A Parent’s Private Pain

Most of my current counseling work is with adults. Didn’t used to be this way. When I started, I worked mostly with kids and then sometimes with their parents.

What do adults deal with? Some are dealing with personal problems, some are dealing with difficult marriages, work, and the like, some are dealing with parenting young children. All of them hope that counseling will be part of the solution: depression will lift; intimacy will increase, children will be more obedient.

But what of the parent of an adult child who seems to be going off course? Their beloved offspring refuses to address an addiction; rejects their faith; rejects values from faith or culture. Where do they find help and solace? Given the little power parents have over adult children no longer under their roof, these parents rarely choose counseling as an option. Seems too expensive for something that can’t change the situation.

Surely these parents hurt. Their assumptions or dreams seem dashed. They question what they did wrong. Others offer unsolicited advice as to what to do or why their child has departed from their family values. Surely these parents face confusing decisions. Do they cut off from the child? Cajole? Pretend nothing is wrong?

Where best might they turn?


Filed under christian counseling, Christianity, counseling, parenting

13 responses to “A Parent’s Private Pain

  1. I’ve been wrestling with this heart-wrenching issue with friends, clients, blog readers for awhile. Here’s a few links to cut and paste that might add to the discussion.





  2. As a pastor, I often find myself dealing with parents in this situation.

    The best case scenarios that I’ve seen have involved alot of prayer, open and honest communication, and the support of a pastoral team.

    I’d love to hear some of your insights…

  3. Bet

    Wow, I have a lot to say (though nothing conclusive) about this topic as we have been in the middle of it for a long time and there is no tidy end in sight! For us, I suppose, the real struggling began when our oldest abandoned the faith to move in with a non-Christian. A very few people (my parents included, which made things very difficult) told us that we had to cut her off, citing I Cor 5:9ff. However, we were blessed by many people in our church who had been through , and in some cases, were still going through, similar struggles with their children. They all encouraged us to love our daughter and her boyfriend and to keep on praying for them, which is what we did. All this was very difficult to explain to her four younger siblings, but looking back on it, what we said at the time was probably not that important, but what we did afterward, what they saw us doing, was.

    I cannot give the requisite “Christian happy ending” to this story; our daughter did marry her boyfriend, but they are not Christians. Our other children range from outright, vocal rejection of Christ (while still letting us pray for them in their presence) to active participation in the Kingdom. We have, of course, rejected a formulaic approach to parenting. We listen, we pray, we love, and we trust God to love our children even more than we do. We support and are supported by other parents in our church. Our pain, at times, is very great. We have sleepless nights. But we have confidence in our Redeemer, though we have no idea, most of the time, how He is working in our children’s lives.

  4. Jackie

    What you describe is what I am living. I don’t have a general answer, just what has taken place in me and I think that is where the answer lies for a parent because they can’t change the adult child. I had to evaluate what of my identity was too wrapped up in my adult child’s choices. Before that I had to grieve (and still do grieve) for the “way I thought/hoped/dreamed things would be and the change in relationship that occurred between this child and I because of his choices. I wanted someone to tell me where I had failed (maybe then I could fix it). What I got instead was an understanding of “good enough parenting” and the encouragement that his choices weren’t my fault (it took a long time to grasp that idea and I still visit self blame). All of your child’s life you have made careful choices raising them, always choosing what you believed was for their best so it is hard to watch so helplessly as they choose carelessly for themselves. It also helped to talk with other parents of adult children because it seems most have at some level dealt with disillusionment in regard to their adult child’s choices (from minor disagreements to life threatening addiction). I remember a time when I was certain that at least an emotional cut-off was the only way to deal with the situation and I came across a photo of my son when he was about 5yrs old. I believe that boy is still in there and I can’t cut-off from him.

  5. This has to be one of the most painful things a parent can go through. Feelings of guilt, confusion, sadness, anger, frustration…abound. Personally, I don’t think we should EVER cut our children off. Did the prodigal son’s father cut him off? or what it the son who cut himself off from the father? Our sin separates us from fellowship with God until we repent and are restored to Him. He is always ready and waiting for us to come back to Him. As parents, we keep praying, believing, trusting God to work in our children’s lives. We keep loving them and don’t ever, ever give up on them. I know this from personal experience. My mother was repeatedly advised to cut us off, we were too far gone. She was diligent in prayer and would not give up on us. I am so thankful for her love, persistence in trusting God and her unwavering faith. Ultimately, we got saved and our lives were completely changed. People who knew us then still cannot believe how different we are. God can change, heal, restore, save the hardest heart and most seemingly hopeless people. He can take our destructive decisions and lifestyles and ultimately use them for good. He is a good God. I have no doubt that a praying parent will not be disappointed in what the Lord can and will do in their children’s lives!

  6. D. Stevenson

    Cut off from the child (adult)? Why? What is the purpose in that? An attempt to manipulate? — “If you don’t do what I want I won’t love you/will reject you/abandon you.”

