When You are Launching a Struggling or Difficult Child
As the flood of graduation photos roll out on social media, I can’t help but think some of my friends deserve their own graduation party– just for getting that kid to walk across the stage. Some of you weren’t sure there would even be a graduation to celebrate (you know who you are!). But you did it. Well done.
Many of you too, may have expected the launching of your child to be a sentimental transition, but instead found yourself feeling guilty for thinking: “We are so ready for her to leave home. Fall can’t come soon enough!“ Or in the quiet moments, you admit, “Parenting this child has been hurtful, disappointing, and exhausting. What did we do wrong?”
Take one of my close friends… one of her boys is uber gifted— like the kind the FBI contacts while they are still in high school because their SAT scores are so high. The school probably had their family on speed dial, since the secretary called nearly every morning asking why her son wasn’t at school. Like too many of our young men, he could have cared less about school performance, and they weren’t sure he would graduate all the way up until the end.
Finally, he graduated, chose a college— and they all drove 12 hours to drop him off. They were excited to see him go; he was excited to see himself go. On the last morning of the parent’s orientation weekend, the school held a special prayer service where the parents would spend time praying and blessing their child as they launched into college. As all the other parents clustered around their children praying their tearful goodbyes, my friend and her husband hovered around the perimeter waiting for their son to show up at the chapel. They waited. And waited. They texted him. My friend’s husband finally said, “I feel like the girl standing on the wall, waiting to be asked to dance.” In the end, their son never showed. Apparently, he had been out too late the night before and slept through the dedication service.
Nothing about this kid was a smooth launching. Nothing. Not even his final blessing before college.
For many, graduation season holds a complicated swirl of emotions— relief and pride, mixed with sadness and disappointment, and secretly, you are wondering how this is going to turn out long-term.
So this post is for all you weary parents on the back end of a difficult stretch. Perhaps you are launching a child who: Barely passed school. Wrestles with depression or anxiety. Struggles with an addiction. Squanders their abilities. Shows zero interest in spiritual things. Rejects your faith. Seems oblivious to the impact his choices has on others. Rebels against authority. Has no drive or ambition. Uses her body to get attention and love. Has said and done hurtful things to you throughout adolescence.
Let me give you a little graduation parent pep talk if you are one who is launching a struggling child.
This is merely the closing of one chapter in your child’s life. This is not the end. Nothing you see currently is cemented, particularly when we have a God who specializes in transformation and redemption. You job as a parent is to hold that hope even when it is nowhere on the horizon.
History is filled with late bloomers and prodigal children who go on to lead beautiful, meaningful lives. Especially when they have a strong support system waiting in the wings to love them through their messiness.
Ever heard the story of Saint Augustine? He was a complete train wreck. He confessed that he stole at age 11 just because it felt good to do something bad. He left home determined to buck his mother’s religion, becoming a womanizer and a people pleaser. When he landed in oratory school as a young adult, he converted to a sect. He had a mistress for 15 years, finally gave her up, but consoled himself with prostitutes to get through the heartbreak. One of his famous quotes is: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
His mother, Monica, never gave up fasting and praying for a changed heart. Not that she didn’t struggle with what to do. When he converted to another sect, she banned him from her table until God convinced her through a dream to do otherwise. She shed so many tears on her son’s behalf, a Catholic bishop said of her, “The child of those tears shall never perish.”
And he didn’t. Monica’s prayers finally bore their fruit after 17 years of resistance when he converted to Christianity in his late 30s. Augustine went on to make some of the most significant contributions to Christian thought in the 4th century. His classic titled, Confessions, talks of the depths of his rebellion, the faithfulness of God to pursue him, and the persistence of his mother’s prayers. They both became saints in the Catholic church: he for his writings, his mother for her example of prayer over her wayward son and husband.
May we learn from this mother saint today: Your prayers have not gone unheard. Your tears have been bottled in heaven. Your mistakes will be covered by God’s grace. Nothing your child has done cannot be woven into a display of God’s redemption. You must continue to hold faith on behalf of your child. You must not listen to the lies the evil one is whispering. You must battle for them in prayer when they are unwilling or unable.
Remember WHO they are.
It’s easy to focus on all that is NOT maturing in our kids, instead of where we see growth and gifting. Ask God to open your eyes to the marvel of who your child is again. Sometimes we lose sight of the beauty in the ugliness of adolescence.
Every kid, no matter where they are, has things we can continue to call out and bless. Even if your son is dating a girl you can’t stand, you can still affirm the way he is a gentleman to her. Even if your daughter is drawing morbid, disturbing pictures, you can still affirm that she is a great artist. Even if your athletic son drives you crazy looking in the mirror every five minutes, you can still affirm the discipline he shows in his sports.
Your child’s gifting and passions are there, mixed in with a lot of junk. Focus less on the junk. Call to life the seeds of their true self that you know are buried in there. In all likelihood, they have lost sight of their true selves too; our job is to remind them of that reality even when we don’t see much of it.
Remember WHOSE they are.
If you are a Christian, you may have dedicated or baptized our child at some point. Whether or not they are aware of or living into that reality at 18 years old, your child has been marked for the Kingdom. He/she is a child of the covenant. They are living under an umbrella of God’s love and mercy, just because of your decision to commit your life to God.
Start focusing on the promises that are given “to you and your children.” The latest jewel I found: “The secrets things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and too our children forever…” Duet. 29:29. I spend a lot of time seeking out the secret things of God— and every one I discover becomes a part of my children’s inheritance as well. I’m claiming it. Find new verses to pray over your graduate for this next season.
As you head into a new season of release, take comfort that God is infinitely more invested, more present, and more active in your child’s life than you will ever be. His pursuit of your child will never end. You have no idea how much trouble your child has been saved from already through God’s interventions. God’s got this.
At this significant moment, you may want to have a parent graduation ceremony of your own— release your child to God once again. Take this summer to ask the Lord for new battle plans for this next phase of your child’s life. The battle for your child isn’t over, it’s just moving out from under your roof. You need fresh orders and new strength. And God is happy to give you what you need.
And may we all be like St. Augustine’s mother and hear our wayward sons and daughters eventually say:
Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispell my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.
Augustine, from Confessions
Other graduation posts: Launching our Young Adults Well and Naming your Losses (grief in the midst of celebration). and Snapshots of Faith (faith in different seasons).