Today for the final installment of the Parenting Perspectives guest post series I am so honored to introduce Jill Richardson to you from JillMRichardson.com. She is a wealth of knowledge, grace and love. I know her words will encourage and give you cause to pause and listen about parenting the prodigal child.
I didn’t set out to parent a prodigal child.
No one plans these things, and although there were definite signs from the beginning that this one would be a challenge, I believed that with all the books I’d read and all the parenting plans I’d done right, we’d navigate into adulthood just fine.
I was reading the wrong books.
None of the ten easy steps for an obedient child worked on mine. No force on earth, let alone in my living room, could tame her strong will, which I increasingly didn’t believe really was strong so much as scared.
The fits of rage, impulses to do the inexplicable, and propensity to say any (inappropriate) thing to anybody seemed to come from someplace inside of her that even she could not explain. The Christian-parenting-done-right books couldn’t explain it, either.
They mostly blamed me.
They also told me I had a bad child, and if I didn’t totally believe it, I think she did.
The diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome when she was ten helped explain a lot of things. But we did not know about the bipolar disorder until we were in the epicenter of a parents’ hell — having a deeply beloved child whose greatest goal on earth was self-destruction.
Having a prodigal child doesn’t play well when you’re a pastor, by the way. That’s a whole other set of expectations and threats to mental health we won’t pursue. I just knew there was a hymn writer somewhere who promised me that trusting and obeying was the way to be happy all the day. And it wasn’t working.
“Happy” doesn’t quite describe the feeling of walking up to a stranger’s door to ask if your daughter spent the night there. It doesn’t encompass the terror of wondering if she spent it anywhere safe. It never applies to watching her once-sparkling eyes turn away from yours and seeing the fresh razor marks she tries to pull her sleeves over.
Happy is not the feeling you get when your dearly loved daughter screams swear words at you or when the police knock on your door at midnight and haul her away, as she cries tears of terror. It isn’t the anxiety of a suicide watch or the slow dawning knowledge that heroin addiction is no longer someone else’s problem.
I don’t know what the feelings you get are. I never defined them, because doing that might mean giving in to them, and that was somewhere I could not go. I stood on the edge of the abyss she had fallen over, and falling in myself would not help either one of us get out.
I can define them now. Then, I could simply survive.
Maybe that’s the first piece of advice I would give to parents of prodigals. Not easy advice. Not five clear steps. You know better than that by this time.
But the first one: Don’t join them in the abyss.
For too long, I responded to her challenges with like craziness. When she upped the ante, I was ready. I didn’t want to scream back, but I did, more often than I like to admit.
To survive, I learned that I had to step back. I had to put my feelings in storage, no matter how goaded they were. I had to let her see that someone could be in control, even when she was certain nothing was. That was a lifeline for her, and it was sanity for me. I needed to divorce her threats and hurts from my heart.
At one point, I even had to say, “No, if you kill yourself, it will no be my fault. I will be devastated and destroyed, but I will not be guilty. It’s on you.”
A prodigal child can be loved and forgiven of anything, but there are boundaries, not just for me but for her. She believed the world was chaotic and uncontrollable. I had to prove something wasn’t, for both of us.
Tell them – I won’t join you in the crazy. Your choices are yours. Mine are mine. And we are each responsible for our own. I won’t take the bait.
The second thing – Don’t judge.
It’s not a catchphrase. It’s for real.
The less than desirable friends? For better or worse, they were her safe place. Her community. They would not judge her, because they were so messed up themselves they knew better. I had to get to the place where I knew I was so messed up I couldn’t judge them. Because I knew better.
As long as I sat behind my wall of “my choices are the right ones and this is the bar you have to reach” detente was impossible. It’s a tricky deal, because obviously her choices were pretty bad. But the broken, repentant realization that mine were also bad, albeit sanitized, finally helped me see her where she was.
Over those years, many of her friends wandered in and out of my house. Kids I would have ignored before. Kids I would have feared. Kids I would have judged. But in my house, at my table, with names and pasts and brown eyes that echoed all the hurt they’d ever been dealt and all the bad choices they’d made? They were no longer sinners who needed to get their acts together. They were lost kids. They were my kids.
I finally got God’s mind and heart in it. He looks at me and loves me, in spite of all the self-destructive choices I make. He says, “That’s my kid and I love her.” I needed to drop all the criteria I had for a “good” kid and just love lavishly. Not irresponsibly – but unconditionally. Not enabling her or shielding her – but unshakably accepting her.
She thought the world would drop her. I had to prove someone would not.
The third thing…Keep talking God.
God gave her a strong will. He gave her passions. He gave her sensitivity and wit and a million unanswered questions and by His goodness, he was going to make it all work together for something beautiful. I just had to keep telling her that. And telling myself.
Affirm Psalm 139 to her. Pray it over her. Read Job and decide to believe when you really don’t anymore. Keep telling both of you that He cares intensely. At least one of you will believe it, and one is all it takes to retain hope.
I suspected from almost the day she was born that this child would have to learn the hard way that her will would have to bend to life. I prayed it would not be the case.
She hit bottom in a jail cell. She came out ready to start again. She did the hard work of getting off drugs, starting school again, releasing relationships that were harmful, and telling God she was sorry. Countless parents are proud of their honor students (and she was that – a scary brilliant girl in truth), but I am prouder of the girl who did this excruciatingly hard work when most had given up on her.
That took guts. It took the strong will she was born with. That will didn’t have to be broken – it had to be bent to God’s purposes.
Just like all of us.
Jill is a writer, speaker, pastor, and mom of three. She likes to travel, grow flowers, cause trouble, and research her next project. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and dark chocolate. Her passion is partnering with the next generation of faith. She blogs at http://jillmrichardson.com.