Advice for Parents of Prodigals

How to live in hope despite the discouragement of a wayward child.

by Rita Platt

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

If you are embroiled in a heart-crushing storm with a prodigal child, you are not alone. The Lord is with you in the midst of the pain. He weeps with you, sees your wounds, and stands ready to hold and strengthen you at every turn. No easy parenting formulas exist that are always successful. However, as you open yourself to the Lord, you can create a supply of hope as you navigate the tumultuous waters of parenting a prodigal.

God’s compassion

At times you may find yourself alternating between unbearable pain and numbness. Grant yourself permission to experience the grief and loss of sensation. But be sure to drag your gut-wrenching sorrow to God and become like a child, showing Him where you hurt. The Bible calls God “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). The English word comfort is derived from the Latin word confortis, meaning “brave together.” *

What a picture. You can face your pain with courage because God is with you. In fact, one name for Jesus is Immanuel — God with us.  Let God’s comfort bathe your spirit and remind you of His goodness. Allow it to renew your hope in His soothing presence.  He is enough to carry you through any crisis.

Handled with care

Isaiah 57:15 reads:

For this is what the high and lofty One says — he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

God brings refreshment and healing along the way. He knows your deepest needs and the fragile nature of your spirit. Consider the tension in handling an egg. We cannot relax our grip too much, or the egg will simply roll out of our hands and break. Nor can we make our grip too tight, or we risk crushing the egg.

Likewise, our God knows the perfect way to cradle our hearts. In your distress, flee to the quiet strength of His loving arms.  Let go of control and surrender not only your pain but also your child’s brokenness.  Rest in God’s embrace and listen for whispers of hope. He is able to hold your life and your child’s in His hands.

Support from others

Sometimes the Lord uses others in our lives to reveal His presence and comfort. Yet a major temptation for hurting parents is to paste on a smile, withdraw, and become isolated in their pain. Exposing hurts to others is scary. What if they blame you for your child’s behavior? You are probably already second-guessing yourself and battling guilt and may wonder if anyone can really understand. You may be sick of the well-meaning pat answers that some offer.

While it may be true that being vulnerable is risky, it’s worthwhile to look for a safe environment where you can open your life to others. Ask God to guide in your search for a church or community group that supports and ministers to wounded parents. Find people who will pray and cry with you, even in the middle of the night. In times of disappointment or crisis, you need a secure place to let your guard down, a place where you don’t need to pretend to have it all together. Connecting with parents who are walking a similar path brings comfort. Also, talking with parents who have walked a little further down the road produces hope that there really may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Professional help

God also eases burdens through professionals. Enlisting the wisdom of a trusted pastor or a counselor can be a crucial part of the coping process. If your child is still at home, you may feel crowded, overwhelmed, pushed, and bullied. Input regarding appropriate boundaries or brainstorming how to respond to specific behavior often helps.

If your child isn’t at home, a counselor offers a supportive refuge and ideas for preserving your relationship with your child. He listens and provides an outlet for expressing your feelings, as well as stands beside you as you move into the future. The counselor incarnates the Lord’s active concern and prompts hope that God really hears your cries.

Nurturing hope

Hope helps us keep putting one foot in front of the other. Yet it is fragile when darkness seems to overtake the light. How do you nurture the kind of hope that keeps alive the yearning for future restoration?

Reflect. One way is to reflect on the good times you’ve had with your child. Train your mind to dwell on your child’s special qualities. So often the pleasant memories get lost in the midst of the battles. Take time to reminisce about funny or tender moments. Also, suggest to family and friends that they refrain from continually recounting your child’s negative behavior. It only adds to your weariness to hear others speak about your child with condemnation.

Look for beauty and newness. Another possibility for cultivating hope for restoration is to surround yourself with heartening symbols of the newness and wonder of life. Drink in the beauty of sunrises. Pay attention to the renewal of seasons. Listen for the cry of a newborn baby. Caress the softness of a baby’s skin. Plant a seed and be thankful for the seeds already planted in your child’s life. Caring for and watering the seedling becomes a call to prayer. Pray for the ground of your prodigal’s heart to be freshly plowed, for water, for softening, for light and care from whatever sources God provides. As the seed grows in the ground, ask God to make the plant a visual reminder of His role in the process of growth and change in your child’s life.

Share your heart. Another way of looking forward to better days is to creatively express your heart to your child. Write letters of love, including your deepest dreams and wishes for your child. Doing this offers an outlet for sharing your life with your child. Record any bits of advice or wisdom you are longing to impart. Pouring out your love on paper may be the process that keeps the veins of love flowing freely to your child even when you feel besieged by grief and anguish.

Unfinished story

Jesus once told the story of a prodigal son who left home to find a more exciting life (Luke 15:11-32). Fortunately, the story didn’t end with the son’s leaving. Times of rejoicing were yet to be written when he fully returned.

The same is true of your prodigal’s life. Right now the story may be full of tear-jerking sentences. It may seem as though a happy ending isn’t possible. The story may even seem to take a cruel turn by presenting premature or counterfeit endings. When the suspense and drama become overwhelming, remember that God is an expert writer. Because He is the author of life and redemption, never give up on your child. Commit yourself to prayerfully move forward in a posture of surrender, watching and waiting for the day of restoration and rejoicing.

Not even your best efforts will create peace. Only falling moment by moment into the sure refuge of God’s everlasting arms will carry you through to the conclusion of the story with a hopeful heart.

* Search God’s Word ( – Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament, A. T. Robertson. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 1:3.”

Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.