When Our Children Go Astray
February 1997

“When Our Children Go Astray,” Ensign, Feb. 1997, 7

When Our Children Go Astray

Parents of wayward children can find guidance and strength in gospel teachings.

Despite our best efforts to raise children to love the Lord, follow his commandments, and live happy, productive, and healthy lives, our sons and daughters sometimes go astray. Straying can mean involvement in drug abuse, criminal activity, immorality, and even abuse of parents and others. Other forms of drifting, perhaps less serious but nevertheless troubling, include underachieving, dropping out of school, and finding little purpose or happiness in life.

Typical and normal parental reactions include sorrow, despair, desperation, depression, feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and a sense of failure. In such circumstances, parents may also experience anger and withdrawal and may feel like simply giving up. These reactions usually make matters worse, deepening the problems they face.

My wife and I have friends who, because of their son’s behavior, have suffered almost every problem identified above. The last five or six years have been a hideous nightmare for them. They have tried every possible approach, even placing their son in expensive rehabilitation programs in which he typically lasts a week, despite his good intentions.

The father shared his lament and his hope in these words: “There is no how-to book with young people like our son. You pray to the Lord that he will guide your thoughts and your actions, and you hope you will make wise decisions.” He and his wife, firm in their faith, declare, “We have the ultimate hope that because he is sealed to us, the bonds of eternal covenants will be stronger than the bonds of the adversary that now seem to grip his life. We live with hope that the day will come when he will return to his eternal family and repent of his way of life.”

Our friends represent thousands of others in similar circumstances who are meeting challenges almost beyond their capacity to endure. Trials of parenthood are most often associated with children’s growing-up years, but these challenges can arise with children of any age. As parents, we don’t cease our concerns when our children reach adulthood. In an effort to extend understanding and help to parents who may be suffering any of these feelings about their children, it may be helpful to (1) look at two related problems some families face, (2) examine doctrines that play a fundamental role in helping parents deal with those problems and others of similar gravity, and (3) then discuss how parents can stay strong during the years of turmoil.

Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol. One set of parents grieved deeply and suffered throughout much of their lives because at the age of 13 their son began regularly consuming great quantities of alcoholic beverages and never recovered from the alcoholism that eventually caused his premature death.

Shortly before the son’s last illness that ended his tortured life, a brother asked him, “When did you take your first drink?” The answer was both startling and revealing. He explained that one day when he was only five years old and playing at a friend’s home while the parents were away, he was offered a drink of beer. Not knowing anything about alcoholic beverages, and thinking his friend meant root beer, he tasted his first alcoholic drink. He liked the taste and effect of it. By age 13 he was an alcoholic.

For the rest of their son’s life, the parents spent a major part of their time praying, worrying, and struggling unsuccessfully to reclaim and assist their son. They found him in pool halls and bars, with drinking buddies, and in prison. Some years they did not know where he was, a sad state of affairs in which imagination can be even worse than reality. During other years, with the influence of Alcoholics Anonymous and the loving attention of others who had also struggled with similar problems, he was sober and lived a productive existence.

Throughout all their years of heartache, these parents never gave up. They spent countless hours on their knees praying for their son, often pleading to know where he was. When his mother became seriously ill, no one knew where the son was, but the Spirit summoned the young man to the telephone and brought him home. It was he who helped his father and sister care for his dying mother during her last days on earth.

Drugs. In Los Angeles during years I served as a priesthood leader, a number of parents had children who were caught up in the drug culture so prevalent in the 1960s. One father came to me for advice and comfort. Two of his sons had become addicted to hard-core drugs, resulting in nightmarish consequences to him and his wife.

During this couple’s years of child rearing and in spite of whatever normal parental mistakes they may have made along the way, they had constantly provided their children a loving example and had done their best to teach righteous gospel principles in the home. Yet two of their sons made tragic choices anyway. As the severity of the problems became known, the parents castigated themselves harshly, and the father felt unworthy to continue in his priesthood responsibility. I persuaded him to continue serving in the Church and expressed confidence in the future for his children.

I shared with him then, and would now like to share with all parents, especially those suffering pain and a sense of frustration as they watch their dreams for their children turn to ashes, some thoughts about relevant doctrines that provide needed hope and balm.

