Parenting Skills: Straight Talk from Parents

Parenting Skills - Working through the guilt associated with a child who’s gone wrong.

by Jackie Katz


I had just caught our son, eleven, stealing and then lying to cover it up! “Dan, I noticed some quarters lying on your dresser. Where did they come from?” “A friend gave them to me,” he answered sheepishly. “Why would a friend give you money?” Silence hung in the air as I waited for his answer. He had none. He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, studying my face, measuring just how much longer he could keep up the deception. Tempting fate, he stuck with his story. Only after a tussle of the wills, was I finally able to wring a confession from his unwilling lips!

Immediately my overactive imagination leapt into action. Was this the first indication that Dan would be one of those notorious preachers’ kids? Would he take the path of a prodigal? I wasn’t sure I could handle that! Fortunately, my husband was there to peel me off the ceiling and calm me down. And, thank God, my son repented of his evil ways and did not take up stealing and lying as a way of life! However, children don’t always repent. Some take the path that leads to prodigal living.

Even though children have walked away from God since the Garden of Eden, no parent is ever prepared for a prodigal. What parent can prepare for the rejection of all he or she holds sacred or to hear the words, “Dad, Mom, I am no longer willing to follow you in your Christian faith.” After all the years of sharing what you possess with this beloved child and despite your many prayers, he determines to disregard his training and forsake his spiritual roots. There is no question that his defection from his faith creates horrific pain and anguish.

While I have never experienced rebellion with my children that was bad enough to label them “prodigal,” I have known friends and counseled families who have experienced those heartbreaking situations with their children. To have a child who gets into the wrong crowd, takes drugs, or becomes another teen pregnancy statistic can truly be devastating as a parent. It is my hope that this article will help to alleviate some of your personal suffering, particularly in the area of parental guilt.

The Blame Game

When a child renounces his faith and embraces a destructive lifestyle, one of the greatest struggle areas for parents is the strong sense of failure and guilt that is experienced. Guilt can easily become a constant companion when struggling to understand what went wrong – what you did wrong. “This would not have happened… If I had spent more time with him... If I had not been so lax in my discipline... If I had not been careless about having family devotions... If I had not sent him to that new school.”

You conclude that you have failed and determine that’s the reason things have turned out badly. Satan whispers seductively, “Your child’s spiritual meltdown is your fault; you are a terrible failure and not qualified to minister.”

Parents of prodigals usually labor under a massive weight of self-condemnation. This weight is destructive and dangerous because it can hinder you both spiritually and emotionally. It is a vicious whirlpool that pulls you deeper and deeper into self-hatred, despair, and self-pity. This is not the way God desires for you to live. To come out from under this, it will be helpful to learn how to differentiate between destructive and constructive guilt, and how to respond to each accordingly.

Recognizing Destructive Guilt

Destructive guilt is based on vague “feelings” that are unidentifiable, speculative in nature, and difficult to pin down. This kind of guilt does not settle on a specific behavior that violates God’s Word. Rather, it does its corrosive work by stirring up such thoughts as, “Have I been the parent I should have been?” or “Was I loving enough to my child?” These questions point an accusatory finger at any parent because they require perfection. If you have a sensitive conscience or an introspective nature, the potential is ripe for a major outbreak of harmful guilt. Over time, trafficking in this kind of speculative thinking can result in the development of self-condemnation.

Satan nourishes destructive guilt because it intensifies the heavy pressures and stress you already experience. He relishes in the fact that it wears you out and weakens your hope for your prodigal’s safe return. He seduces you into a self-focused condemnation that depletes your strength to effectively wage any prayer battle for your child.

God does not deal in destructive guilt. It is not His voice you hear if it is noisy, harsh, accusing, and condemning. Rather it is the impersonating voice of the enemy who seeks to coax you down the path of lethal guilt. God’s voice is the opposite of the enemy’s. It is distinguishable by its gentle, entreating nature. That still, small voice sounds a clear message about tangible sin and it reproves and shepherds us in the direction of contrition.

