Relating to your unsaved grown child

by Annette Cole

I looked at the row of velvet boxes and noticed a cross with a rose nestled next to it. I asked to see the attractive silver ring and bought it minutes later. For the first time in days, I felt a gentle touch of peace.

I'd been feeling only fear and grief as I watched my youngest daughter denounce her faith and rush into sin. Now I had a symbol of hope to cling to. As the father of the prodigal son placed a ring on his son's finger at a "coming home" celebration, one day I hope to do the same for my daughter.

It has been years since my daughter walked away from Jesus Christ. Today we call and visit each other, but it has not been easy. The Bible asks, "What fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14, NIV).

Since the obvious answer to this is none, how do parents maintain relationships with their adult, unsaved children? I have had to find answers because my daughter does not want to be estranged from her family.

Keep loving

No parent can be blamed for backing away from the incredible hurt a sinning child brings. Watching my baby girl turn into a streetwise woman produced the worst pain of my life. Even losing my husband to cancer did not bring the kind of anguish this evil has brought. I had to make heartbreaking decisions, and at times I wanted to cut off my feelings for my daughter to ease the pain. My desire scared me, and I pleaded with God to keep my love for her safe.

He did, and today love is what holds my youngest to our family. Despite the fact that I have had her admitted to a lockdown drug facility, told her to leave my home, and refused to let her move back except for a temporary emergency, she has told me, "I've always known that you love me."

Accept the relationship's limits

Accepting a shallow relationship with someone who is literally flesh of our flesh is difficult, but sharing our inner selves is rarely possible with unsaved adult children. Since God is the basis of our lives, and they usually don't want to hear about Him, relationships tend to stay on the surface.

My daughter and I often deal with this, especially when either of us is experiencing problems. The comfort one offers doesn't fit the other. Recently my daughter was struggling, and I could only listen and tell her, "I just don't know what to say."

After I made that statement several times, she snapped, "I know, Mom. You never know what to say to me."

I could only answer, "Honey, everything I would say to someone going through what you are, I can't say to you. I can't offer to pray or to share Scripture verses that have helped me. I'm at a loss."

Realize it has all been said

Christian parents of unsaved children earnestly want their sons and daughters to come back to the Lord. As a result, our greatest temptation is to quote one more verse, to say one more God thing, and to remind them one more time that we are praying for them. But they've heard it all.

My daughter grew up in church. She won AWANA awards, performed in church plays, did sign language in worship services, had quiet times, and even led to Christ a friend who today is in Bible college. She knows the truth about God. Nothing I can say or do will push a spiritual button that will "fix" her. Her relationship with God is literally out of my hands.

Draw the line in your home

Just as parents must respect their adult children's desire not to hear about God, sons and daughters must respect parents. They need to leave their lifestyles outside our homes.

Whether living near or far, my daughter has worked at respecting my home. She knows how I live and rarely pushes the limits. She smokes outside, turns off her foul language, and doesn't bring boyfriends around. But once in a while something happens, and I have to speak to her. I dread it. Our relationship is so fragile that I'm never sure if it will endure the confrontation. I also know it will not survive if she does not respect me and my home. One counselor at the drug rehabilitation center put it this way: "You cannot control your daughter, but you can control your life and your home."

Keep communication open

When a relationship has pain in its past and shallowness in its present, maintaining communication is difficult. A wrong word or a thoughtless act easily breaks it. Sometimes this means estrangement. Other times it means an inner shutdown; we talk, but there is no heart behind our words. Either way, communication stops.

The only person who has ever cussed at me or slammed a phone down in my ear is my youngest daughter. The pain and anger this behavior triggers does not make me want to call her back. And for a while, sometimes for days, I don't.

God never lets it end there. At some point after our emotions cool, one of us calls the other. I call to ask her to forgive me for what provoked her behavior, or she calls to apologize for her actions.

I pray that no matter what lies ahead this will always be the case. No matter who is right or wrong, I pray that I, the one who knows God's love, will set the example of keeping the communication open.

Be diligent in prayer

Continuing to pray year after year is not easy. The words we say become rote. The faith to believe them grows weak. The discipline to keep going fades as there is no evidence of change. Prayer is our only place of power. It is one thing we can do that will make a difference. Regardless of how much time passes, that truth does not change.

Like all parents dealing with a son's or daughter's extended rejection of God, I have said rote words, prayed in unbelief, and lacked discipline. God always gives me a way out of them. He pricks my conscious, brings a person of prayer into my life, or allows trouble. He knows, even if I forget that, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (Jas. 5:16, NIV).

Find common ground

With our hearts confined to prayer and our words stuck on surface issues, time with our unsaved children can often be stressful. What do we say? What do we do? How do we react? I have found no easy answers to these questions. Even though I pray a lot before my daughter visits me or I visit her, I can still fret about spending time together. Looking for common ground has helped.

We both like 1960s music and dolls. We enjoy doing crafts, shopping, and eating at fun restaurants. These are the things I concentrate on when we are together. They strengthen our limited bond instead of taxing it.

Not long ago, I found the cross and rose ring I bought for my daughter 10 years ago. Black tarnish covered its once shiny surface. Staring at it, I half prayed and half cried, "Oh God, it's just like her. So much darkness."

My pain made me think of cleaning the ring and giving to my other daughter who loves God. But immediately He stopped my thought and reminded me of my hope. Brushing my tears away, I said, "You're right, Lord. This ring is for my daughter's coming home party."

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