When Your Adult Kids are Going Off the Rails: Mary DeMuth
Author Mary DeMuth knows what it's like to emerge from a painful childhood—and to have kids leave the faith. She shares insights on how to wisely navigate relationships with adult kids, starting with our own healing.
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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Mary DeMuth shares her experience in parenting wayward adult children, offering insights and guidance for navigating challenging relationships.
When Your Adult Kids are Going Off the Rails: Mary DeMuth
FamilyLife Today® National Radio Version (time edited) Transcript
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When Your Adult Kids are Going Off the Rails
Guest: Mary DeMuth
From the series: Love, Pray, Listen (Day 1 of 3)
Air date: July 24, 2023
Mary: God the Father has billions of prodigals and has had through the ages, if you add them all up. He knows the heartache of it. He knows how to walk alongside a parent of a prodigal. He is good, and He knows about my own rebellion against Him. Therefore, He is the best empathic Savior who can come alongside those of us who are suffering in that.
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.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
We were doing a workshop on the Love Like You Mean It® cruise a few years back—and by the way you can go—I know it’s June and it doesn’t happen until February but go to FamilyLife.com; sign up—it’s an amazing cruise.
Do you know which one I’m talking about—the workshop with Bob.
Ann: This workshop with Bob was unique because it was a workshop that we were going to do for parents of adult children. We thought, “Will anybody show up?”
Dave: [We thought], “It’s a marriage cruise. There will be a few people.” It was completely packed. Then after we shared some thoughts, we said, “There’s a mike; walk up; ask us questions. We’ve got Bob Lepine, the expert of the world.”
Ann: I was a little petrified at this point because I was wondering, “Can we even answer these questions?”
Dave: The thing that was—I guess it shouldn’t have been shocking—was the pain in the room. Every question—it was excruciating the struggle that many Christian parents had with children that are living lives much different than they dreamed of.
Ann: It’s surprising, too, because you think with young kids, “This is so hard; it’s just going to get better and better.” But even for us, adult children, I had no idea how hard—
Dave: But our kids are perfect.
Ann: —No, it’s so hard because a parent doesn’t’ have control at this point, so it’s hard to know how to navigate those relationships.
Dave: So, we’re going to navigate those relationships today with Mary DeMuth, [who] is in the studio with us.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Mary: [It’s] so great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Dave: Your book, Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy.
Ann: I love that ending part.
Dave: Yes, "—with Joy.”
Ann: “—with Joy.” Mary, tell our listeners a little bit about what you do besides writing books.
Mary: I do a lot of different things; I wear a lot of different hats. When you write books you realize you can’t make a living as an author, so you have to—
Dave: People don’t understand that; do they?
Mary: No, they don’t. They think I’m super rich. I am a podcaster. I have a podcast called Pray Every Day where I read the Bible and then I pray according to the Bible. It’s five minutes long. That’s a big chunk.
Then I’m a literary agent, I am an artist/a visual artist, and then I write books in my spare time. I’ve been married for almost 33 years. I’ve got three adult kids, and we live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Dave: Do you have a favorite book that you have written?
Mary: Probably my memoir. It’s called Thin Places. It was a Zondervan book back in ’08 or ’09. That just lays out my story of where I came from and what the Lord has done in my life. I’m grateful that it’s out there and continues to sell.
Dave: Let’s hear a little bit of the memoir.
Mary: I grew up in a highly problematic home [with] a lot of—I won’t say abuse—probably mostly neglect. My mom and dad were married and then divorced. My mom married several more times. My biological father died when I was ten years old, but he was one of my predators. There were drugs in the home. [It was] completely unsafe. Constantly, only child/very lonely.
I don’t know how I survived it. Even as I have triggers as an adult and even though I’ve done all my work and I’ve healed so much, I still have scars from that time in my life. But there’s been a lion’s share of healing.
When I made it to junior high, which is not our most favorite time of life—I’ve never met anyone that was like, “Well, my junior high days were awesome”—[Laughter] —they were not. I was suicidal.
I didn’t know anything about Jesus. I thought He was a swear word. I didn’t know He had anything to do with Christmas or Easter. I literally was an unchurched girl, except that when I was probably about ten right around when my dad took his life, my grandmother weirdly insisted that I get baptized. My uncle came up to me and said, “Now you won’t go to hell.”
I thought, “I don’t know what hell is, but it sounds bad.” Then I begged my mom, “Please, please, please, let me go back to church. I just had this hunger for the Lord even though I didn’t know who He was.
I had a counselor in my junior high who saved my life and listened to my story. He gave me this special hall pass that if I ever burst into tears, because I was such a wreck—I was a straight A student—he would let me leave the class and go and talk to him. He was this great guy who really helped me.
Then that, I think, laid some groundwork for hearing about Young Life [website: younglife.org] and attending it and hearing about Jesus for the very first time. I just didn’t know. I remember at the end of every session they would have a 15-minute talk about Jesus and my heart would just [say], “Oh, this is the truth. This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.” All I was, was this little girl who wanted a daddy, and having had three or four dads and most of them predatory, was difficult.
That summer of my ninth-grade year, I remember hearing one of the stories. The story was about Jesus calming the seas. The question was asked, “Who is this that even the wind and the seas obey Him?” [Mark 4:41] That question stayed with me all summer long.
That fall of my sophomore year I went to a weekend camp where they told you the whole gospel: dying on the cross, resurrecting. I remember going outside. This is in the Pacific Northwest—big, huge trees, right? I sit my back against this tree, big, huge hemlock, sign of death. Hearing about Jesus’s death on a cross on a tree. The stars are up about me, and I say this very simple prayer: “Would you please be the daddy who will never leave me?”
In that moment I was completely healed and fine for the rest of my life. [Laughter] No.
Ann: Wouldn’t that be nice?
Mary: I would love that. That’s not my story, but that was the beginning of a very long healing journey and the beginning of falling in love with Jesus Christ and following Him for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget that moment.
Ann: Mary, I had never heard the gospel either. When I put all the pieces together and I started reading my Bible, I had this [thought]: “How have I never heard of this?” Did you feel that?
Mary: Yes, because I was so lonely and I didn’t know—there were times where I would look at the earth and I would look at my feet on the earth and I would think, “Why am I taking up this one square foot.”
When I finally understood that there was a point, it really helped. A huge shout out to all ministries to high school and college kids, because when I got to college the lion’s share of my healing happened in college, because of people praying for me to the point that when my husband went to Dallas Seminary, and they would allow me to use some of their people who were in training to be counselors. I’d sit down with this counselor, and I would tell her my story. She said, “How many years of therapy have you had?”
I said, “Zero; none.” It really took me back to that time in college when people prayed for me. Not to say I didn’t need counseling, not to say I didn’t need trauma therapy, not to say any of that, but that the power of prayer in that vulnerable period of college was everything to me.
Dave: How important do you think it is, as you’ve written this book and again, all kinds of topics that you’ve written on over the years—but this is about raising children and even the struggle with prodigals—how important do you think it is for us as parents, even a single parent, to process our pain and our trauma if we’re going to parent the next generation?
Mary: It’s everything. I often thought about that before I had kids because I was this pioneer parent. I had no fall back. I had no example. My parenting strategy was “Get on my knees and cry and pray a lot.” That’s all I could do because I didn’t know. I needed Jesus. But the other thing I realized is my kids, they needed a healed mommy. The best gift I could give my husband and my kids was a healed person.
That really compelled me almost in a frenetic activity of “I have to get better because I cannot duplicate what happened to me. That was horrible. I don’t want any kid to feel that way.”
A little story about that is I was—I didn’t ever voice it, but internally I worried that my kids knew that I loved them because I had that aching place inside of me. One day—we were living in East Texas at the time—and a friend came and visited us. She was in attuned to the Holy Spirit. At the end of the time she said, “I just need to tell you something.”
Internally, because I’m always [saying], “Somethings wrong with me,” I was [thinking], “Oh, she’s going to tell me about some sin I’m committing.”
She said, “I want you to look in my eyes.” She said, “Your children know that you love them.” I burst into tears because it was this unspoken prayer request that the Lord already knew about and then said through her mouth. I had worked so hard to get well; not to be perfect but to be approachable by my kids or to know even how to love. I just didn’t know.
Ann: That’s very similar to our past because we didn’t grow up in Christian homes who had the gospel. We didn’t even know it. We both had pain and trauma in our backgrounds. So, we had no idea how to do this thing; especially bringing the gospel and hope and Jesus into it. “Do we do it out of love? Do we do it out of—?”—you see so many ways of sharing the gospel and loving our kids. But we both felt an incredible sense of inadequacy in being able to parent.
Dave: But I also think what you just said, “A lot of us don’t understand because we were getting married; we [went] to the Weekend to Remember®, which is FamilyLife’s marriage conference.
Mary: I’ve been to it.
Dave: We were engaged, two weeks before our wedding, and now we speed forward 30 years. We didn’t know what it was. We were just told, “Go there. You’ve got to hear God’s plan for marriage.”
But I’m not kidding, we literally sat there—here we are—if you put our lives on paper, anybody with a brain would [say], “You guys are going to struggle.”
We couldn’t see it. I’m sitting there thinking, “Man, I come from two alcoholic parents and a divorce and abuse and death of my brother. I’m awesome. She’s awesome. We’re going into ministry.”
Ann: I have sexual abuse. I’m very performance driven. [I] never [heard] words of affirmation or love. But we thought, “We know Jesus now. He has redeemed us.” But we still had a lot of healing to do [and had] no idea that would affect our marriage, our relationships, and our parenting.
Dave: —which I think so many of us don’t understand. Yes, He heals. Yes, He transforms. It could happen in an instant. Sometimes it does, but usually it’s years. Our kids need us, as parents—that’s why I asked you that—they need us to do the work. If we don’t that pain that we have that hasn’t been transformed—you know that quote—is going to be transferred to them.
As you worked through that, now you’ve written a book on wayward children. How does that play into being a parent?
Mary: A lot. People in my age bracket are sad and they’re brokenhearted because of the culture wars that are going on around our kids and the siren call of the world. It seems like it’s winning.
I think a lot of us, especially those of us who maybe not had grown up in Christian homes and we have been thinking, “I’ve got to read all the parenting books. I’ve got to listen to FamilyLife Today. I’ve got to go on the Weekend to Remember. I’ve got to do all those things,” which is great. I’m not saying a criticism, but I think underneath all of those parenting books, even though it was not explicitly stated, it felt like it was saying, “If you do these things, —
Mary: —on the other end of your parenting machine, you are guaranteed little happy Christ follower robots.”
It was hard to get to that place of saying good-bye to my kids and the empty nest thing was hard, but then to watch them—I like to say it more positively—to watch them work on their testimonies—[Laughter]—is excruciating and a little bit of anger toward my evangelical culture of “You kind of promised that this machine is going to work.”
There also comes this place in parenting of desperation and sadness. If we at all have worth issues or we’ve tied our worth to our performance as parents, and then our kids are going off and doing whatever, there it becomes a crisis to most parents of “Who am I now? If me kids aren’t following the Lord, then is everything that I have done a failure?”
Ann: Many times, we don’t say, “I have failed.”
Ann: We feel like, “I am a failure.”
Mary: Right. You equate it to your worth instead of saying, “I did something.” Even so, let’s go back to truth; let’s go back to the book of Genesis. We have a perfect environment. We have a perfect parent, and His two kids rebelled. So, who are we to think it may not happen to us, because somehow, we’ve done this parenting thing perfectly. Every human being has the DNA of sin. Therefore, it should not be a surprise if our kids walk down a path that breaks our heart.
I’m not saying that we should expect it. We should pray opposite of that. But it does take a bit of pressure off of me as the parent to know that God the Father has billions of prodigals and has had through the ages, if you add them all up. He knows the heartache of it. He knows how to walk alongside a parent of a prodigal. He is good, and He knows about my own rebellion against Him. Therefore, He is the best empathic Savior who can come alongside those of us who are suffering in that.
Ann: —such a good reminder.
Dave: Yes, I don’t have—I was trying to think of the word. It’s such a comforting thought in a sort of scary way: “Oh, good. God’s perfect and His children rebel.” I shouldn’t be happy about that but it [was], like you said, a perfect environment. We can do all the right things, and it doesn't guarantee anything.
Although, and I’d love to hear your comments on Proverbs that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” [Proverbs 22:6, NKJV] We hold on to that—
Ann: —as parents.
Dave: —not as just a promise, but [as] a guarantee. Then when they do or don’t come back, we’re like—and I think some parents walk away from the faith at that moment [thinking], “The Bible’s not true. This isn’t true. I bought a lie.” What do you say to that?
Mary: I think that’s the importance of reading the whole Bible and the whole counsel of Scripture. I wouldn’t call that particular passage a promise, but an encouragement, to do well as a parent. But I think, too, we as Americans, Westerners, we have a very small view of answered prayer.
So, it says, “…when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I have a prayer that I’ve been praying for 40 years that was just answered last year. It’s beautiful to see that answer. I didn’t expect it. It was for a person, and I thought they would just end up in eternity without Jesus. But the Lord was gracious.