Loosening The Stranglehold Of Destructive Guilt

At this point, ask God for the wisdom and strength to combat the destructive guilt you are feeling. Ask Him to help you distinguish His voice from the voice of condemnation, and when you feel guilty ask yourself, “Is this feeling of guilt tied to violating any of God’s actual standards?” If the answer is no, by an act of your will, regardless of feelings, put away any condemning thoughts, and don’t allow your mind to dwell on any feelings of failure. Instead, take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and fix your mind vigorously on the things that are true and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). By dwelling on the times you showed love to your child, disciplined without anger, and spent quality time with him, you will be able to remember the good times you enjoyed as a family. Destructive guilt doesn’t have to rob you of positive memories that are rightfully yours.

Recognizing Constructive Guilt

Constructive guilt is guilt that is tied to breaking a measurable moral standard that is clearly revealed in Scripture. It is fixed on concrete moral standards rather than subjective, emotional feelings. Constructive guilt points out: “You displayed impatience with your son,” or “You provoked your child to anger.” The quiet voice of the Holy Spirit penetrates the innermost heart and points out a specific violation of God’s commandment. Constructive guilt brings conviction that leads to repentance, enabling you to escape sin. It advances you in the process of maintaining a clear conscience rather than allowing yourself to be burdened with shame and self-reproach.

Benefiting From Constructive Guilt

Feelings of legitimate guilt, unlike the deceptive kind, become a powerful tool in moving you toward repairing the broken relationship with your child, if this is necessary. It is not enough to expect time to heal the relationship, because God asks you to be proactive in removing the barriers constructed between you and your prodigal, especially those created by your own sin. By being willing to obey the voice of constructive guilt, a climate of reconciliation can follow.

When working with a prodigal, reconciliation needs to become a very important goal. Matthew 5:23-24 says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” The principles for reconciliation found in this verse are very specific. If, while worshipping, the Holy Spirit brings to your remembrance an offense you have committed against your child, you are to go to him or her, confess your sin and ask for forgiveness as soon as possible. God would rather wait for your gift, than have you offer it under guilt and estrangement.

At this point you may be asking, “Why me? Why should I make the first move toward reconciliation? My prodigal has left a trail of destruction behind him a mile long. He is totally insensitive to all the pain he has caused this family.” It may be true that your sin is not as big as his, especially in the light of all the deception, rebellion, and hurt your prodigal has caused, but you are still accountable for your one percent. Because we should always make it our goal to live at peace with everyone, you need to take the initiative to make all wrongs right between you and your prodigal. He or she may not forgive you, but at least you will know you have done your part to mend the breach.

Things To Remember When Asking For Forgiveness

If possible, it is best to reconcile face-to-face or to use the telephone. This will permit your child to ask questions that may need to be clarified. Too often the wording of letters, even though carefully scripted, can be misunderstood, creating further problems. When seeking forgiveness, be careful that you don’t accuse, judge, blame, or bring up your child’s failures. Instead, take full responsibility for your sin, not excusing or minimizing what you have done wrong. You will need to go further than just saying, “I’m sorry.” It will show sincerity if you can name your sin, admitting that you were wrong. Then, make any restitution that might be necessary.

Getting To The Heart Of The Matter

Every parent of a prodigal wants to know if she caused her child’s rebelliousness. She wants to resolve the matter of guilt: “Is my child a prodigal because of my behavior?” Mark 7:21-23 provides the answer to that question: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” Your child’s behavior is the result of what is found in his own corrupt heart. Will God hold you responsible for your child’s behavior? Look at what Ezekiel 18:20 has to say: “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” God holds your child accountable for his sins just like He will hold you accountable for your sins. Everyone makes his own individual choices; you are not responsible for your child’s rebelliousness.

The father in the story of the prodigal son knew what it felt like to have a child go wrong. There is a lot we can learn from his example. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t depict the father standing on the front porch wringing his hands over his own personal failures. Rather, Jesus shows him watching expectantly for his son’s return. The father knew his son made a conscious decision to leave because of his selfish desires and lust for adventure. But he also knew that one day his son would return. He understood that the world’s offers would not ultimately satisfy him. Nor will what the world offers satisfy your prodigal. Hopefully, that truth will bolster your hope. As your prodigal tries to satisfy his soul’s thirst in the world, he will find himself dry and parched. So get ready! Hang out the welcome sign and keep your eyes on the road. Your prodigal is coming home!