    To you parents who face the pain of a child “living in the pigpen” and who are daily entrusting their lives to God, their perfect Father…., I am in awe of your faith.

    • Jackie

      I can only speak for myself but the idea of “cut-off” crossed my mind in the process because it was so unbearably painful at the time. Selfish? Yes. Manipulative? Not for me. It was more about survival and the idea that if it were possible to compartmentalize the pain (emotionally disconnect) one could still reasonably interact with the one you love.

    • I’m not encouraging that choice but it is one frequently asked about in counseling. Why? We often want to up the ante to get others to pay attention or wake up. If I cut off from her, will she finally get it? Rarely does this work. Neither does it work to ignore the problem. The hard part is loving well and speaking the truth well. I appreciated the spirit behind Jack Miller’s book with his daughter Barbara Juliani (“Come back Barbara”) which gave an example of drawing a line while loving, inviting, and engaging at the same time. Not easy but good.

      • My personal feeling is that one has to determine what is the most loving thing to do for the child. Certainly, continuing to enable a certain lifestyle that is harmful to anyone is not the most loving thing. However, loving them through even their bad choices is being Christ-like and loving.

        I hope what I am saying does not come across as haughty. I am pastor with four children and none of them are living the relationship with Christ I would choose for them. So I understand and appreciate the pain expressed in the post.

  7. Lin

    Thanks for recognizing that parents carry private pain!

    I think I know why parents don’t seek out counseling…or at least I know why I don’t. Counseling allows you to talk about the sadness and loss of an adult child’s life, you pull the scab off the sadness and loss to talk about it, then the hour session is up, you pay the bill, and you go home alone to deal with an even sorer heart. You are right, therapy of the parent is not going to change the outcome of an adult child’s life.

    I think the greatest comfort for a parent is knowing and turning to the Lord with the pain. “Casting all your cares upon him, for he careth for you.” Nice to know that he promises NEVER to leave me and my burdens are carried by him as if they were his own…such comfort in knowing a loving God.

    The real struggle is when God says “In everything give thanks”……sometimes I throw my hands up and ask “HOW can I be thankful for this”…..and yet we are to give thanks. So, if you cut your child off, watched a child walk away to live their own life or work diligently to mold an adult child’s life with little success….give thanks! Give thanks that you have a God who hears prayer on behalf of your child. Give thanks that God entrusted that child to you. If we parent with love and desire to do God’s will, our imperfectness can be made perfect with God’s hand….even in the life of our children who seem so far away.

    Must admit….googled your name to “check out” what you were about.

    Unusual and yet so wonderful that on this website you allow yourself to be seen as you are….just an ordinary man, father, husband…..who has the added bonus of being a Christian psychologist!


  8. Debbie

    I think my generation of Christian parents who raised their kids according to Dobson, Edith Schaeffer, etc. really never thought that it might not “work.” I gave lip service to God’s sovereignty but deep in my heart believed that because I loved my kids and did the right things, that they would grow up loving Jesus too. I felt totally blind-sided when my boys turned away from Him.
    I used to scoff at AA’s serenity prayer thinking it was simplistic and naive– now I have it posted on my closet wall where I look at it every morning. Funny, huh? “Accept the things I cannot change.” Trust the One who can change them. That’s the only way for us control-freaks to maintain our sanity.

  9. Cut off one of my beloved children because they choose a different path than I?!? God gives us unconditional love, what right do we have to give anything less to our children, who are gifts to us from God?

    Not all of us are lucky enough to have a smooth road of faith or life. All of my children have chosen journeys different from what I would have chosen for them. But that is also part of God’s plan. We can’t choose for them, they have free will and have to find their own way. God knew what He was doing, because I truly have no idea what is best for them, only He does.

    If one of my children was involved in criminal activity or was a danger to me or the rest of the family, I would make choices to keep us all as safe as possible. This might include distancing, but never outright rejection.

    Fortunately I have not been presented with such a scenario. But my kids do have different religious perspectives and values than I do. I don’t believe I have any right to project my belief’s and desires on them. They are good and loving people who do good in the world. I couldn’t ask for more and recognize they are in God’s hands, not mine. It is a corny slogan, but oh so true: Let go and let God.

  10. Lin

    I believe that until a parent is placed in a situation where their children are in danger can one understand that at times “total rejection” has to be the choice in order to help those that have been injured rebuild their lives. Trust me….I tried it every way….and it was only when I totally turned my back that one of the children began to heal. And when I re-introduced the child years later, regression occurred in the behavior of the child who was once hurt.

    Not an easy thing by any means. Holidays, birthdays, sunrises and sunsets lack the joy and happiness they once had, but the Lord knows that. And I have been judged many times by many people for the choices I made….but I believe that until you have walked in the shoes of a parent who had to cut off a child for the safety of others, you cannot begin to understand, and I hope that no one has to walk in those shoes….I wish it on no one. It is comforting to know that there is a God who understands my heart and my intentions as a parent.

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