Parenting Wayward Adult Children: Insights from Mary DeMuth
Parenting wayward adult children: It can feel awkward, embarrassing, delicate. Author Mary DeMuth tackles the pain, shame, and questions faced by parents whose children have left the faith, and helps you know when to speak or listen, without meddling. She'll pull you toward joy and a resilient relationship with God as you navigate painful realities.
About the Guest
- Connect with Mary DeMuth and catch more of her thoughts at marydemuth.com, or on her podcast, Pray Every Day.
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- Intrigued by today's episode? Think deeper about parenting adult kids in the FamilyLife Today episode “Parents and Their Adult Children,” and the article, “How Not to Be a Toxic Parent to Your Adult Child.”
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Parenting wayward adult children: It can feel awkward, embarrassing, delicate. Author Mary DeMuth helps you know when to speak or listen—and avoid meddling.
Parenting Wayward Adult Children: Insights from Mary DeMuth
Mary: Think about your adult child that you're struggling with as a next-door neighbor that just moved in. I'm not going to hammer them about which political views to have. [Laughter] I'm not going to hammer them about which ideologies are right or wrong and we're not going to have all these arguments if my desire is to win them to Christ.
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 FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today.
I would say at this stage of our life, the number one question we get from parents—because we're empty nesters and we've raised three sons and daughter-in-laws and grandkids—is “What do I do about my adult sons or daughters who have left the faith, who have deconstructed or deconverted, have walked away from church?” We hear that everywhere we go to speak, and whenever we bring up the parenting topic, they'll line up.
Ann: There's so much pain in the eyes of the parent. There’s shame involved with the parent. I feel like they're racking their brain and they're so sad.
Dave: And we don't always know what to tell them, so we've got Mary DeMuth in the studio to tell us, to tell the parents—what do we say to them? Now, I'm not saying that because you've walked away, but Mary, welcome back to FamilyLife.
Mary: So great to be here; thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
Dave: You've written a book that we're going to talk about today, Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy. Why did you even add that in the subtitle? Because when you think about my kids are wayward, they've walked away and they said, like we said, you've had parents ask you, we’ve had them ask us, there's no joy. You know, we're concerned, we're upset, we're like Ann said, “we feel shame.” Is it possible to parent a child that's walked away with joy? Help us.
Mary: It is because we know that the joy of the Lord is our strength, not the joy of my kids doing all the right decisions is my strength.
Dave: Wait, wait, wait, you’ve got to say that again. [Laughter]
Ann: Isn't that true? Like, you read that and you're like, “Okay, the joy of the Lord is my strength,” but when you really ask yourself “Is the joy of the Lord my strength?”
Mary: Exactly. I think what I learned through this process is that I was idolizing my family. I was making them into an idol. Whenever you say “I will be happy if…” whatever follows after that, what Tim Keller would say is definitely an idol. I was definitely saying “I will be happy if my kids make all the choices I want them to make.” “I will be happy if…” and I have had to learn that you can have hard circumstances in your life, you can have kids that are wayward, and you can still go to the Lord and get the joy from Him. It's complicated, but I would say that joy is beautifully intermingled with grief, and that even joy is more joy because of the grief.
I think we have to remember to go back to Jesus with our pain and to remember that we're not guaranteed someone else’s story; we're only guaranteed our own story, and we can only really work on our own story. I think a lot of parents want to meddle in another story to try to fix it, and that will be a formula for a lack of joy.
Ann: And a lot of what you've done in your book is you've gone through Scripture on how you've done that, and you've gone through 1 Corinthians 13. Why there?
Mary: You know Paul, when he wrote that letter, he wasn't like, “Hmm, I think this Scripture is going to be used for all the marriages that people are”—you know, marriage sermons. Because what it really was about is that Paul was writing to a broken church with a bunch of broken relationships, and so when he was saying “love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy,” all those things, “does not boast,” he was speaking to humans with broken relationships.
What better Scripture to use this marriage Scripture, which really is not a marriage Scripture, it's just a life Scripture for dealing with and unpacking our relationship with our adult kids. Because it has undergone a complete transformation. From 17 years old and 364 days to 18, everything changes. Everything changes and we have to do something brand new that we've never done before.
Dave: Where you mentioned—it's in your title about prayer too. I want to dive into 1 Corinthians 13, but I think it's hard as a parent of a wayward child, a prodigal, to pray. And I know even your podcast is, every day you're praying.
Ann: Wait, what do you mean it's hard to pray?
