What to do when you have a child who has jumped ship.
Children are divorcing their parents — leaving home before their time, rejecting authority, and turning their backs on their parent’s culture. We have been calling it “jumping ship.” Divorce is more accurate. Divorce produces self-doubt on the one hand, and blame on the other. Blame usually prevails. It’s more comfortable.
You had no idea that it would come to this. When your son was about ten years old, you noticed that he didn’t seem to enjoy your presence. You were a source of irritation. It was as if he wanted to say something but would never come out with it. He turned away in frustration and sought friendship outside the home. Occasionally he would explode in anger, of all things, blaming you. You remember him blurting out, “You don’t understand!” It carried a tone of accusation. It may have gotten to the point where he accused you of not caring. You hoped it was just a stage that he would grow out of, but he sunk deeper into his aloneness. Then one day, when he was old enough and had the resources, he just left. There was anger; words thrown around like bullets; bombs of accusation were dropped; it turned into a word war of vengeance, all the time not believing that it could actually happen. But it did. And you knew failure like you have never known it before. I have known parents who, upon losing their first child, just gave up on the whole family, and they all fragmented and broke up like an airplane that had lost its wings.
We are here to talk about what to do if your kid has jumped ship. How should you respond? Is it too late? Is all lost, or is there still hope, still a way? In every human conflict, two thirds of a correct response amounts to not doing what you shouldn’t. If we humans could just turn off and shut down — do nothing — we would be two thirds of the way to recovery. Your mouth is what dug the pit in the first place, and it is your mouth that will throw vile dirt into the face of your estranged child. If you don’t bridle your tongue, your religion is vain (James 1:26), for the tongue is a fire that is set on fire by hell itself (James 3:5-6). The same mouth cannot praise God at church and curse your son at home (James 3:10).
There is nothing that more readily induces us to anger than having our failures talk back to us. Let’s face it. It is your own loss that causes you anger — loss of peace, loss of control, loss of prestige and respect, loss of your “perfect” life. “How could you do this TO ME after all I have done for you?” Blame.
As sinners, we tend to respond to criticism and rejection with anger. We take it as an attack upon our undeserving person. Fight back! Stand up for our rights. SMASH! You hurt me, I hurt you more. You will be sorry! You will come back crawling and begging for forgiveness. “I, his majesty, await your humble apology, and then perhaps my wrath will be appeased.” Hell hath enlarged itself. Just knowing we are humans — sons of Adam — ought to humble us. Pride is the fuel of hell’s fire, and each of us is an unlimited source of combustion.
It is the kid’s fault, right? Beware of blame. It is the first refuge of the guilty. Blame is the end of creativity. It is a dead end road, traveled only for the dark and lonely pleasure it gives. When you blame, you surrender hope of changing things, for you lay all the responsibility upon a moral agent over whom you admittedly have no control. Blame affords the opportunity to play God for a little while — a one sided god who sits to judge without mercy. Satan loves the spirit of blame. It comes in a dark cloud that permits no mercy and refuses insight. Blame is tunnel vision that excludes any positive perspective and magnifies fault to the criminal level. Blame is the way to cook down disappointment until it turns to thick hate. Blame is the solace of devils and their finishing touch on all sin and human failure. To go there is to return with nothing but bitterness and the satisfaction of knowing it was “not your fault.” But the end is the same, no matter whose fault it was.
It happened on your watch. Your kid didn’t come into the world emotionally broken and angry. So far, all I have done is inform you that all your responses have exacerbated the problem. This has not been to punish you, but to make you stop. Your first step to recovery must be to get your own heart right with God. I want you to stop digging the pit deeper. I have been functioning as a prophet, calling you to repentance. It is the only starting place.
You must become what you want your child to become if you would bring him to repentance. You must become a person of joy, peace, and love. You must know God and love him. You must be disciplined and holy in your own personal life. You must tend to your marriage so that it becomes the envy of all who know you well.
Rule One: Accept your son’s decision to divorce you.
It is done. There is no going back. Stop treating him as a child to be intimidated. Never again accuse or blame him. Never mention that you are hurt. Act as if his leaving was a natural occurrence that had your approval. This will be impossible for you if you are carrying a grudge, a desire to hurt, to punish. When your heart is truly set on the future, on making the best of the present circumstances, you will lay down all of the past and relate to your son as if he were a lonely and needy kid whom you just met and are moved to bring hope and joy to his life. If the issue is your feelings, your justification, you will eventually drop a bitter or accusing word, and he will shake you off like mud between his fingers.
Rule Two: Give up all perceived parental rights and authority.
