Written by Dr. Joannie DeBrito, Family Support Specialist
Do you have a child or grandchild that has left home, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well?
They have strayed far from your geographical location but also your spiritual location. They are on their own and doing their own thing.
Was it a steady or quick pulling away from the family? A “moving away” or “out to embrace the world and all that it offers?”
Maybe it happened as they went away to college or moved out on their own. Maybe it started earlier as their education and friends brought in ideas contrary to what they thought before.
Now they are away more than they are home, and when they are home it is so different. You are not sure you know who they are anymore. Each visit, your heart breaks a little more.
You wonder, “Why did they stray? What can I do?”
In this first of two posts, I will discuss the possible reasons why they might have strayed, as well as how to use this as an amazing opportunity to make your relationship stronger than ever.
The next post will cover what to do when the child or grandchild goes to the far country and they completely disengage from the family.
A Prodigal Child Defined
To begin with, let’s make sure we all understand what a prodigal is.
The original story of the prodigal son is in Luke 15:11-32. The Merriam Webster definition of a prodigal child is:
A son/daughter who leaves his or her parents to do things that they do not approve of but then feels sorry and returns home. Often used figuratively.
Pay attention to the part of this definition that addresses the intent of doing something of which the parents — and presumably you the grandparents, as well — disapprove.
Not all of those who create some distance with their parents or grandparents are prodigals.
Some Reasons Why
Some adult children are just trying to negotiate the complex, changing relationship with their parents as they themselves begin to learn how to parent.
Grandchildren are trying to grow from children to teens to young adults. They are looking to find some time and space to explore what they believe to be true about themselves and the world.
Adult children who have good connections with their parents based on love and respect may be afraid that their parents will be hurt as they begin to explore parenting from a different perspective.
Similarly, grandchildren who stray may also do so to protect their grandparents from being potentially confused by some of their decisions.
Their intent is not to do something that their parents or grandparents wouldn’t approve of, but rather to allow themselves exposure to new information coming to conclusions without interference from their elders.
These adult children and grandchildren tend to have self-imposed boundaries that allow for exposure to some new experiences but not all.
They’ve learned that there are limits on how far one should go to explore various aspects of life, and they’ve stuck to them.
Testing the limits as a young adult parent or grandchild allows them to experience the positive and negative consequences of their actions but without risk to life, limb, or negative long-term effects.
These experiments serve to solidify their inner behavioral, spiritual, and moral compasses more fully.
I like to think of this as going on a field trip seeking discovery. Field trips usually do not last long periods of time.
So let’s look at this in a little more depth as to why this happens and is needful:
1. Seeking Growth and Maturity
The first reason young adults stray is to provide opportunities for personal growth and maturity. This behavior is completely normal and healthy.
It’s important for parents and grandparents not to overreact when their emerging adult children or grandchildren begin to look at various points of view and learn about different religions, political ideologies, or cultural issues from a wide range of perspectives.
Instead, grandparents would be wise to allow for that time of exploration, ask questions, and resist the urge to lecture.
Truly listen and hear what a son, daughter, or grandchild is learning. Then, let it play out.
Most young people will take several years before they arrive at a solid understanding of their faith, beliefs, and personal identity.
Those new perspectives can be discussed adult to adult if those explorations result in radical changes in sons or daughters. But often, the changes are not significant.
As a parent or grandparent, strive to be available and allow them to talk through what they are wondering about, giving information only when asked.
Share your experience if you had a time of questioning — how did you come to the conclusion you did?
This first type of young adult is not “a prodigal.” Instead, he or she is likely responding to an authoritative parenting style.
Authoritative parents encourage appropriate limits, independent thinking, personal responsibility, care and concern for others, and open communication.
2. Seeking Freedom or Searching for Significance
Unfortunately, sometimes certain parenting practices may contribute to a child becoming a true “prodigal” son, daughter, or grandchild.
It’s common for people to reassure hurting parents and grandparents that they shouldn’t blame themselves for the actions of their children or grandchildren.
