Relinquishing Control of Adult Children

Dr. Robert Ritzema

September 19, 2018

In his book Little Lamb Who Made Thee? A Book About Children and Parents, Walter Wangerin, Jr. points out that believers pray about their children no matter the age of the child, but the nature of such prayers change depending on the child's stage of life. When children are young, along with praying for our children, we are doing things to protect them, help them, and prepare them for the future. The time comes, though, when we must let go, for continuing to manage their lives will harm them more than it will help them. Our prayer for them, then, becomes a prayer of letting go. Learn, then, to pray the prayer of relinquishment for your adult child.

Letting Go

When we first learn to pray, few of us start with the prayer of relinquishment. We have our own ideas of what God should do, and we try to convince him to endorse our plans. Eventually, though, we come to recognize that he has a different set of priorities than we do, and he starts to bend us in a direction we couldn't have imagined. As Richard Foster puts it in Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home:

"In time, however, we begin to enter into a grace-filled releasing of our will and a flowing into the will of the Father. It is the Prayer of Relinquishment that moves us from the struggling to the releasing."

Letting God's will be done

It's not that we parents didn't experience moments of relinquishment when our children were younger. Parents release their children into the hands of teachers, or doctors. Some parents have had to relinquish a sick child to God for whom doctors have done all they can, for example. Any situation in which we sense that we are losing some degree of control involves some degree of relinquishment, all the way from leaving a toddler with a sitter for the first time, dropping a child off at kindergarten, to watching a teenager head off to the prom. Relinquishing a child who has reached adulthood feels different than these sorts of letting go, though. Before, there was awareness that the child would be coming back to us and we could do something to fix whatever went wrong or make some sort of course correction so things would go better in the future. Now, they, not us, are the ones who need to apply fixes and correct mistakes. They hold the tiller, not us.

Learning to trust

It's not that we never offer assistance, support, or advice, but we are no longer in charge. They steer whatever direction they chose, and reap the consequences, whether good or ill, of the choices they make. When my youngest son chose to attend college out of state, I had to trust that God would be there with him. Five years later, when he decided to live for a time in Europe, I again need to relinquish him to God's care.

Offering freedom

As Wangerin points out, we turn to God at such times knowing that, as the Father of all, he surrendered control over his children, just as we are doing. He created man and woman, providing them with all they needed. He gave them independence, freedom to choose. And, though he warned them of the consequences of choosing badly (Genesis 2:16, 17), he then stood aside, respecting the freedom he had given them. For love is not manifested in always controlling a child, but in, at the proper time, stepping aside and letting them live his or her life.

Praying to relinquish control

So, what does the prayer of relinquishment look like? It reflects in some way Christ's relinquishment to the Father in Gethsemane: ""Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36). It also includes our petitions: that God will protect, that he will meet all our child's needs, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Wangerin also prays the following:

"They will sin. And, I beseech you: for their sinning do not damn them, do not let them die, but rather in hurting make them humble. And then, O merciful Father, accept this humility as repentance and let their repentance find your forgiveness and seize them thereby and hold them close unto your bosom forever and ever."

The prayer of relinquishment takes courage. Yet, if we fail to pray it, we will forever be trying to hold on, trying to control, trying to steal from them adulthood and independence. We pray, then, this difficult prayer of relinquishment, putting our adult children in God's hands, entrusting them to his care.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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