Don’t demand that he come back and meet you on a parent-son foundation. Accept the fact that you must now earn the right to have even a small part in his life, and that by his invitation only. Just as you would carefully approach a co-worker at the office whom you perceive has been wounded and hurt by life, exercising all respect and patience, so you must approach your son. Don’t think in terms of him breaking down and coming back as your little boy, admitting his guilt and inadequacies, begging your advice, and putting his messed-up life in your hands. It will never happen.
Rule Three: Pray for your son.
Your prayers will be wasted if you are thinking in terms of recovering your personal loss — of fixing your life. Pray for him until your heart breaks from God’s perspective. When you see him as potential glory to God, so that your prayers are not about you, then God can “download” them and turn them over to one of his spirit workers to begin his ministry.
Rule Four: Maintain contact on a level that is not smothering to your son.
Be sensitive to his signals. It may take a cooling off period before he will admit you into his circle. If he has been hurt very badly he may seek to cut off all contact. If so, you must somehow communicate that you are not blaming him and you are not going to ride his back; you are going to respect his decision to divorce the family. Once he spends one hour around you and discovers that things are different, that you are relaxed, that you have given up your high horse, he will lose some of his fear. When the time is right, invite him to a family outing, or to dinner. Don’t badger him about “going to church.” It didn’t make any difference in seventeen years. Why would it matter now?
Rule Five: Offer assistance as it is appropriate.
You must pray for divine wisdom. You do not want to support a decadent lifestyle and facilitate irresponsibility, but you will want to offer any assistance that leads to his assuming responsibility. Initially, when you have little to no contact at all, when mistrust is still in the air, you may offer to do his laundry or help with the shopping, or loan him some pots and pans, or help him secure second-hand furniture. The whole family could go over and paint his apartment. Any gesture that indicates your good-will will cover a multitude of sins and ill-will. You don’t want to shield him from the realities of independence, but neither do you want him to be overpowered with responsibility to the point that he crashes and fails. You might think that the hard circumstances will force him to come home begging. Beware! He will see through your attitude. If he is forced to come home as a failure, nothing will be accomplished in the way of building relationships. If you can help him to succeed, the fellowship of accomplishment may so heal the relationship that he wants to come back home in a few weeks or months. But keep in mind that your goal is not to get him back home and thereby prove that you were right and he was wrong. Your goal is to see a young man become a happy, successful man of God. You will probably find that you get along better with him out of the house.
Rule Six: Cultivate fellowship with your prodigal.
Read the parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 17. It so beautifully portrays the kind of heart you must have toward your son. If you find you are more like the older brother, don’t expect the prodigal to come home. We fellowship with people we can trust with knowledge of us. To fellowship is to be vulnerable. When you care and caring leads to giving, to bearing one another’s burdens, there is fellowship.
It was lack of fellowship that caused your son to leave in the first place. If you disagree with that assessment, you have not yet repented. You are still blaming. Your son is not going to like you anymore than he did the day he fled the ugliness of your relationship. If you are as I described, I don’t like you either. Your wife probably doesn’t like you. What about the rest of the children? You lost this one. What has changed to keep you from losing the rest? So, you have changed churches to get rid of the bad influence. You have gotten rid of the television and the video games. You have tightened up and are making sure the other children understand responsibility. I hope you are not berating your departed son to the younger children in a belief that they will fear to take the path he has taken. I hope you are not storming around the house, locking doors like a man who just discovered that he has been burglarized, passing new rules and ranting your anger. If so, say goodbye to the other children. Your departed son will want to “save” them from you as soon as he can.
This may still be a mystery to you, a big, tangled, unfathomable mess, but to me it is predictable. I see right through you, and I am not that smart. You need to love God to the point that you break out in singing praises to Him. You need to walk after the Spirit so that you do not fulfill the lust of the flesh. You must become an attractive human being. Everyone is attracted to joy and creativity. You must be kindly affectionate, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. You must be merciful and longsuffering. You must be known to be disciplined and temperate.
You cannot have the sweet fruit of life if you don’t plant the right seeds. Christian fruit comes from a Christian tree. Only the Holy Spirit can bear Spirit fruit. I am not being religious. I am not throwing these things in just to flavor my exhortation with the pious and spiritual. A Spirit filled life is the ONLY hedge against jumping ship and divorce.
You can download Bible teaching free on our website. You must listen to the entire Romans series. I am not selling you anything. It’s Free! We have received thousands of letters expressing joy and victory through the Word of God. Just thinking about you rejoicing in Christ Jesus makes me start liking you already. It will do the same for your prodigal son.