“What? You too?” Encouraging a Parent Whose Child is Struggling
When my son was a toddler, we used to duct tape his diapers. It was a necessity, folks. We called it his “special belt.”
The belt came as a result of many naptimes that concluded with the diaper off and the remnants found all over the room. We didn’t jump right to the special belt; we first tried discipline, exhortation, stickers, gummies, and all the things. At one point in this parenting fiasco, I broke down to the ladies in my Bible study group. In my toddler-raising world, I believed this predicament called for immediately dropping to our knees and crying out to the Lord as a community.
One woman from the group called me the following day. The tenderness in her voice brought tears to my eyes. She just wanted to let me know that she would pray for a creative solution and bring over coffee during the next nap time. I will always remember that phone call. And, incidentally, I will always remember God enlightening my husband with the idea of the “special belt.”
Now that my children are teens and young adults, the struggles have naturally become deeper and in some ways heavier than I ever imagined they would be. I know I’m not alone in having teens and tweens who struggle because I’ve heard painful stories from many friends: parents whose special needs teen is made fun of and then acts out in unpredictable ways; parents whose teen is resisting the Christian faith; parents whose child is confused about their sexuality; parents who feel helpless raising a teen who is anxiety-ridden.
Our Extended Family
What is so beautiful is that the Lord has gifted us with the body of Christ to walk through these challenges together.
From the cross, Jesus looked down at His mother, Mary. He said to her, “Woman, behold your son!” I can imagine Mary looking up with tears in her eyes: Yes, I see you, my beloved son. In that moment Jesus wasn’t intending for Mary to look to Himself, but to John, who was standing by her side. To John, Jesus says: “Behold, your mother.”
In this moment on the cross, Jesus institutes a new relationship amongst the body of believers. Look around at your church body! See your fathers, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. Jesus gave us this gift of church family so we can be strengthened through Him by the extension of one another.
But even within an extended family, it’s not always easy to know what to say when a friend shares vulnerably about parenting challenges. Here are a few responses I’ve found helpful when walking alongside parents who open up about their child’s struggles.
There’s no need to offer an immediate solution. In fact, sometimes trying to interject right away can be unhelpful. It’s especially challenging to not respond when a parent shares a child’s trial that seems trivial to you. I think of the patient ladies who sympathetically listened to my cry for help over dirty diapers. At the time, this challenge seemed insurmountable, and the willingness of these friends to simply listen encouraged my young heart.
The moments I’ve been vulnerable in sharing about teen rebellion in our own home, I’m not always looking for a solution but for a safe place to voice my fears and confusion. I’ve cried multiple times when explaining the events of a particularly challenging weekend with our teen, and the comfort of a friend who listens without interrupting or checking the time is a balm to my hurting heart.
CS Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What!’ You too? I thought I was the only one.” We usually hesitate to share a child’s struggles, but when our openness is received with empathy, sharing becomes a relief. It’s not unusual for parents to be able to relate to another’s challenges in one way or another. There is something incredibly comforting in knowing we’re not alone in the trials of parenting.
For this reason, there are times when it’s appropriate to respond by sharing your own, similar story and how the Lord guided you through, but do so carefully. The point is not to shift the conversation to your own journey but to simply say, in love, “What! You too?”
Whether or not you can relate to a parent whose child is struggling, choose to respond with tender words. I read a Facebook thread not long ago where a mother shared a social challenge her son was facing. Another parent responded: “Oh, he’ll be fine. It could be worse.” My heart ached. Though the response was likely well-intended, sharp words unintentionally degrade a heart longing to be comforted.
Be tender in your response, recognizing the courage it often takes to open up about a child’s difficulties.
In many ways, this is our “go to” response as believers: “I’ll pray for you and for your child.” There is nothing insignificant about these words. In fact, there is no response more powerful than to promise to go before the throne of God and plead on behalf of a fellow parent and friend.
But do you follow through on the commitment to pray, or has the response become rote when you simply don’t know what to say? When a friend shares a child’s struggle, be eager to pray with and for them right away – even if it’s a short prayer. And then consider ways you might continue to pray on their behalf: pray a Scripture passage for them as you fall asleep at night (Romans 8:28-29: God, I pray that all of the things my friend is facing will work together for their good and for your glory). Or write the name of the family in your phone, on a notecard, or anywhere that you will see it regularly and so remember to pray. God works powerfully through these prayers (Psalm 107:28-30), and they are not insignificant.
Follow Up Occasionally
As you pray, consider following up with a call, a text, or an offer to meet for a walk in order to touch base. I can’t tell you how life-giving these kinds of follow-ups have been for me. When I’ve shared a deep struggle about a child, receiving a note a few days later asking how things are going impresses on me the reality that someone who sincerely cares about our child is actually praying on our behalf.
It’s these follow-ups that are tangible reminders that we truly belong to the body of Christ. When a parent opens up about these trials, consider it a precious opportunity to encourage another with practical love and sincere prayers (Hebrews 10:24-25). What a gift to be a part of an extended family where we find we are not the only one when our children struggle.