Having a child is arguably one of the hardest and best things a person can be gifted with in the course of a lifetime. Parents feel the privilege and the high calling of being charged with the responsibility of raising another human being into the person they are, all while knowing it's a pile of work.
The separation starts at birth. When a baby leaves their mother’s body and the cord is cut, the separation begins. The rest of the child's life progresses with that little human coming into the fullness of who God created them to be and walking in their purpose on earth. The leaving and separation from parent is elemental to the process of maturation, and it passes through several excruciating phases for both parent and child.
Growing up is hard to do. In childhood and adolescence, children go through phases of testing their competence and capabilities against the rules and authorities around them. These can be difficult phases. It’s a trying time in life of a parent. Growth spurts, complex emotions, body and brain changes for the young person, and relational changes between parent, child, and peers can make this season of life fraught for all parties. And adolescence today stretches beyond the teen years, as societal and cultural shifts affect generational definitions. Studies have shown that emerging adulthood has redefined life stages and milestones because Millennials and GenZ increasingly delay the becoming-an-adult-phases in life.
In these formative and tumultuous years, lots of decisions get made as these former tiny humans become full-sized humans becoming more of themselves. Teenagers, youth, young adults—however you refer to them—are testing their boundaries and their understanding of the world, others, and themselves in this intense way. As young adults are meeting themselves, parents are also meeting their young adult children in this season of life.
Our children learn through their mistakes. In their seasons of exploration, of growth, of testing, young adults make lots of decisions. Some of them good, some of them bad. Remember yourself at this age. Even the kindest, firmest parents will witness their teen kids making decisions they don’t agree with, don’t like, or whose results they can see coming from a mile off. Sometimes as parents, you can guide their decision-making toward a choice that will lead to their flourishing. Other times, you know you cannot make the decision for them, and you know the decision they will make will cause some suffering for themselves, and by proxy, you.
Your kid is not you. You are not your kid. When the time comes that your child makes a decision whose effects have caused shame for you as a parent, remember to differentiate and distinguish between yourself and your child. Yes, you made that kid, but that kid is not you.
Society likes to herald the trope that children are a reflection of their parents, and in some respects they are. But children are also full humans on their own, and their existence is a separate thing from their parents’ existence. Their decisions are separate from their parents.
So, if a situation arises where your child’s decisions have resulted in you feeling shame, take that as an invitation to identify and work on the ways in which you enmesh your own self and sense of identity with your child and their decisions. Because remember, they are not you, you are not them. If a decision has shameful repercussions, that consequence is for the person making the decisions. I know it can feel like it falls on you, too—but remember that it doesn’t actually. They are actually free to make any decision they please. And your job as a parent is to be present and guide and love them.
Even if your neighbors look at you crazy, you hear whispers or people try to put that shame on you, remind yourself ‘I am differentiated from my kid; my kid needs to make decisions to learn and grow up. The pain I am feeling does not define me or them, and it will pass. I will allow it to pass through me.’
Also, consider that shame indicates a sense of unworthiness and a felt experience of ‘I am bad’. Perhaps as a parent, this shame may make you feel as though you have somehow failed as a parent. Identify when shame crops up in yourself and remind yourself of truths: that poor decisions do not define you or your child. Our struggles can be opportunities for growth. Everything is a lesson and has things to teach us if we make space within ourselves to receive them.
Most fundamentally, you cannot control any other human being’s decisions, actions, or emotions but your own, not even your child whom you raised—and that will begin to free you from a sense of shame at their decisions.
We are all more than the sum of our behaviors. When you can look at it like "That is their decision. I don’t agree with it, but it’s theirs to make." Differentiate yourself from the decision and your child; then you are on your way to alleviating that shame. Bryan Stevenson reminds us “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Your child is not bad. You are not a failure. Your child may have done bad things, but it does not define them. We are each of us a work in progress. We trust that the one who began a good work in us is carrying it to completion (Phil 1:3). God is still working out God’s redemptive plan in our lives and can bring beauty from ashes. Don’t despair. Don’t give up.
When your child is making decisions that feel out of your depth, as best and as tactfully as you can, so that they have a higher chance of receiving it, speak to your child about resources that are available to help them. If they need counseling, perhaps speak to them about a reliable and excellent therapist and how to go about insurance. If they need to make amends with someone they have wronged, encourage them to go do so, maybe drive them there or pray for them while they do so. Help your child figure out what resources they need to solve whatever situation is facing them. And empower them to reach out to those resources. Be it a counselor, a lawyer, AA, those who have been wronged. Don’t do it for your kid, empower them to do it for themselves. Remind them they are capable, there are consequences to their decisions, and they made the decisions, so they can now also respond to its consequences, AND, they can take steps toward making it right, whatever that might look like. Equip and help your kid as you can. Utilize the resources available for yourself as well as your child.
Resources are for you too. Maybe it's confiding in a friend. Maybe it's formal time with a counselor. Maybe it's a support group of parents who have experienced the same sorts of pain. You cannot control or be responsible for your child's choices, but that doesn't mean there's not grief over them. Processing your pain can help you set good boundaries and release things that need releasing.
Especially when you see your child going in a direction you feel helpless to protect them from, name your anxieties and fears to God, who loves them and you, and knows the love of a parent for a child. As I’m sure you already do, pray for your child’s protection, for God to send angels to guide their feet and lead them out of places of darkness. Pray for wise words and presences to meet your child along their path. Pray for clarity and freedom for your child to step into wise choices. Pray for redemption, for healing, for God’s Spirit to comfort and defend your child. God loves your kid. More than even you do. Let that be a balm.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster