Prodigal children. They seem to be more plentiful these days. Time after time I am seeing children from solid Christian homes turn their back on their parents’ faith and walk away. They are not just leaving for a couple months. Many of them have been gone for years. The broken hearted parents are struggling to have hope their prodigal will ever return to the God and family who loves them.
A prodigal can sap all the energy from a family. Their misdeeds are emotionally and financially draining. The physical toll on parents can also be substantial. The stress can cause physical illness.
How do we respond? How should we respond? Here are some suggestions.
1. Don’t quote Proverbs 22:6 to them. I don’t know how many times people told me, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” They meant it as an encouragement. What I heard was an accusation. “I must not have done it right.” You need to remember that Proverbs is not a book of promises. Proverbs is a book of principles. It consists of guidelines for wise living. There are many promises in scripture. Proverbs 22:6 is not one of them.
2. Don’t tell them you know their child will turn around. They just need to be patient. The hard reality is you don’t know if they will. There are prodigals in my own family who never did come to faith. Certainly the hope is there, but some prodigals never repent. Our job is to pray that they do, but we can’t promise someone they will.
3. Do ask the parents how they are coping. Often there is concern for the child in trouble when the parents are the ones who are bearing the brunt of all that is going on.
4. Tell the parents you are praying for them and for their child. Don’t ask a lot of questions. Most parents would rather not review the latest trouble with you. If you ask them they will either answer “fine.” (which isn’t true), answer vaguely or won’t answer at all.
5. Give them an opportunity to tell you what their latest struggles are, but don’t ask them a lot of questions. Don’t be offended by silence. They simply might be unable to vocalize the trouble to you. Just that you brought it up can be a comfort to them.
6. Listen when they talk about their child. That they are talking at all is good. I once had a woman ask me how I was doing. When I told her “It’s been a very bad week.” she responded by nodding her head, turning around and walking away. She never asked me that question again.
7. If they have to meet with law enforcement or their child has to go to court, offer to go with them. To have a familiar friend sitting beside you can be the difference between hope and despair.
8. Tell them you are sorry. They are grieving the loss of their hopes and dreams for their child. Grieving what might have been. They need to know that others are grieving with them.
9. Don’t be afraid to cry with them. I once had a friend call to ask how I was doing. When I told her the awful things that were going on she didn’t offer advice, she wept with me. Those tears are still precious to me.
10. Don’t make a point of telling them how well your children are doing, or how proud you are of each one. If they do ask about your children, however, tell them the truth. When I was going through the worst of it with one of my children I often called a friend with charming children. I would start the conversation with, “I need to hear about some kids that are doing well.” I meant it, but I was the one to ask. She never brought it up.
11. Don’t tell them what they did wrong. Most people who give advice have no idea what parents are going through. They see a very different picture in public from what goes on at home. Prodigals tend to be very charming in public. They also are very good at twisting reality. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with a nineteen year old who was explaining to me what we were doing wrong. I responded with one or two comments and then silently listened. He obviously believed one side and I didn’t have the strength to explain it all to him. Thankfully he left after about 30 minutes.
12. Continue to include them in things. They feel isolated already. They assume people don’t want to be around them. Even if they decline your invitation, they will be thankful that you thought of them.
13. Above all, pray for them. Pray that they wouldn’t become utterly discouraged. Pray that their focus would shift from their own lack to God’s amazing grace. Pray that their child would turn their heart back to the God who loves them and the family that longs for reconciliation. Pray for the family as they go through some of the hardest days, months or years they will ever know. Pray that they would learn day by day to cling to the God who loves them in spite of their imperfect parenting skills. Most importantly, pray that their joy would be found in God alone, not in their children.
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, preserving in tribulation, devoted to prayer, . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:10-12, 15, 16 NASB)