The Lord is merciful and gracious; He is slow to get angry and full of unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.” Psalm 103:8-9, NLT
When a child becomes an adult and is living on his own, it is no longer within our power to control much in their life. It is, however, within our power to manage our relationship with that child.
“Well, what do we do about Mother’s Day?” a father wanted to know. You see, he was dealing with an adult teenager whom he had recently asked to leave their home. The son’s life was overrun by self-damaging things and he had no interest in changing. The parents had struggled and prayed long and hard about it, and rightfully concluded that it was time to ask their prodigal to go live somewhere else.
But they didn’t know what to do next. Asking their son to leave home changed everything about the way they thought things would go within their family. They were not prepared for it. In a tear-filled conversation, this father wondered – “Doesn’t inviting my son home for dinner mean we’re back to supporting his poor choices?”
The dilemma for every parent dealing with a child who exchanges a healthy life for an immoral lifestyle is this: how do we manage the day-to-day interactions with that child?
Let me encourage you if you are in a similar situation. Hang in there, and remain hopeful. Don’t back down. A good relationship with your child who has reached adulthood doesn’t mean you will never have conflict or always agree with their decisions. For parents it is important to love their older child, even when they continue to make destructive decisions. Eventually, the child will come to his senses and he needs to know you’ll be there for him on the other side of the struggle.
When dealing with an older child, as with a younger child as well, it is extremely important to practice unconditional love. It is love that is given across a bridge of friendship that doesn’t end when the older child lives immorally, or chooses poorly. It is a love that provides a way of return to a closer relationship when the child finally returns to right thinking.
How to Practice Unconditional Love with an Older Child
1. Show a true desire to spend time together.
Even if your son or daughter has been asked to leave the house, still invite them to dinner. Send the message that you desire them to remain a part of your family, you intend to spend time together, and make special efforts to do so. Try to engage with them in something they like to do on a regular basis, and lovingly fight to keep your relationship with your child alive.
2. Love well during tough times.
Use your words and actions to send the message, “There is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less.” That doesn’t change just because you’ve enforced some new boundaries. Just as God lovingly and wholeheartedly pursues us, gives us grace, and refuses to let us get away from Him, we can love well, and with compassion when a child is choosing wrong things.
3. Ask questions to open a dialogue.
Ask questions as a way of entering discussion, or lead a conversation with a thought-provoking question. This is also an excellent way to leave a discussion when you are finished. The right kind of questions (non-offensive ones) will stimulate discussion, and hopefully find some common ground. Eliminate “you” statements and replace them with “who, what, when, where, or how” questions that inspire further thought.
4. Be a servant, but not a doormat, even when it doesn’t fit your schedule and liking.
Remember that no kindness will go unnoticed, even if your teenager doesn’t acknowledge your efforts. Keeping an attitude of kindness and consideration that shows you value others more than yourself will help you find the right ways to serve your child when needed.
5. Don’t lecture. Wait to be invited before sharing your opinion.
One of my favorite scriptures says, “A fool delights in airing his own opinion.” Before you give your opinion, make sure they’ve asked you for it first. Look to their interests and their needs, and not your limited focus or agenda. Don’t attempt to fix their problems. In other words, just keep quiet.
6. Don’t give in to their wrongdoing.
God does not help us do more wrong. We are never to enable another’s sin, including helping our child continue to do wrong or to develop damaging habits. Allow God time and space to work in your child’s life, and don’t rescue their wrongdoing.
7. Be patient.
Adjust your expectations away from a swift fix for your child. You may see change happen quickly, or you may not see a change for years. It is important to remind yourself that it is God’s job to change someone’s heart, not yours. Let Him do his work on His timetable while you remain prayerful and available to follow where he leads.
8. Pray for your child daily and let him know you are praying.
Of course, we practice unconditional love by praying daily for our children, even when they become adults. And be sure to let them know you are praying for them. They may think you are silly, but when bad times come for them, and they will, they will find comfort in knowing that there is a Higher Power that is petitioned daily on their behalf.
SUMMARY: Loving unconditionally doesn’t mean you ignore your own beliefs and boundaries, or you fail to allow them to suffer the consequences of their own behavior. It does mean that your love for them isn’t affected by their behavior. You love them no matter what they decide to do or not to do. Making poor decisions or turning their backs to God doesn’t mean they lose your love and relationship as a parent.
Back to the question of the father at the beginning of this article. I advised him to, “Invite him for dinner on Mother’s Day, just as you would any other member of your family. He knows how you feel about what he is involved in, so don’t bring it up. Use it as an opportunity to love your child, and give him a taste of the character of God.”
We’re all invited to the table, aren’t we? And we’ve all been lost, haven’t we? It’s only when we bring the lost to the table that they’ll partake in a meal, a good meal, that will satisfy the hunger they seek to remedy. I want that to be my table. What about you?
About the Author
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173. For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.