depends on having no contact with Mom and Dad.
To learn more about the four parenting styles, click here.
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An Amazing Opportunity
If you recognize yourself as an authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful parent, don’t take too much responsibility for the actions of your prodigal son or daughter. That young adult is now responsible for his or her decisions. However, suppose you see that you partially contributed to the distance between you and your young adult child. In that case, you have the amazing opportunity to be a part of the solution. Be the first to show empathy and say, “Hey, I miss you, and I think that I have some responsibility here. Can we talk about this? I’m ready to hear what happened, from your perspective, and to tell you where I was coming from so we can figure out how to have a more healthy relationship as adults.” Notice that the emphasis here is on two adults working together to reconcile, not on the parent taking responsibility for fixing the problem.
Over and over, I’ve had the opportunity to help parents and their young adults talk through the circumstances that led to the son or daughter cutting off ties with Mom and Dad. I’ve seen God heal these relationships when both parties have been able to accept responsibility for how they contributed to their relationship struggles and when they were willing to make their future relationship more important than their past mistakes. In the case of a pattern of parenting that was overly restrictive, too permissive, or neglectful, in my opinion, there is an excellent opportunity for healing and reconciliation.
Reasons Kids May Completely Disengage
In other cases, I am not as optimistic about a quick, positive outcome. Typically, this is because the young person has cut off all contact, and parents have no way to talk with their son or daughter about resolving the situation. Parents often are left with lots of questions and no answers, which makes this especially painful. There is simply no opportunity to repair the relationship. Their emotions fluctuate between worry and fear for their child and anger and sadness related to loss and confusion. When teens or young adults stray from home and disengage entirely, the road back to a mature relationship with parents may be long and hard.
Here are some reasons that your son or daughter may have disengaged entirely:
1. Coping With Trauma
Sometimes, the home has been a painful place to be. That may have something to do with situations that have occurred within the family. Or, it may simply be that several traumatic things happened within the community where the family lived. Being home, therefore, has become painful, and parents are the leaders of that home. Teens and emerging adults may decide that the only way to escape that pain is to leave home and sever ties with any reminders of the home, including their parents. Unfortunately, coping with the trauma often includes drugs, alcohol, and high-risk behaviors that have long-term, harmful effects and may result in serious mental health disorders.
Even if these prodigals want to return home, their parents may not welcome them because Mom and Dad don’t want to enable their behavior. Or, they may have legitimate concerns about the negative effects they could have on younger siblings. This position is challenging for parents because the prodigal’s current behavior or mental health disorder could contribute to irreversible harm or death. The prodigal needs help but parents must also consider the welfare of their entire family.
In this case, tough love is warranted. It’s best to work with a licensed mental health professional to develop a plan that describes appropriate types of parental support and a path for recovery that is the full responsibility of the son or daughter. This plan allows parents to provide some support for the prodigal while requiring the prodigal’s accountability and protecting other children’s welfare.
2. Entitlement and Narcissism
Still, others have decided that they are entitled to a better life. They intend to meet their needs, with no consideration of how doing so may hurt their parents or other family members. They see their parents as having kept them from fulfilling their desires, and so they remove what they see as barriers in their lives. These are the so-called “rebellious” teens and young adults. They intentionally reject much of what they’ve learned from their parents because it is more important to them to seek self-satisfaction.
Parents have to let these prodigal children go, make mistakes, grieve the loss, and pray for their relationship’s future healing. Doing this is incredibly difficult. No parent wants to watch their daughter launch out on a path of self-imposed self-destruction. However, any attempts to control the prodigal are likely to have far worse and longer-term consequences. These sons or daughters will often fail and come back to Mom and Dad, looking for rescue from their mistakes.
While parents should welcome the prodigal with grace and forgiveness, they would also be wise to stop short of solving their problems for them. The son or daughter may express remorse, but true repentance requires a desire to change. If parents jump in quickly to rescue their prodigal, they will likely interfere with their son or daughter fully acknowledging the failures that motivate them to implement significant changes.
3. Other Influences
Finally, some young people become convinced by others that their parents are toxic. They then believe they need to stay as far away from them as possible. This mindset is common when a possessive or jealous spouse wants to control the prodigal child. This possessiveness is a self-serving kind of love that isn’t healthy in a marriage.
Still, it can take time for a prodigal child to recognize this pattern. They must then find the strength to be willing to lose an unhealthy relationship to recover a healthy one. If parents resist the urge to interfere with this relationship, it will often run its course. The prodigal will begin to resent being controlled by his or her spouse. At that point, he or she may seek out parents and other family members to reconcile the lost relationship. While this is also a time for parents to show grace and forgiveness, personal healing should be the responsibility of the prodigal.
Turn Helplessness Into Hopefulness
Parents in these situations can only concentrate on helping themselves and their other children cope with the loss. Seeking support from trusted friends, pastors, and counselors is recommended. It is a time to grieve and be honest about conflicting emotions, and it may be a great time to pour into other children. At the same time, it is a time to wait, remain hopeful, and pray.
Lean Into God’s Word
Isaiah 40:31 says, “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
As Christians, our hope is not in some good thing that may come to be. We cling to hope with certainty that God is sovereign over all and that He loves and cares for our children. Sometimes, the time that parents spend away from a prodigal son or daughter is an opportunity for parents to cast their worries on God and depend on Him more fully.
God also hears our prayers and tells us to appeal to him.
Philippians 4:6 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
This verse does not mean that God will always answer our prayers in the way or time that we desire. God is telling us to release our worries and anxieties to Him and, with faith, learn to trust His response to those prayers.
I’ve watched as friends of mine have embraced hope and prayer to reconcile with their absent son for over five years. While their pain continues, they have commented that they’ve felt the healing power of God in their lives. The time and space have allowed them to focus more on their other children and to prepare their hearts to be gracious and forgiving if their son returns at some point. If not, they acknowledge the pain will always be there, but they now have an inner peace about leaving him in the hands of God. I’m confident that they could only have come to this humility through the support of many loved ones in their lives and their prayers with and for them.
If you’re experiencing the loss of a prodigal child who isn’t currently in touch with you, you probably feel helpless. But our God is a God of compassion and hope who loves our children more than we do. Give yourself permission to grieve. Find hope in the fact that when we aren’t able to be with our children, God is always with them.
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