That’s good advice, but it’s also important for grandparents not to brand themselves as “failures” when they experience problems as their children and grandchildren grow into adulthood.
However, while it is often true that there is nothing parents or grandparents could have done, that is not always the case.
It is always good to follow Psalm 139:23-24. Look at how you did parent and now are grandparenting.
Authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful parenting styles may contribute to a young adult’s desire to sever ties with parents and grandparents.
Authoritarian parenting depends on many rules, harsh consequences for breaking them, and high expectations with little nurturing from parents.
Children raised by authoritarian (sometimes overbearing) moms and dads may turn their backs on their parents and grandparents to find the freedom to live and grow without so many imposed rules and punitive consequences.
On the other hand, permissive parents show love toward their children (sometimes smothering) but provide few guidelines, impose few rules, and provide very little structure for them to be successful.
Parents who practice neglectful parenting often produce children, teens, and young adults who feel unloved and are more likely to be bullied and have poor academic performance.
Children of permissive and neglectful parents may also have few healthy peer relationships, which may cause them to launch out on their own.
They are searching for evidence that they are significant as individuals through looking for meaningful relationships and seeking success in life.
Because they often see their parents as responsible for their past social and academic failures, they may decide that future success depends on having no contact with their parents and grandparents.
They will not necessarily be prodigals — remember our definition — but they could be.
An Amazing Opportunity
Live out Romans 12:8, James 5:16, and Ephesians 4:32.
If you recognize that you were an authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful parent, don’t take too much responsibility for the actions of your prodigal son, daughter, or grandchild.
That young adult is now responsible for his or her decisions.
Yet, may I suggest you spend time in prayer and contemplation — do you need to take responsibility for anything?
While not wanting to heap more guilt or shame, this is an important step in moving forward.
Suppose you see that you partially contributed to the distance between you and your young adult child or grandchild. In that case, you have the amazing opportunity to be a part of the solution.
Be the first to show empathy and say, “Hey, I miss you, and I think that I have some responsibility here. Can we talk about this? I’m ready to hear what happened from your perspective. I would like to tell you where I was coming from so we can figure out how to have a more healthy relationship as adults.”
Notice that the emphasis here is on two adults working together to reconcile, not on the parent or grandparent taking full responsibility for fixing the problem.
If that sounds too hard for you to do this alone, don’t hesitate to contact a licensed mental health professional for help.
Remember, as purposeful Christian grandparents, we seek to live out our beliefs in real-time and in real life. What better place than within our homes?
Note of Caution
At this point, I do want to mention a note of caution for grandparents.
Sometimes prodigal grandchildren will break off ties with their parents but not with their grandparents. In this case, grandparents can help sustain the family connection and monitor what is going on in the life of their grandchild.
It also is a way to provide support to their children — the grandchild’s parents — while the child has cut off ties from them.
However, this should never be used as an opportunity to collude with the child against his or her parents.
If you believe that your grandchild’s parents have acted in ways that have been harmful to your grandchild, please seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.
If true harm has been done, such as in the case of physical or sexual abuse or exposure to addictions or domestic violence, a mental health professional can help you go through the process of protecting your grandchild and providing good care for him or her.
Thankfully, this is not usually the case. Instead, most conflicts between parents and children are related to parenting styles or differences of opinion that can be talked through and resolved.
As much as possible, it is important for grandparents to help facilitate healing between their grandchild and his or her parents.
I’ve had the opportunity to help many grandparents and their young adult children or grandchildren talk through the circumstances that led to cutting off ties with them.
I’ve seen God heal these relationships when both parties have been able to accept responsibility for how they contributed to their relationship struggles and when they were willing to make their future relationship more important than their past mistakes.
In the case of a pattern of parenting that was overly restrictive, too permissive, or neglectful, in my opinion, there is an excellent opportunity for healing and reconciliation.
We are called as Christ’s ambassadors bringing the ministry of reconciliation to the world — where better to start than our families!
Editor’s Note: If in need of a counselor, click here for more information about counselors in your area. You’ll find a link for Christian Counselors Network there.