Parenting When Your Child Goes Down the Wrong Path

Teenage girl cries with her mother on the background

Susan Bondow


When Things Go Wrong: What to do, and not to do, when your child goes down the wrong path.

David and Dennis are brothers. They share the same Mom and Dad and grew up in the same household, but that is where the similarities stop. David is an above-average student, hardworking and industrious. He takes things seriously and readily expresses his faith.

Dennis, on the other hand, is a magnet for trouble. A mischief-maker throughout grade school, he continues to gravitate toward the wild crowd in high school. Blessed with strong athletic abilities, he is a valuable asset to his school’s sports teams. Off the playing field, however, you’ll find him at the latest party, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

“How can two boys raised in the same home by the same parents be so different?” their father laments. “Where did we go wrong?” questions Mom.

As our children grow up and become more independent, they move out from under the protective umbrella of our homes. They are faced with more options, greater temptations, and the freedom to choose from a wide range of self-serving to God-pleasing decisions. We pray that they will choose wisely, but they don’t always. There is nothing more painful than watching a son or daughter set out upon the wrong path.

Although we all struggle with sin, different personalities struggle in different areas. Something that may be a strong temptation to one may be easily resisted by another. Some behaviors have more obvious and harmful consequences than others, but all sin puts us equally at the foot of the cross. As parents we need to recognize the weaknesses and temptations that our children are vulnerable to and equip them to resist those temptations.

Avoid Behaviors That Don’t Help

1. Self-blame. We are not responsible for the decisions our children make using their own free will. Just because a child makes a poor decision doesn’t mean that we are bad parents. Every parent faces failures and shortcomings, and for these, we find forgiveness in the cross of Christ. God uses all things – even our mistakes – for the good of his children. It is most helpful to look ahead, not back, and to deal with the present.

2. Anger. God’s Word tells us, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Wrong behavior in a child is upsetting. Yet we must maintain a spirit of love and concern in dealing with an errant child. Our goal is to point out how the offense is not acceptable to God and then lead him to repentance. Then we can assure him of the peace of forgiveness that is ours through Christ.

We may also be tempted to be angry at God. “How could you let this happen, Lord?” When these thoughts strike, we must get back to the Word, for it is there that we are reminded of how God: “is the same yesterday, today, and forever;” “will never leave us or forsake us;” and “makes all things beautiful in his time.”

3. Enabling behavior. It is tempting to want to rescue our child from the consequences of her actions. We must resist this temptation, or we will remove the natural teaching tools that God would use. Actions have consequences: what we sow, we will reap. Consequences bring pain but also valuable lessons for life.

Engage in Behaviors That Do Help

1. Allow yourself to grieve. When a child makes poor decisions and engages in wrong behavior, there are losses to be grieved. There may be the loss of a close relationship, loss of communication, loss of trust, and feelings of hurt, disappointment, and betrayal. Some people keep a journal, recording their emotional roller-coaster ride, as well as answers to prayer and the comfort and assurance received along the way from God’s Word. Don’t rush this process. Give yourself time to heal.

2. Don’t hide. Often our first reaction is to run and hide. We don’t want to face the judgments and criticisms of others. Don’t go it alone. Seek out those who can offer wise counsel, support, and encouragement – relatives, friends, pastor, people who know your child well. Stay involved and connected at church, giving others an opportunity to nurture and support. You may be surprised at how big your support system really is.

3. Communicate. Stay connected with your child. Continue to be a role model of the faith that is in you. Let your life express your reliance and confidence in your God. Share your heartfelt concerns with him at every opportunity – face-to-face, cards and letters, care packages, email, telephone. Don’t leave God’s Word out of your speech or writings for God tells us, “it [the Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

4. Prayer. There may be a long time where you can’t do much besides pray. Just like the prodigal son, your child may need to reach rock bottom before she comes to her senses and sees the light.

Imagine yourself taking the child you love and placing her into the arms of your heavenly Father. See the care, concern, and compassion on his face as he scoops her up and holds her close. Leave your burdens at his feet as well and continue on in faith and hope. Rest assured of God’s love and faithfulness.

Never Give Up

God doesn’t give up on us, and we need to follow his example. God knows and loves your child more than you do. He is far more powerful than you are in working changes in the heart. “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14).

Hold on to the hope that all is not lost and that your child still has the possibility of returning as did the prodigal son: “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).

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