Relevant Doctrines

Some parents suffer greatly because they blame themselves unduly for having been poor parents. In this position they are likely to misapply President David O. McKay’s wonderfully prophetic statement that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1964, 5). They seem to draw the unintended implication that since they have a child who is abusing drugs or alcohol, they must be failures as parents; hence, no matter how hard they have tried, no other good they have done or success they have achieved can compensate for their parental failure at home. Because this statement was intended to inspire parents to become or stay involved with their children, it should not be taken to mean that parents who have indeed put great time, effort, and sacrifice into parenting, and yet who have still not reaped the desired rewards, have failed. A closer look at additional counsel and doctrines may provide much needed perspective.

Trust Father in Heaven. Most of our lives are a complex mixture of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, good and bad. Heavenly Father fully understands our conditions here in mortality, having allowed those conditions and provided agency as a kind of living laboratory for human growth. Moreover, he himself must have experienced all of the conditions and feelings we do, for, as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “God himself was once as we are now” and “dwelt on an earth” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1977], 345, 346). Not only did one of his choicest sons rebel during our premortal existence, but that son also persuaded a third part of the Father’s children to take a devilish path.

If you are experiencing extreme pain as a parent of a prodigal child, remember parents in scripture who similarly suffered. Some of these are Adam and Eve, whose son Cain murdered his brother Abel; Lehi and Sariah, whose two older sons rebelled; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those towering figures who, with their wives, experienced much parental sorrow; Alma the Younger, who had a rebellious son, Corianton; and Mosiah, who had several rebellious sons.

In 1929 Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “You parents of the wilful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours—long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fulness of knowledge brings the fulness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110).

Indeed, throughout the ages, many parents have faced significant struggles with their children and have received support, help, and guidance from our Father in Heaven as they’ve sought to find ways to reach their children.

Respect Agency. A governing doctrine of the universe, applicable in all ages including the eternities before God formed this earth, is that God has granted to people their agency—the right to choose between good and evil. Because we have agency, it is fair and just that we account to him for our use of it, whether good or bad. If we had no agency, God would be responsible for us and everything we did, which would result in our never really knowing the depth of our personal convictions regarding either good or evil.

This is not a neutral world. Good and evil bombard us and our children. Teaching our children correct principles allows them to make informed choices. But when children make choices contrary to gospel teachings, they always suffer the consequences, some of which are serious. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “My people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer (D&C 105:6; emphasis added). While it’s the harder pathway, the Lord is aware of young people who have been caught in addictive behaviors and is watching patiently over them as they learn through their own experience about good and evil.

Paraphrasing the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Orson F. Whitney said “that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. … They will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110).

We can and should expect much of our children, but we cannot force them into the Lord’s mold. Our children will not stay with the Church and live the gospel unless they want to. Once their wayward children grow up, the time may come when the parents will need to adjust their present expectations and approach, accepting things as they are rather than continuing in turmoil. We should not expect perfection in our children but, rather, adopt in patience and love the Lord’s eternal view of things.

Refrain from Judging Others Unrighteously. Because God and Jesus Christ alone (see D&C 76:68) can judge fully what is in people’s hearts, they alone can wisely and perfectly temper justice with mercy, conditioned on whether our hearts have been softened and whether we have repented of our individual sins. It is for this reason we are admonished not to judge others unrighteously. Harsh condemnation of others by us will bring to us similar condemnation from our Heavenly Father. (See JST, Matt. 7:1–2.) God, as well as his Son, is a totally righteous and completely trustworthy judge, perfected in light, knowledge, and understanding.

One particularly heartrending experience comes to parents whose children express a same-sex preference. Parents may wonder how to be generally supportive of their young adult without condoning specific immoral behavior. Harsh and judgmental reactions, threats to disown them, or other mistreatment of such a son or daughter do not help. Parents need to continue to extend loving concern to the young man or woman while upholding God’s law of chastity and morality.

Because our children follow a different course than we have taught them does not give us license to reject them. We can rarely know in full what forces cause our children’s lives to careen out of control. Only God has all of the tools and facts sufficient to identify the forces that bring about undesired effects. He alone, through the Son (see John 5:22), can and “shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl. 12:14). Thus our relationships with our children are valuable. Our children are as old as we are in the eternal sense (see D&C 93:29). We must not reject them or judge so quickly or harshly that the damage becomes nearly irreversible.

