Watching Children Make Bad Choices is Hard
What should we do when a child chooses to walk a path not in line with sexual purity? What if we put into practice everything we learn from experts and books and a child still ignores us? Or maybe a child does follow our guidance when they are young, and even through their teen years, but walks away as a young adult.
I have no statistics to quote, but watching my friends and parents I work with, this seems to be a very common story. When even one child in a family chooses a path we know will lead to sexual brokenness it breaks our heart.
Even if we could give flawless guidance some of our children may still walk into sexual brokenness. It will not help us to pretend this is not true. What is a parent to do in these situations?
When a child becomes a young adult, there is very little we can do to change their minds. We have already shared what we know is true and they will either accept or reject it. The time of teaching has passed. There are really only two things to consider at this point:
- How do we most effectively deal with our own emotions so we don’t say or do something unhelpful?
- How do we treat this child in a way that is helpful rather than destructive to our relationship with them?
A Modern Parable about New Life
I was recently hiking in the forest contemplating this dilemma. I walked deep into the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest to remove myself from distraction and hear from God. The city I left behind was approaching 100 degrees but here in the shade of one hundred foot fir trees it was below seventy. The noise of cars and people was gone. Only the chirps of a single happy bird broke the silence. The trail was lined with lime-green shamrocks and the forest floor with huge leafy ferns as far as I could see. Among the first were sixty and seventy foot maples, their bark densely coated with a deep matt of moss. Baby vine maples extended lacy fingers in all direction seeking sunlight. The beauty was stunning.
I closed my eyes to smell, but instead of a clean, fresh odor my nostrils were met with the pungent scent of decay. I looked again at the rolling forest floor and realized it was covered with fallen trees, now grown over with all manner of vegetation. I examined a dead log more closely and saw roots digging into it, nourishing the new life. This entire beautiful scene was only possible because a much older forest had died. The new life came directly out of that death.
God slapped me upside the head and I understood His message.
All of us, if we are honest, have our own sexual brokenness. Some of us indulged in pornography when we were younger, others were promiscuous, some were abused, and some came to fear the sex we were intended to enjoy.
What I have found is, the more brokenness a person experiences, the more beauty God often grows out of them when they finally surrender to Him. God is, after all, in the business of redeeming the most broken among us.
God’s View of a Broken Child
I don’t want to see my children go through the kind of sexual brokenness I experienced. However, the brokenness God saved me out of only amplifies the joy I currently experience in life. When we see a child heading for sexual brokenness, we may panic and fear all is lost. Nothing is lost forever, even when a child walks into the darkest places.
God sees our children and young adults as great potential to bring healing to the broken. He sees people who will have a deeper appreciation for their lives when He redeems them than most others. We can take some comfort in knowing a child who walks away from sexual integrity can not only regain it, but also find a more profound appreciation for sexual purity. There is not only hope, but great hope, for a child who walks away.
So where do we go from here? How do we reconcile our emotions and relate with our children in ways that promote their healing?
Reconciling Our Emotions
Have confidence in what you have taught. Our children are going to get out and explore the world as young adults. They are going to test out what they believe to see if it is true. In the process they will make some mistakes. Some young adults will make really big mistakes. We cannot change this but must accept it.
We can still trust what we have taught them. Most parents reading this blog are doing all they can to give good guidance to their child’s sexuality. When we do our best to teach them young, we can trust they will remember what we have taught them. It may take some time but our words are not forgotten forever. Even if it seems all our work was for nothing, have confidence in what we have given them.
Talk with other parents. Before we can help our child, we will need to care for ourselves. A very good way to do this is to talk to other parents. A child walking away from sexual integrity is very common and we don’t have to look far to find other parents with similar experiences. There is typically a lot of shame that a parent experiences when we learn our child has pursued some form of unhealthy sexual behavior, especially when we have taken steps to prevent that very thing. We may not want others to know, but keeping what has happened a secret will build shame in our lives and become destructive.