Dave: Well, what, Mary, what you said earlier is I'm—you know you don't realize it, but you're finding your joy in your children living the life you sort of felt like God guaranteed they would live, if you did the right things as Christian parent and now, they're not doing that.
And so, I don't know, maybe this isn't true for women or moms, but for Dad's, for me, it's like “I’m not going to pray; didn't work before. I did all the right things. We did devotions. We got them to church.” You know all the stuff you're supposed to do and now it didn't work and so there's a part it's like, “Okay, you didn't come through for me before; why would I pray?” Yet you—I mean from what I've heard and watched—you know, we study your books, and we watch it in podcast—you are a praying woman. A lot of us as parents need to understand what that looks like so help us in that area.
Mary: I think there is a temptation to become fatalistic, you know, like, what's the point? I have to remind myself that prayer is not about a Christmas list to Santa. It is a relationship, and the Lord wants us to pray so that we have relationship with Him. We need to have the long view of prayer. We need to tarry in prayer. We need to have different forms of prayer.
One of my prayers from last year that I remember very keenly is a song came on and it reminded me of one of my children, and it just slayed me. I got on the kitchen floor. I couldn't get any lower, and I lay down on the kitchen floor, forehead to the to the floor, and wept for like 20 minutes. And that was prayer. It was just this longing to see the Lord transform, my child. But the grief of it all just overtook me in that moment.
And so, I again, I just want to affirm that anyone that's walking this path, I affirm to you that is painful. And I affirm to you that there are times where you’re like, “What's the point? I did everything right and obviously it didn't work” so I'm going to have this pragmatic view instead of trying to have that supernatural view of God is the God of the impossible. He can do things that that you wouldn't even imagine. I think that's part of the part of prayer that I love, is that a lot of times we assign to the Lord the way in which we want Him to answer the prayer and the timeline in which we want Him to answer it.
Ann: [Laughter] Yes.
Dave: Sure do.
Mary: And when He doesn't, we get mad at Him or disappointed. But we have this creator God. He's wildly creative. I've learned to pray, “Lord, I don't know how you're going to bring that child back to you. I trust your creativity. It may not be in my timeline, but I'm going to instead be this spectator who watches You unfold something beautiful.” That's a whole different perspective than “You didn't do it this Tuesday, Lord.” [Laughter]
Mary: “And I'm mad at You” to “I'm going to watch You be creative.”
Dave: And some of that is “You didn't do it this Tuesday” is a lament.
Dave: Is that part of “Love is patient” from 1 Corinthians.
Mary: I think that's a good point. Patience is, has this, you know, back part of it is long-suffering. So yes, it is. In the book I talk about the power of lament and long-suffering and that you can't get beyond what you don't grieve.
Ann: And I like that in the book you have some laments from parents. Like Sherri's lament, I was reading that last night. I'm like, “Oh.” Are there some that you feel like, “Oh, this is beyond God's help?”
Mary: Never, because I know my own story. I mean - I would have thought I was beyond God's help. I think a lot of parents are in a place of feeling that way, so I want to dignify that feeling. This is kind of a shift that we can talk about if you want to, but I think it's the elephant in the room, is I'm seeing a lot of parents, in their grief, change their theology to accommodate their children's choices. And they feel like—you know we're talking about 1 Corinthians 13—they feel like that is the most loving thing to do.
And we have found as parents that it is really a lonely path to adhere to the historical Christian faith and not change our views. But sometimes you feel really alone. It's hard to find other parents that haven't—I don't want to say capitulated because I understand it. It would be a lot easier to say, “I'm going to change my views on sexual ethics so that I can embrace my child.” But I think Jesus talks about a narrow way. He is love and truth, grace and truth. And so, the world says, “If you love me, not only will you approve of what I do, but you will applaud what I do.” But Jesus says “I'm going to love you enough to tell you the truth” but there's always grace involved as well.
Ann: Let's talk about that specifically. And you're right, we've had the same thing where the theology has changed for the parents. How would you advise a parent to walk through that with truth and love?
Mary: One of the families that I highlight in the book really struggled to do this well, but I think they did. They had a child who is same sex attracted and did the disclosure, coming out of the closet, and they didn't perfectly handle it. And they—the part of their story is they started looking for other people and they couldn't find other parents that hadn't changed their theology. What was interesting at the end of that story, and again, it's always evolving. These stories are always evolving, but they stuck to it. And the adult child eventually came back around, not necessarily in their sexual ethic, but came back around to relationship. And they were, weirdly, thankful that their parents hadn't changed their theology.
