>A few people commented on my phrase about staying “rock hard calm” and Jess asked straight out how we learned to do it. I thought I would take a minute to address that issue since it is a critical component to handling a prodigal child.
In the very familiar story of the Prodigal Son, the son comes to his father and basically says, “Pops, I can’t wait for you to die. I want my money now so I can go do what I want to do.” And the father’s response is to give his son his inheritance and let him go.
Jesus doesn’t supply us with much here but what he doesn’t tell us is important. First of all, the father was under no obligation to give his son his share of the inheritance while he remained living, but he did it anyway. Second, we get no narrative at all on what the father says to the son before he departs. It would appear from the parable that the wicked and ungrateful son asked for his money, dad gave it to him, and off the son went.
Before sending our son to treatment last year our reactions to his behavior ran the emotional gamut. We would scream, yell, cry, lament, try to manipulate him with guilt, apply the silent treatment, you name it, we did it. All to no avail. Frankly, we just didn’t know what to do and so we kept reacting and responding out of our emotional reactions. At no point did we ever find either the carrot or the stick that would motivate our son to make the choices we wanted him to.
At Capstone Treatment Center, we learned to divorce our emotional reactions to our son’s undesirable behaviors from our responses to him. At Capstone they call it “passing the potatoes.”
For example, let’s say that your child’s biweekly drug test comes up dirty. A normal parent’s emotional reaction is to get upset, angry, fearful and out of that respond to the child with yelling, crying, and/or laying on guilt about how the child has let you down.
At Capstone, we were trained to respond like this, “Well, your drug screen came up dirty. The consequence for that is __________.” And then move on. Do not engage the child emotionally, lay down the consequence and move on. This technique works best if you have already established the consequences ahead of time so you aren’t caught thinking on your feet. When you have a child that you suspect is going to go prodigal on you, you must be prepared and not get caught off guard. My husband and I spent weeks developing a behavioral contract with our son before he got out of treatment. Everything that is happening has already been spelled out clearly between the three of us, so there are no surprises.
In our case, our son has decided to drop out of college, relapse with alcohol, get thrown out of his safe living situation, quit the job he finally got, take up with undesirable companions, and go off to a city where he knows no one safe, has no home, and has no means of visible support. The consequences for this is that his father and I have cut him off completely from any financial support whatsoever. The only thing we’re maintaining is his cellphone for now because it benefits us. The minute that changes the phone will be turned off.
I do not believe that our son really grasps the enormity of the consequences yet but that’s another post for another day. This is about how we respond to our prodigal who is in fullblown prodigal mode, and how we handle it is like this:
Son: “I’m going to San Francisco.”
Us: “Oh, wow. Well, we love you and we are afraid for you, but if that’s your choice then that’s your choice. We are closing your bank account since my name is on it. Good luck. Honey, we love you.”
Of course, this is NOT an exact transcript of the conversation. There were a lot more words than that, but honestly, that’s the gist of it.
Susan made a comment about stoic lipstick or something like that. Oh, how I wish that stuff existed. Matter-of-fact. I LOVE the word “stoic” because that’s the discipline my heart is under through all of this, but the word stoic connotes an attitude of coldness which we can’t afford. We try above all to keep our tone warm, kind, understanding, loving, but firm with our son. Non-reactionary. Whatever may be going on in my heart, my words must come out firm, but gentle and kind and loving.
The hardest part hasn’t happened yet because he’s still operating on adrenaline and doesn’t realize what he’s done yet. (At least I don’t think he’s really realized it yet.) But it is going to come when he calls for help and we tell him, “No. We’re sorry honey, but you did not want our help. You thought this was the best way so now you’re going to have to figure your own way out.” We absolutely cannot help him at this point or we’re setting ourselves up for more and more of this in the future. I’m not saying that there won’t be a point in the future where we won’t help him, but it won’t be on the first cry for help, it can’t be or it’ll be just like the baby who continually throws things from the highchair.
We rehearse that phone call everyday in our minds when we calmly, lovingly, kindly, but firmly say in the face of our son’s fear and suffering,, “Honey, you made this decision to go to San Francisco like this. This is what you wanted to experience. You will have to figure this out for yourself.”
My mother-in-law is suffering mightily. I fear she is the weak link here and both my husband and I are in constant contact with her reminding her that if she breaks ranks and enables him we likely will be looking at years of this nonsense. We hope that doesn’t happen, but it is certainly a fear we have.
I’m not saying this is easy at all. But I hope that helps explain what this looks like on a practical level. We are resolute but remain heartbroken and so we appreciate prayers that we’ll stay strong. This isn’t easy.