We weren’t perfect either. We need to remember that none of us are or were perfect examples of sexual purity. We need to allow our children to be as imperfect as we have been. The form a child’s sexual impurity takes may be very different from the parent, but that doesn’t really matter in the big picture. As painful as it may be, a child’s sexual indiscretions often create more similarity with the parent than dissimilarity.
Relating to Our Child
Slow Down. The first thing we can do is simply slow down. For some of us, myself included, our initial impulse or reaction is often the least helpful. We might feel betrayed and react in anger. We might feel crushed and retreat into isolation. Either reaction sends the message to our child that we are rejecting them. They are our children and they need to know their status has not changed, even in all their imperfection. Give yourself and your child permission to take time to decide how to react. Wait a while before you have a deep conversation about what your child has done.
Affirm Your Child. The first words out of our mouth should be to tell our child we love them. If you need time before you can talk, don’t leave them hanging as to their status with you. Assure them you still love them even if the larger conversation has to wait. The number one goal is to preserve the parent-child relationship, even when the child is an adult. If this is all that happens that is a win.
Listen. We should allow our child to share first. The last thing they need at this point is another lecture, even though some of us very much want to give a lecture. When we do ask our child about what they have done or are continuing to do, we need to be sure it doesn’t feel like an interrogation. This can be tricky to pull off when we have so many questions. Perhaps we don’t need to ask every question we have the first conversation. Let them share what they are able to.
Address Shame. If our child feels shame, that shame is the first thing we must address. A child may feel shame because they acted in a sexual way that they never thought they would. Such a child may feel he or she is defective, which is the definition of shame. We can remind them that we are all sexual beings and our sex drive can be very powerful. We might share again one of our stories of giving in to sexual urges. Giving in to a sexual urge does not mean we are defective, it means we are human. We hopefully learn from such experiences, but we don’t need to wallow in shame.
A child may feel shame for disappointing us. We have to realize that not all children will continue to embrace what they were taught by their parents. Young adults commonly decide to live outside the boundaries they lived in as children. This very well may cause a parent to feel disappointment. Our children, even adult children, still need to know we are here for them when they need us, even if we don’t agree with all the decisions they make.
Consequences. There is a reason we have taught our children to avoid pornography and certain sexual behaviors. These things are harmful to those who participate in them and to others around them. There will be consequences to our child when they decide to ignore our warnings. That does not necessarily mean we will be the ones giving consequences, particularly for an older teen or young adult. Pornography and sexualized behavior will harm them and their relationships without our help.
Younger children may require consequences that protect them while they are still under our care. However, we should use these as protective measures rather than punishment.
There may be additional consequences to our relationship. If a child has been lying about their behavior, especially if over a long period of time, there are natural consequences. The parent has learned that they cannot trust what their child tells them. It is okay to tell our child this, though we should do so calmly rather than in anger. We may have to tell a child that for a while we will only believe their behavior, not what they tell us, since they have proved to us that their word cannot be trusted.
This is not mean nor punishment, but a natural consequence of deceit. We would expect our child to say the same to us if we hide something from them or lie to them repeatedly. We are not saying we will never trust them but that they have to earn our trust back.
Perspective – Bad Choices aren’t the End of the Story
We can’t help hoping our children will not be touched by sexual brokenness. Such a dream is simply unrealistic and unhelpful. We should not feel we have failed as parents, even if we can point to things we could have done better. We are probably doing far better than our parents did. We can try to maintain a positive relationship with our children so they will accept our help when they finally want it.
Sexual brokenness or loss of integrity is not the end of any story. From this can come a new life that surpasses the beauty of what came before. On my hike I finally came across a portion of forest not as old as the rest. There were few fallen trees and as a result there was no greenery on the ground at all. It was barren in comparison. No trees had fallen to give something for new life to sprout from.
I am not suggesting that we wish for our children to lose sexual integrity. But if they do, we can have a new hope that something even better may come out of their broken lives. Rather than viewing the poor sexual choices of our child as failures, we can view them as a reason for new hope.