Mary: Because that's what their parents said they believed their whole lives. There's a stability there. They are back in relationship. And so, we've believed the lie that if you tell the truth, you won't be in relationship anymore. And that can happen. There are kids canceling parents. There are parents canceling kids. There is ghosting happening. I'm not saying that that's not happening. But there is a way through and there is an integrous way through of truth and love.
And the other thing I'll say is, say what you believe once, even though you said it like, you know, maybe ten years ago or whatever—this is what I believe the Bible says—and then be quiet; never say it again. They know what you feel. They know what you believe. It's unnecessary, and kind of abusive in a way, to keep hammering it. And then you pray. These are things you can do, and if you're still in a relationship with them, ask great, curious questions and listen to them.
Dave: I like your advice, your wisdom: say it once and you don't need to bring it up again. But really? Never bring it up again when you're seeing things.
Ann: Because they may not have heard it the first time. [Laughter]
Mary: They have their fingers in their ears.
Dave: I’m convinced they didn’t hear it because I'm seeing things.
Mary: I would say to be fair, that's a general principle and to allow your child, your adult child, to—they may bring it up again and as they do, then of course you would answer the questions again and tell the truth.
That's where I feel like the Holy Spirit is so important for parents of adult kids, is that there will be times where God prompts you to be in a difficult situation and say something true. There will be times when the Holy Spirit says, “Shut your mouth.” [Laughter] There will be times when you are just called to cry alongside. And that's the beauty of the Christian life, is that I trust the Holy Spirit and the parents listening today. He will give them the words to say when they need to say them.
The general principle is, say it once. But there may be times where the Spirit says bring this up again, maybe it's changed and maybe you can have a conversation again. So yes, general principle, but trust the Holy Spirit.
Ann: I would add one more thing to that that I think would be helpful, is when we've stated to our kids “This is where we stand on this issue,” I think it'd be a great question to ask our kids “Tell me what you heard me say.” Because a lot of times our kids will add things that we never wanted them to hear or—
Dave: We didn’t mean. We didn't say.
Ann: Yes, they might say “You said that you don't love me.” You know something on those lines where that way you can reiterate, “This is where I stand, but this is what I feel about you.” I think that would be really important just to know what they're hearing as you say it.
Mary: I think part of that too is also parents being willing to say, “I'm sorry.” And be honest and say, “Hey, you know when you were 15 and I said these things, or I did that, I look back on that now and I hope you can forgive me. That wasn't the right thing to say,” or “I was really—I had a really big temper when you were a teenager and I'm really sorry.” Own up to what you've done. Everyone can do that. It's not easy, but I think that's another opening of relationship for your kids.
Ann: Have you done that, Mary, specifically with any of your kids?
Mary: Oh, yes. Lots of times, yes.
Ann: And how did that go?
Mary: It went well. Most of the kids most of them said, “Thank you.” And a lot of them just offered me grace. “Oh, I didn't even remember that, Mom,” or “But thanks for saying that.” And so, you know that's true when you're parenting little kids too. Like, they tend to be pretty graceful, like, “Oh, I'm sorry I yelled at you.” If you keep yelling forever and ever, then it becomes a broken record, but genuinely sorry.
Ann: One of your quotes in your book, which I thought is so good, Mary, as you said, “Your job is to create a haven relationship where your adult kids long to be near you because of how they feel when they're in your presence. To create relational shelter like that, find specific ways to verbally encourage your children, catch them doing right, praise their positive traits,
Dave: And here's the question; you've already addressed it, but if they're living a life that's different—and you said it; such great wisdom. Tell me what you think one time. Don't bring it up again.
Dave: Because if you keep bringing it up, your home is not a haven.
Ann: And it's not like they’re saying like “Mom, thank you for saying it for the millionth time. Now I’m going to do it.” [Laughter]
Dave: But how do you create that kind of environment where you have stated what you think? You're not changing your views theologically. They know that and so it's out there and they're still going to live their life the way they're living it, and they walk in your house. Can you create a safe haven for them? You're saying yes?
Mary: Yes, with a caveat of the next generation tends to be triggered a lot, so any little thing that we do could be what they perceive as offense. And so there is this little dance that we're doing. But I will, I'll answer with a story. One of our kids is working on a testimony.
Dave: I like that first.