I think a lot of us are [saying], “Well, Lord, my 23-year-old is not walking with the Lord.” But this could be the Lord training you to pray deeper, training you to walk a harder path, training you to find joy even when things don’t go the way you want them to. He may be answering your prayer.
The thing that I’ve seen is when I finally mourned it and when I grieved it, I finally had space to be able to see the small things that God was doing in my kids lives; whereas before there was just this great big grief that I couldn’t see the small things.
I would encourage parents to work through your grief of it so that that goes away, and you can see the little bread crumbs of what God is doing in your kids lives.
Ann: That’s what I want you to get into a little bit more, because as a parent—I don’t know if dads are like this—but as a mom, I feel so deeply and I worry about them.
Dave: Dad’s feel deeply, too.
Ann: I know. I’m not saying—[Laughter]—but I tend to, probably more than you, and I don’t think this is—this could go either way—I’m up at night thinking about them or worrying about them. Then what happens is it can steal our joy.
Ann: It affects every area of our lives because we become consumed with how our kids are doing; which makes me think, “Is that an idol?” As a mom, how did you learn how to separate that? How did you still find your joy?
Mary: It was a journey, and it certainly didn’t happen overnight. There were a lot of tears in the midst of that. But the thing that I went back to is spiritual warfare. I thought, “If the enemy has a target on our kids, which he does, and he’s somehow gotten some sort of foothold in there and some sort of victory, if I too, am taken out of the equation because of my kids’ decision, then he has won two victories. For the life of me, I’m not going to let him have two.
I also believe that this time of our lives we are more financially free, we have learned a lot of wisdom, we’re actually in our prime ministry years, and if the enemy can take us out, this is the way He is doing it and we are going to forfeit fruitfulness and ministry. That’s when I [said], “Forget it; no. Am I sad about these decisions they’re making? Yes. Am I going to cry about it? Of course, but I’m not going to allow it to sideline me from doing the work of loving people and discipling people.”
Ann: That’s good. It’s like you’ve almost put a stake in the sand [saying], “I will not bow to Satan’s schemes.” Your kids are going to make their decisions but you’re going continue to seek Jesus, to love Him, to pursue Him and to pursue the call on your life. That’s good.
Dave: My children’s lifestyle decisions, choices will not determine my happiness.
Dave: Good or bad—
Ann: It’s so hard though.
Dave: —Jesus will.
Ann: It’s so hard.
Mary: I want to recognize the hardness of that. I don’t want to just gloss over and be a Polly Anna and say, “It’s no big deal. Just keep—just love Jesus.” It’s hard; it’s probably one of the greatest parental pains I have ever experienced. It’s agony. I want to let the listeners know that I hear you, I see you, I understand, but there is joy on the other side. Ask the Lord to help you. He will help you get to that other side.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Mary Demuth on FamilyLife Today.
We’re going to hear more from Ann Wilson here in just a second with some hope. But we want to face the realities of life’s difficulties. Like they said, that is incredibly painful when those difficulties are coming from our own children. But don’t waste your pain. Acknowledge it. Yes; sure. Bring it to Jesus. Yes; of course. Allow Him in to cry and mourn with you but know that God can always make good out of the areas you might see as irredeemable disasters. There is hope.
Mary has written a book called Love, Pray, Listen: Parenting Your Wayward Adult Kids with Joy. This book is going to answer some tough questions that I think a lot of people are asking/perhaps you are asking. Questions like, “How do I avoid the temptation of meddling in my kids lives?” or “What do I do when my kids make choices that don’t align with my values?” Those are good questions to ask, and Mary is going to answer them well in her book, Love, Pray, Listen.
This book is 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, that number is 800, “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Okay, here’s Ann with some hope for parents who are hurting because of our grown kids.
Ann: I love the practicality of you seeing the little things or the good things. I think, as a parent, that takes discipline with our older kids because we can see the negative or we can see the way they’re going and be so discouraged by the path that they’ve taken.
One of the things one of my sons said to me—I had this habit of saying, “I’m worried about you. I’m worried about this area.” He finally said, “When you say that to me, it makes me feel like you’re assuming and thinking that I’m failing, which discourages me and it makes me not want to tell you anything.”
I realized, “Oh, I’ve never thought about that.” I felt like it was an act of love [saying], “I’m worried about you, Hon. How can I pray?” Yet, I like the idea of saying and seeing the things that they are doing well or right or that you love. Say those things; encourage them. I think that’s a really good step to take.
Shelby: Coming up tomorrow Mary Demuth is back with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about how we can love people whose opinions differ from ours, including our kids. 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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