FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Wayward Adult Children: Mary DeMuth

with Mary DeMuth | July 26, 2023
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Adult children can be downright painful—especially when their choices don't match your values. Author Mary DeMuth offers ideas to navigate your relationship with authentic, transformative love.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

When adult children’s decisions don’t match your values, it’s downright painful. Author Mary DeMuth offers ideas to navigate with transformative love.

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Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Wayward Adult Children: Mary DeMuth

With Mary DeMuth
July 26, 2023
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Dave: If there’s a passage of Scripture that I have [been] asked over and over and over to read at a wedding—everybody knows—

Ann: Yes.

Dave: —it’s called “The Love Chapter,”—

Dave and Ann: 1 Corinthians 13.

Dave: Here’s something I’ve never done. I’ve never read that, taught that in regard to parenting.

Ann: —which would be really helpful, right?

Dave: It applies to everything. But to think about parenting and especially parenting maybe a prodigal or a wayward adult child.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at or on the FamilyLife® app.

This is FamilyLife Today!

Ann: We have Mary DeMuth back in the studio with us today.

Dave: You said her name right.

Ann: I did say it right. [Laughter] Mary, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Mary: [I’m] so grateful to be here. Thank you.

Dave: Mary, I’m a little upset. They won’t let me say your name, because I guess I don’t know how to say it. [Laughter] But I’m glad Ann introduced you, Mary D-whatever.

Mary: D-whatever. [Laughter]

Ann: Your book is Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy. We’ve spent a few days talking with you about “How do you do that?” It’s one of the things that brings real angst to us as parents. To parent our wayward child with joy, that feel even harder.

Dave, as you said, we’re bringing 1 Corinthians into this. Because, Mary, you went through this Scripture and really broke it down and how this applies to us as parents with adult kids, which is amazing that you brought this Scripture into this relationship with adult kids. But I like that we’re doing that.

Mary: It’s an important Scripture, and it’s basically unpacking “What is love?” You’re answering the question: “What is love demonstrated? What does it look like?”

So, it made sense to me to say, “Okay, this is kind of a test.” When you have a wayward adult kid, it’s a test of your love, because it’s very easy to love those who love you very easy to love people who are making the decisions that you approve of. It’s hard to love someone who is maybe making the kind of decisions that will break their life.

When your kid is two or three and running out into the street and you’re able to grab them, you can prevent them from doing a life-changing decision. But once they’re out there in the world, the stakes are higher [and] it’s harder.

Ann: It feels like they’re still in the street and we can’t—

Mary: We feel like they’re still toddlers. [Laughter]

Ann: It feels like we can’t grab them. We can see where they’re going; we can see the destruction it could cause. Now as a [parent of an adult child] you cannot grab that child and bring them to what we think is safety. It’s really different.

Dave: I’d love to hear your thoughts on—you’ve studied this—I’m going to read it. You can pick any part of it that you want. I know your book takes—each chapter is a part of this. But I remember because I was asked so many times to use this in weddings, as a pastor, I remember [thinking], “I better understand this.”

When I did a study of even the church—1 Corinthians in Corinth, I was amazed that nobody talked about this. This is this beautiful statement on love. But Paul the apostle Paul, when he wrote it, he is exhorting them to say, “You’re acting like kids. You’re in division; your love is not adult love. It’s kid love. Here’s what mature godly adult love looks like,” right?

Then you read it that way and it’s “Woah!” He’s slamming them a little bit; like, “Guys, wake up.”

Mary: He’s a little bit angry. [Laughter]

Dave: Again, it’s so beautiful that we read it with music under it, and it is beautiful.

Ann: It’s not just for marriage.

Dave: No.

Ann: It’s for life.

Dave: You talk about it for parenting kids. I’ll read it and then you can make comments.

Paul wrote this:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. [1 Corinthians 13:4-8]

Ann: It’s so convicting! [Laughter]—especially when you think about this with our adult children.

Dave: Mary, teach us, enlighten us. [Laughter]

Mary: The Greek word…. [Formal Voice]

Dave: By the way, what you do with the Greek words in your book is fascinating. I’ve studied them. But reading through it again, I [thought], “Man, every parent needs to understand these,” because you dive in and say, “Here’s what Paul’s really saying.”

