Parenting a Prodigal: Get Over Your Guilt

Parenting a Prodigal: Get Over Your Guilt

Guilt: You’re drowning in it!

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.

Your teen or young-adult child has gone off the rails. They have rejected you, your values, or their former friends. Maybe they’ve dropped out of school or taken up a dangerous or defiant behavior. You feel as if you don’t know them at all–or that you didn’t really know them in the first place.

As you see them slipping away from you, you try everything you can think of to save them. Nothing seems to work. You know they are going to crash and burn at some point, and you can’t stand by and let that happen.

What could have gone so wrong? The search for answers goes ’round and ’round in your brain until your brain, like a computer, spits out the only search result it can come up with: It’s your fault.


If I were standing in front of you right now, I would take you by the shoulders, stare deeply into your eyes, and tell you to snap out of it! Wearing sackcloth and ashes is not going to be of any help at this point.

Your child’s fall into this miry pit happened on your watch, so that makes you responsible. Through your hindsight goggles, you can see all of the mistakes–real or perceived–that you made during their formative years. The voice that wakes you up in the middle of the night is more than happy to remind you of each and every one of your failings.

News Flash

It may be entirely your fault that your prodigal child is a mess, or maybe not. You may have made some big, ugly parenting mistakes. Then again, you may have been the superstar of perfect parenting. Nevertheless, you’re in this situation.

So how does feeling guilty help?

The truth is that feeling guilty solves nothing. In fact, it only makes things worse. Guilt looks backward, not forward. It stops you from taking steps in the right direction, the direction of healing.

So What Can You Do Instead of Acting From Guilt?

Instead of wallowing in guilt, here are some healthy steps you can take while waiting for your prodigal to come to their senses:

  1. For starters, you can accept that your prodigal is no longer a child. She or he may be acting like one, but other people, including the criminal justice system, aren’t interested in how you see your child. Your prodigal’s actions are out of your direct control. Their problems and consequences now belong to them.
  2. Stop trying to protect your prodigal from him/herself. In some circles, this is known as “cutting them off”. No money, no excuses, no rides anywhere, no allowing them access to your valuables. If this means they might end up living on the street, give yourself a backbone and let them.
  3. Don’t give them money. The money will only fuel their bad behavior or addiction. No matter what they tell you, they will not be spending it on rent.
  4. Take their phone calls, but only if you can say no to their requests. First, they will probably just be asking for money. When you tell them no, don’t let them say hurtful stuff to you. Just hang up. They may also try to tell you about some drama they are involved in. This may or may not be a lie to try to manipulate you. If they tell you they are in danger, tell them you are calling the police. Then do it.
  5. Warn the rest of your extended family. As embarrassing as it may be to open up, the whole family already knows you have a prodigal. Give them the facts, tell them how you are handling it, and ask for their support in holding the line. If they can’t do it, they probably should not take the prodigal’s phone calls.
  6. Get advice, counsel, and emotional support. You aren’t the only family going through this. You’d be surprised at how many others are rowing the same boat. Reach out to your pastor, a mental health professional, or a support group. My most valuable support came from three sources: my family, my church, and my wonderful brother-in-law, Bill Raymond. Bill is 40 years sober and has led Alcoholics Anonymous programs in the prison system.
  7. Include the whole nuclear family in counseling and support. They are likely to be angry and hurting, and very much in need of your reassurance and support. Do not allow your guilt to interfere with your nurturing of the rest of your family.
  8. Support and encourage yourself with prayer and scripture, “praying at all times in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 6:18, ESV)

Instructions from God

“Finally,” as the Apostle, Paul wrote, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” (Ephesians 6:10 ESV) I urge you to read the entire Book of Ephesians, which is a beautiful and encouraging reminder of who we are in Christ. If you only have time to read one chapter, though, read Chapter 6 and put on the “whole armor of God.”

Suit up.

You’ll need it. You are in the battle of your life.

Grace is real–


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