Mary: I have caught that child doing good a lot. And one of the things is that child particularly loves gifts and so I will pay attention to their life and if I see something that they might like, I'll send it to them. And so, when this child had a huge problem that was just so difficult, I found out that I was the first phone call. It was right when Love, Pray, Listen was coming out and it just like blew up our family. It was a very hard thing. But they navigated it well and they came to us, and it was very beautiful.
But my fear was here, I'm writing this book, and I'm protective of my kids because it's their story to tell, not mine. But it was a sweet thing from the Lord to see that all of the stuff that we've been practicing; to be that first phone call was so affirming to me that we were creating a haven even if we have opinions that completely differ. I believe we can love people whose opinions differ from ours. I do believe that's true.
Ann: It's the gospel.
Mary: It is.
Ann: Like Jesus continues, God continues to pursue us. Even when we're walking away, He's pursuing us. It's loving them unconditionally, and that's hard but there's a—like when our boys walk in the door, I'm so excited to see them and to express that, “I'm so happy you're here.” Now, I may not agree with all the things they're doing, but there's still that relationship, “You're our son. We are so happy to see you and we love you no matter what.” It's so compelling because it's the gospel message; that no matter what you've done, I'm for you and I died for you. And I'm seeking to have a relationship with you.
Dave: Yes, and on the other side of that, there's the truth side that you, in some ways you feel like I'm just going to put that away. It's like I'm going to live in love and grace, which obviously we should.
Dave: But it's like I spoke the truth once. And some people are just leaning, and they’re wired toward truth so it's like, how do I love them and make my home feel like they want to run there. And you're saying you can do that. I think Jesus did that.
Ann: Oh yes.
Dave: Sinners were, they were—He was like a magnet.
Mary: They loved Him.
Ann: They loved Him.
Dave: They wanted to be around, and the religious people are like “What are you doing hanging out with?—you know, and I don't think—
Ann: —the tax collectors
Dave: —sinners want to be around us because we're judgers - and if we feel, if our kids feel the same way, [Whistle]
Mary: One thing I've challenged listeners to think about, and this is just maybe this is hard, but when we were in those kinds of situations where maybe we didn't approve of the person our child was dating, or maybe didn't like it, or saw all the flaws, or saw all that, I reframed it and said, “Lord, thank you for giving me someone new to love.”
And if you look at that person, that broken person, as an opportunity to love them, then it becomes a different kind of adventure than “This is a wrong person for my child.” Once they're out of your house, you don't get to—unless they ask your opinion—you're typically not going to be sharing those things, and so it's better to err on the side of love.
Another thing that might help parents practically is to remember yourself in your 20s. I don't even agree with my theology back then. [Laughter] I don't agree with my politics back then. I've evolved through the years. If I can have grace for Mary back in her 20s, why can't we as parents have grace for our kids in their 20s? They don't have it all figured out, even in their 30s they don't.
And then another way to think about it too that might be helpful is think about your adult child that you're struggling with as a next-door neighbor that just moved in. You wouldn't go into that next door neighbor’s house; you'd think I want to share the love of Jesus with this next-door neighbor. I'm not going to hammer them about which political views to have. I'm not going to hammer them about which ideologies are right or wrong. We're not going to have like all these arguments if my desire is to win them to Christ and so treat them like a neighbor.
I know we have all this baggage with our kids. It's very hard to dismiss all of “Well I changed her diaper,” you know that, but you would never say that to a neighbor. So think of them as either, who you were in your 20s or as a neighbor. It might be helpful.
Ann: I like that. And I think that as we do that, we respect our neighbors, and our kids want to know that we respect them and we're listening to them. I think if I would go over to my neighbor’s house, I'd ask them all kinds of questions and I would listen to every single answer. And with our kids, I think we need to do, especially our adult kids, we need to do a lot more listening and asking questions. And make sure you don't make bad faces when they answer. [Laughter]
Mary: Blank face, blank face.
Ann: Yes, yes.
Shelby: I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Mary DeMuth on FamilyLife Today. This is really good. I loved what they were talking about. A perspective shift on how to communicate with our grown kids can really help us see huge strides in not only communicating the gospel with them, but simultaneously making bonds with them in ways we never would have imagined. Moving toward our kids in love through something as simple as listening can really start to make a difference.
Mary's written a book called Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy. This book answers some really important questions, like, how do I keep communication lines open with my grown children? And when do I speak and when do I listen? I think we can all learn from that. This book is something that we really want to bless you with, and it's going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially here at FamilyLife. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Coming up tomorrow, Mary DeMuth is back with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about the difficulty and hope on how to love someone who's making decisions that you know will break their life. That's 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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