Mary: Yes, just reading it. I wish that I was fluent in Koine Greek, but it was very helpful to go back to the Greek to really expand the meaning. A couple of the things that stood out to me, as you were reading it this time, the “envy” and “boast” was hard for me when I got to that part in the book because I [thought], “What in the world does this mean for parents of adult kids?”

I talked to my husband about it. He said, “I think it has to do with when we constantly compare ourselves to other families and we either envy them because “Look, these kids were raised by wolves and they turned out okay”—[Laughter]— “I did everything right and mine are making all their choices.”

We envy seemingly perfect families. Or we become so proud of the way, maybe our kids turned out okay and we become like little Pharisee people: proud and boasting about our parenting skills.

It's like when you have one child who’s easy and you [think], “I’m the best parent ever.” Then the next child comes, and you can’t boast about your parenting skills anymore, and you just cry all the time. It’s like that. You can’t boast about your parenting because we’re all on the same level playing field as the cross, and we also don’t have the ability to pull back the veil of every single family.

That freed me up and I hope that it helps other parents say, “Maybe a part of my discontent is I’m comparing my family to this other family, and they seem to be doing great. [I’m thinking], ‘Why me?’”

It’s hard; it’s something you go back to the Lord about. But really, as I mentioned before, we’re only responsible for our own walk with the Lord. We cannot walk our child’s walk with the Lord. We just have to work on this.

Ann: Did you ever compare your kids or compare yourself? [Laughter]

Dave: We’re sitting with a perfect mom here.

Ann: I just need her on here to be real with me.

Mary: I’m going to be real. Yes, of course. I think all of us do that, especially when you’re an insecure parent, like I was, always trying to figure out how do I parent when I didn’t have an example? I was constantly also learning from other parents, so I was watching them because I learn better by watching them than by even reading a book. So, I was constantly comparing my parenting to others, but also, yes, [thinking], “Look at how those kids live.” 

I remember one particular time when my kids were younger, and someone told me about this book that I had to read. It was kind of a robotic way of parenting. I won’t say the name. But I started doing it with my kids and they looked at me like, “What happened to our mother?” [Laughter] “What is wrong with you?”

I wanted robot kids. It made more sense to me. If you have robot kids that always obey you the first time, how nice is that? It didn’t work out.

Ann: How about this one? “Love is not irritable” [Laughter] Mary, you break down this word. Do you remember what that means in the Greek?

Mary: Basically, “easily set off.” We live in a culture that has deified irritation and has said that if we’re going to be heard, we have to be mean. I don’t get that. I think that’s not how Jesus would act; not that He wasn’t truthful at times. Obviously, He did say pointed things, so I’m not saying, “Don’t say pointed things.” But I think we are kinder to strangers than we are to the people in our homes and to our grown-up kids.

We have kids that have estranged themselves from their parents because of their parents’ views on Facebook that have been very, very nasty on Facebook. We have parents who have separated from their kids because of their kids doing that exact same thing.

It’s not a worthy thing to divide over. If we’re going to talk about the gospel, the things that we divide over are the essentials. Everything else is peripheral, and we need to learn how to have kindness.

Ann: I’m thinking about when our kids were little and these emotions would come out of me that I thought, “Where is this coming from?” Then I would think, “These kids are making me like this: crazy or mad.”

I remember one day I felt like God was whispering to me: “Ann, see those things that are rising in You? Those are the things that I want to heal.”

I’m wondering about that with our adult kids. If we see these emotions or even sin rising up within us, do you think God is whispering, “Oh, I want to heal that”? Because Jesus wouldn’t respond like that.

I’ve never thought of that. I’ve thought about it when our kids were little. But now with adult kids, is Jesus just always healing us? Because we tend to think we’ve got it all together now; we’re adults. But could God be using our adult kids to help shape us spiritually.

Mary: I think that’s where the humility comes in; this humbleness of even being willing to hear from our adult kids and asking open-ended questions, and asking, “How can I be more accommodating to you?” or “What sets you off when we’re in a conversation?” and be willing to hear it. But, yes, pay attention to when you go off.

Ann: When you’re irritable.

Mary: Yes, when that happens it is a sign that there is something broken inside of you. It’s usually around the idol of control. You don’t have the control that you want. A lot of us, and I’ll raise my hand, a lot of us worship the idol of control. When our kids leave our nest, we thought we had control. There were instances when we didn’t. But we had this modicum of control when they were under our roof. When they left, we realized that it was an illusion of control and now we know that there’s no such thing as control - “I cannot control another human being unless I am an abuser.”

