“I don’t have to put up with this; I’m outta here!” Amber exclaimed as she slammed the door and stomped down the stairs to her room in our home’s lower level.
I don’t remember what the conflict was about, but a couple of hours later, we realized she’d slipped out of the house. A couple of frantic days later, we discovered our high school senior, who’d been talking about a career as a youth worker, had moved in with a couple of guys in their mid-twenties.
When we realized Amber wasn’t coming home, we didn’t know how to deal with it. We were a ministry family and this was not supposed to happen!
But when we admitted we were facing being parents of a prodigal child, we learned we were not alone. Instead of condemnation, we found comfort, understanding, and advice from others who had traveled this road.
How To Hold On To Hope As A Parent Of A Prodigal Child
Prodigals come in all stages and attitudes. Sometimes they’re simply questioning their faith in a way that can be nerve-wracking for parents, but is a natural part of their growth and making their faith their own. At other times, they make a stream of stupid choices but don’t entirely walk away from God.
And yet some other kids seem to lose their sanity and jump off the deep end. They end up rebelling against parents, God, and anyone else who gets in their way. No matter the scenario, it can be a time of stress, anxiety, and heartbreak. As we hurting parents seek others’ help, the body of Christ goes into action, not only encouraging us but also by lifting our children in prayer.
How do you deal with a prodigal child?
Sometimes the unwanted job of parenting a prodigal is a lifetime task.
But thank God . . . for so many parents and prodigals, it is just a season. Although it may be a long season, the rebellion and irresponsible behavior eventually abates. When Amber flew our coop, I interviewed dozens of parents to see how they dealt with the prodigals in their lives. Mark and I learned that the message most parents of prodigals give is one of hope.
Like Pat’s experience with her daughter, Angie. Angie started stealing at 13 and was soon sneaking out of the house to meet guys. Drugs entered the picture and promiscuity.
“I took some hope when she agreed to attend a Christian college,” her mom, Pat, says. “But I soon learned she hadn’t changed. Psalm 126 became my source of strength as I prayed for our lost daughter.”
Before the end of her freshman year, Angie quit college and moved in with a middle-aged boyfriend. For over a year, the family had no idea where their prodigal daughter Angie was living. “Once in a while she called, but months went by when we didn’t hear anything. I’d wake up in a sweat wondering if this guy drugged our daughter or if he was a pimp. Fear of losing our first-born drove me to my knees.”
Years passed before Angie visited her parents for a few days. Then seven years passed before Angie visited home again.
“Angie had been in beauty pageants. When she got off the plane, others saw her beauty; I saw her pain-filled eyes,” Pat explains. “But we had some special times for a week. We saw Angie’s prodigal heart softening, but then she was off again.
“That was February. In the middle of a night in July, the Lord cracked the last wall. Angie asked God to forgive her and she called her sister to drive across the state and move her out of her boyfriend’s house.”
“Today, that same daughter is a beautiful wife and mother, a church leader, an encouraging counselor. A prodigal returned to the Father.”
Choosing Hope as a Parent of a Prodigal Child
Jan’s daughter, Sue, started abusing drugs as a 14-year-old, when her father abandoned the family.
“I had her in a residential program, a remote ranch for troubled teens, and other programs—she bolted out of all of them. She was involved in everything from promiscuity to drugs to abortion to living on the street to Satan worship. I sent her to programs, read a zillion books, and researched more programs.”
Jan was at the end of her rope when God began to nudge her own heart. “I used to call Sue my ‘prodigal,’” Jan says. “But then God urged me to see her as His child instead of as my rebel.
I started seeing her as a lovely child of God with promise, and with purpose. That changed everything.
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I still depended on prayer, but I began to look beyond the mess she was . . . to picture her as the finished product, a woman after God’s own heart—and it gave me peace. My panic and depression disappeared as I chose hope.
“Sue couldn’t outrun God. After a few more battles, she reached out to the Lord. She is now, at 29, a changed woman. She’s healed of guilt, anger, and bitterness and tells her story to everyone . . . what a witness!
And there are so many more stories of hope.
Preparing for the Feast
As most parents of prodigals have discovered, the prodigal journey includes travel time. The prodigal might take a few years to reach the “pigpen” and it may take the prodigal child a few years to return home.
During the first few years while Nick was a prodigal, his mom, Paula, tried to control the situation in every way she knew how to. She tried “guilting” her son off the sinful path, tried manipulation, tried unconditional love, tried everything. Finally, God told her to stop doing anything…but praying.
“This is what I prayed for our prodigal son,
‘God, he is so far from you and walking in all the wrong places and making all the wrong choices. He deserves punishment. But would you be as merciful as you can be, while being as severe as you have to be to get his attention? I trust you with your child.’”
One morning during church, Nick slipped into the seat beside Paula.
“He grabbed my hand and squeezed. That started a long walk back to our home, and he’s still walking back to God. We still get those dreaded late night phone calls, but he’s on his way. God hasn’t left him or us, and we have the faith that He’s finishing what He started in our son’s life…and that one day our son will walk close to God.”
And our prodigal drove me into a deeper relationship with God than I ever thought possible. I have greater confidence in who God is and what His plan is for my life and my son’s life than I ever could have had without the walk with a prodigal.”
Paula especially relates to the Bible story of the Prodigal Son. “We still stand at the door and look down the road, as the father did in Luke 15,” she says. “Meanwhile, we consider it the greatest honor to be in the waiting room with God while He continues to work in our son’s life. We already have the banquet planned. God has proven Himself faithful to our family and to our son.”
And God will be faithful to you, too. No matter what situation you face, you can know that you are not alone. Your child is also God’s child. He grieves with you, hopes with you and He prepares to rejoice with you. And He gives you grace.
But He also steps into your child’s life in places you can’t go, and God walks with your prodigal child through the ugly weather in his or her life. When your child runs from you, God brings His message into your child’s life through other people.
What happened with our daughter, Amber? For ten years, she denounced God and bounced from sin to sin. We tried to keep communication lines open and tried to show her our love and God’s love.
One day I was sitting at my desk, praying for Amber and feeling futile. “Oh Lord, what’s the use of even praying? She’s as hard as a rock,” I moaned.
But then the Holy Spirit reminded me that rocks have miniscule holes that we can’t see. “I can get into those tiny places and work,” He seemed to whisper, and we kept praying for our prodigal daughter.
A year or so later, Amber and her husband moved near us, wanting a change of scenery and a change of life. She came back to Christ and was baptized. Her husband found Christ. Now they study their Bibles, attend church faithfully, and raise their own children in faith. The girl who once stomped off and slammed the door now opens her heart’s door to the Spirit every day.
If you are enduring the pain of a child who has strayed, take heart. You are not alone. Perhaps the words of Psalm 31:24 is the best message we parents of prodigals can carry in our hearts: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”
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How to Parent Your Prodigal Child Series Contributor:
Jeanette Gardner Littleton is the author of When Your Teen Goes Astray: Help and Hope from Parents Who’ve Been There. She is also director of the Heart of America Christian Writers Network.
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