Parenting a difficult child

Author: Date: June 28, 2016

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Some of the most burdensome moments for a parent are when it is clear to those around you that your child is defiant or difficult. What are other people thinking? What does this say about me as a parent? They might assume your child’s behavior is a result of inadequate parenting or something else amiss in your home. People may even be bold enough to share their views, without any sense of the shame they are heaping upon you. Those of you with a difficult child understand. You feel marked, and even judged, by your child’s personal struggles. You hang your head around people who “know” about the problem. You assume they see you as a failure. If you were a good parent, surely your children would be well-behaved, love God, and have good manners. After all, their children are not so insubordinate.

If this is how you feel, you may have bought into the belief that good parents produce good children and bad parents produce bad children. At times, this seems downright biblical. If you raise a child in the way he should go, he won’t depart from it, right? So it follows that if you were godly enough, wise enough and patient enough, your child would not be so rebellious. It seems that the right formula is: love plus discipline plus godly instruction = “good” kids. And because, at times, the formula does seem to work, you determine the error must be in your parenting.

I’ve heard many a parent say, “We’ve exhausted all options, all approaches, all forms of consequences… and nothing worked. I tried being calm; I tried consistent discipline; I tried appealing to their conscience and praying with them and for them. Nothing helped. Nothing changed.” What the parent means is that it did not produce the desired behavior change or a visible heart change. The assumption is that, once again, the formula was applied, and it proved useless.

But this is a faulty, unbiblical approach. Good kids come out of horrific family backgrounds, and rebellious, willful kids come out of good, Christian homes. Children do not come to us as blank slates, but with their own personalities, strengths, weakness, desires, and temptations towards particular sin. They are born with hearts that are wooed by their own desires, and they exercise volition to choose for themselves the type of person they will become. There is an active moral responder on the other end of your parenting—one who chooses whom they will serve. And there is no way a parent can ensure the outcome.

Of course, a parent does play a significant role in a child’s life, but don’t buy into the belief that assumes good parenting will produce well-behaved children. It incorrectly places all the ownership and blame on you. And the burden of it might tempt you to want to give up or resort to poor or ungodly parenting (anger, yelling, harshness, despair, backing down, or backing away completely) because it might appear to work in the short run.

What then are you to do? Let me suggest two things that might help.

First, evaluate your motivation. Though you are not responsible for your child’s bad choices, could it be that, without realizing it, you are adding to the problem? If you are frustrated, despairing, or angry because your child is difficult, you need to ask yourself: What standard do you judge yourself by? Whose agenda is dictating your parenting? Is it a worldly, self-centered agenda, or a Christ-centered one? You can desire good things that become driven by very bad motives. Do you care too much about your own comfort or reputation? Do you desire a well-behaved child with few problems, or struggles? Children that make you look good, that are productive, smart, and kind? Are you embittered because you have invested yourself in this child and see no results? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, consider confessing the desires that grip your heart. Ask God to give you the grace, fortitude, and wisdom to parent your challenging child. Ask him to show you how to respond to your child out of love and concern for his or her wellbeing, not your own.

Second, remind yourself of what God calls you to as a parent—no more, no less. He calls you to love your children, to model a Christ-like character and lifestyle, and to respond wisely and thoughtfully to their struggles. You are to foster a personal relationship with the living God, and, to the best of your ability, shape your child’s strengths and weaknesses in his image. Though God expects you to parent with consistent love and wisdom, he does not hold you responsible for results that are driven by the child’s sin or rebellion.

Stop “trying” to make things turn out a particular way and just do the hard work of godly parenting. Do not judge its effectiveness by your child’s response. Simply wrestle with this:

Is my parenting loving?
Is it consistent?
Is it wise?

That will be challenging enough. You will fail, be convicted, and need forgiveness on those fronts alone. The rest must be left to the work of the Spirit in a child’s life. You will find much freedom from judgement, less care for the opinions of others, more hope and less despair when you commit your parenting to the Lord. Let him do the rest. As Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good.”

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