That to me is you realize the importance of surrendering to the Lord [and] saying, “I don’t know the answer to this question. I don’t know how to love my adult kid. I’m angry at their political views. I don’t like what they view about sexuality. I am brokenhearted, and I see them going down this road [and] making permanent decisions that are breaking my heart, but, Lord, I surrender it to You. Obviously, I need to be healed but I also need You to help me because I can’t do this without You.”

Dave: That’s beautiful. I’m also—my mind goes right here, then ten minutes later—[Laughter]—

Mary: —meanwhile.

Dave: Because you do. You have these beautiful parenting moments [of saying], “I’ve got to let go.” It’s even “Love does not seek its own way.” The selfishness in us [says] “I want this. It’s not happening. Okay, I’ve got to surrender.” But then a half hour or an hour later they’ll post something; they’ll say something, I’ll see it and I find myself back there again. Is it just a continual surrender as a parent?

Mary: It has to be. That’s basically the Christian life is the continual surrender of “I can’t.”

I think a lot of us that grew up in the parenting culture in our era, we thought that a good parent was someone who had it all together, who did all the right rules and obeyed all the right things and implemented all the right programs. But I think that the best parent is a surrendered, broken parent.

 We just need to display that and say, “I cannot do this.” I think that’s part of so much of the angst of parents of wayward or prodigal kids is this control of “I can’t fix this. I’m the parent; I should be able to.” And to just say, “I can’t. You can. Help.” That’s my big prayer: “I can’t; You can; help.” Really boring prayer. But it works.

Ann: I was reading in Judges this morning, and the story of Gideon. I circle my Bible whenever it says, “…and they cried out to the Lord.” Then every time it will say, “… and He heard them.”

As you’re talking about talking to the Lord about this, He hears us. He hears those cries. He hears the humility of saying, “Lord, I don’t know what to do.” As we were talking, I was thinking, “We can be irritable but there’s another part of us that starts pulling way back from our kids - when we feel like we just can’t get along if maybe we feel like they don’t even like us anymore, so we start to withdraw.” Is that a bad tactic?

Mary: Again, that’s going back to the Holy Spirit being the director, because I think sometimes the Lord says, “Pull away for the sake of your sanity; pull away for the sake of healing.” Sometimes He says, “Pursue them even when it hurts; pursue them even if you are going to be hurt.”

It really depends. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all. But there have been times where my kids have had to pull apart from me and my husband, and there’s been times where we have had to for a short period of time. That’s okay.

Sometimes you can’t see clearly when you are emmeshed in a situation and you have to get that 30,000 foot view and say, “Oh yes, I really was a jerk during that time,” [Laughter] or “I really do need to be healed,” or “I really was counting on my children to make me joyful.” It’s just pulling apart always with the heart of Jesus of we all want to have a spirit of reconciliation that hope. But also understanding Romans 12 that talks about “As far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” [Romans 12:18]

I can control my apology. I can control what I do, but I can’t make them apologize. I can’t make them come back to me. In those waiting spaces, you pray, and you surrender.

Ann: That’s wise.

Dave: I think where Paul starts, “Love is patient,” is so hard. I’m sure it was hard in his day. But in our day, everything is so instant. I’ve literally stood in front of the microwave and said, “Hurry up.”

When you take that mentality we live in with our children, it’s a long, long journey that we often just give up. Then you get to the end, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, because he says, “Love bears all things,”—here it is— “believes all things, and hopes all things.” Because it takes a long time and you’re not—I’m not so patient, I stop believing and I stop hoping.

What do you say to a parent that’s gotten to that place?

Mary: First, I hear you; I see you; I weep alongside you; and I dignify the pain that you are in. Because it is very hard, and I’ve been in those places before where I am giving up. It hurts to hope. But then I have to go back to the fact that Jesus can do the miraculous. I’ve seen Him do it over and over.

I think what has helped me—and this metaphor came to me this week—I was in this conflictual pain and the Lord said, “What if you looked at your life as if it were a ‘choose your own adventure’ movie and instead of just being mired in right now, look to the future and see that it’s going to be this wild adventure.”

If you’re having a hard time look backward and see the faithfulness of God and recount the faithfulness of God that He has been to you in the past. Remember that and let that be the framework that you go forward with.

That’s what I talked about before is - we have to lament we have to hurt in order to see the tiny ways that God is working, both in our lives and in the lives of our adult kids who are going astray.

Dave: I think for all of us hope is so critical because when you lose hope—you know—you said, as a little girl you had lost hope and you were thinking, “I’m going to end my life.” When you lose hope as a parent, it almost feels as bad or worse because you feel more for your children than we even do our ways.

Ann: Maybe we could take just a second, as we’re talking about being gracious to our kids—may times, as parents, we are not gracious to ourselves. In fact, we’re really hard on ourselves. Could you speak to that parent?

Mary: I’ll just be speaking to myself. [Laughter] I think a lot of us have that where we are just so hard on ourselves. Because we think we should know better for whatever reason. There may be a key there of learning to be compassionate toward yourself. If you can learn to be and choose to be by faith and ask God to give you the strength to be gracious to yourself or the strength to see yourself as He sees you as a work in progress but beautiful. If we can do that, then we tend to be less judgmental of others because we’ve graced ourselves.

But I’ll say that as someone who struggles to do that. I’m not there yet. I’m still struggling in that area.

Ann: I think, too, as we pray as parents, to give it to Jesus—we’ve already talked about that many times—to release it, but to also not go ahead. Many times, the enemy paints a scenario of horror for the future of our children. I’ll run that path all day long [thinking], “This could happen, and this could happen.” Then I end up in fear, which then tends to make me more controlling. Jesus is saying, “Just live today.” In Scripture, “Don’t worry about tomorrow.”

As a parent, that’s really hard to do. To release it to give it to Him to stay in the moment to ask Him to help take our thoughts captive so that we’re not running along that line of despair for the future. I think it would be so helpful just to pray for parents.

Mary, would you pray for parents that are struggling right now?


Jesus, we thank you for this moment in time. We thank you for every parent out there who is—oh, Lord, they’re carrying a heavy burden. I pray that they will release it at the foot of Your cross. I pray you would take it up because you promise that when You give us a burden that’s light, but we’ve been carrying the weight of children’s decisions and they’re just too heavy.

Lord, I pray that You will help us to lament. I pray You will help us to grieve. I pray that You will help us to not lose hope, but to trust You. I pray that You will bring joy every single day even if our kids make decisions that break our hearts.

Lord, we lay our hearts at the foot of the cross. We lay ourselves; we lay our control and that illusion of control there.

I pray for the family and the parents who have been estranged from their kids. I pray even in the hearing of my voice that You would turn that around right now in Jesus’ name.

I pray that You would inaugurate more missions more ministry in this generation of parents, and You would set them free to spread Your gospel. Lord, let it begin with us. Let it begin in our homes. Teach us to love our adult kids with 1 Corinthians 13 in mind.

Lord, we’re just broken human beings who need You. Thank You for being broken for us. Thank you for loving us well.

In Jesus name. Amen.

Ann: That was so good. I think of the parent listening who is saying, “Could you just pray for me every day?” [Laughter] And you do that in your book—

Mary: I do.

Ann: —at the end of every chapter, there is a prayer.

Mary: On my podcast I pray for people every day.

Ann: Yes, listen to your podcast. [Laughter]

Dave: I was thinking, “God is running to that parent.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: You think sometimes—Dennis Rainey said, “God loves the prayer of a helpless parent.” We’re helpless. He runs to that prayer. He’s on it right now.

Shelby: I love that prayer that Mary just prayed for us. Learning to forgive ourselves and asking for forgiveness is so profoundly important. When we make a habit of confessing that we are completely hopeless without God, we’ll approach parenting with a kind of humility that changes us, our kids, and the world regardless of your kids’ age. I love that.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Mary  DeMuth on FamilyLife Today. Mary has written a book called Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy. That book answers important questions that I think many parents are asking in this life stage, questions like “Is it possible to hold on to my joy when parenting is so hard?” If we’re honest, I think all of us have asked that question and other questions like, “What do I do when my kids make choices that don’t align with my values they’re going ways I don’t want them to go?”

Mary’s book answers those questions and so many more. We think it’s an important book, and it’s going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially. You can go online to, or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again that number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”

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Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be joined by Mark and Dee Jobe. They’re going to be talking about parenting when you ask the question: “What now? How do I move into the next season of life after my kids have left the home?” That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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