Turn to the Savior. Because God knows the inevitable consequences of agency—choosing right as well as wrong, and knowing that all will transgress to some degree—he has provided a Savior to snatch us from our precarious situation. The Savior has taken upon himself the burden of our sins, pain, infirmities, and feelings of despair, and we are able to receive of the healing power of his Atonement if we soften our hearts and repent of our sins and become a different person. He mourns with us in our extreme agitation, even when his long view of things requires that for our ultimate good he withhold his hand from lifting our burdens too quickly.

The spirit of the Savior’s teachings helps us understand how we should react when our children go astray. We should prepare to leave the “ninety and nine” and to go seeking the one (see Luke 15:1–7); to search the house to reclaim the lost coin (see Luke 15:8–10); and to welcome home even one who has wasted our goods in riotous living (see Luke 15:11–32). How do we begin?

Seek the Lord. Problems with wayward children are usually complicated and vary from child to child. There is no one right way to reach them. Seeking help from the Lord in prayer may be the best or only way we can obtain needed direction specific for our situation. In Romans 8:26 [Rom. 8:26] the Apostle Paul explains that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Drawing very close to the Lord and seeking the Spirit’s guidance can help us know what steps to take.

Recognize the Spirit. Having drawn close to the Lord in deep and sincere prayer, we must learn to recognize promptings of the Spirit. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord promises that he will “impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind” (see D&C 11:12–14). We can receive specific instructions through the Spirit about what our child needs at a given time.

Heed promptings. Once we receive whisperings of the Spirit, we need to move forward steadfastly. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart,” states the proverb, “and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Sometimes the things we feel impressed to do may require faith on our part. Only the Lord knows the full picture. If we are willing to turn our minds and hearts over to him, we can obtain insight that allows us to take a wise course of action for our child at any given time. Knowing we are directed by the Lord results in great personal inner strength during troubled times.

Remember that we are not abandoned. The scriptures are full of hope and peace. That Jesus Christ understood exactly what parents of wayward children may suffer is apparent from his magnificent parable of the prodigal son. In that parable the Lord made it clear that we can eventually triumph over almost all obstacles by exercising patience and developing greater wisdom and understanding.

Never Give Up. If you cannot seem to reach your daughter or son now, you can at least keep trying and keep loving them, for the very will to reach out, nurture, and extend help to another is an act of love that does not always go unnoticed. President Joseph F. Smith offered advice that has helped me at difficult times: “Fathers, if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! … However wayward they might be, … when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly. … You can’t drive them; they won’t be driven” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 316).

This prophetic counsel from President Smith and the doctrines summarized above should give all parents hope that they can ultimately triumph if they remain prayerful, helpful, and maintain an open door for their children. We must build our children and hold on to them. If, during their younger years, we create family friendships that strengthen and support them, we have a better chance of helping them later through their trials and temptations.

Counsel to Parents

I have a few suggestions to share that may help parents weather through trials with wayward children.

Take Care of Yourselves First. Your children may depend on you for advice, maturity, and assistance in handling difficult situations. If you are not functioning well physically and emotionally during such critical moments, you are less likely to be of help to your children. Don’t let the chaos of their lives consume yours. Continue with your own appropriate activities as far as you reasonably can.

Children may challenge you and question your standards and judgment. Be ready to share your convictions and wisdom. Sometimes the moment to talk will be late at night when you are tired, but respond positively to those moments when the door swings open between you and your child.

Seek Help. In recent years, medical science has learned much about alcoholism, drug abuse, and other serious vices and conditions. I strongly urge parents of drug and alcohol abusers to investigate the latest techniques and services available to assist and rehabilitate troubled youth. As appropriate, consult with your home teachers, your quorum leaders, and your bishop or branch president.

Try Not to Live through the Achievements of Your Children. Some parents unwisely place their own personal hopes and dreams on the achievements of their children. While parents properly rejoice in the successes of their children, too much emphasis on parental expectations may place undue pressure and stress on their children. Clashes between parents and children can be severe when parents fail to understand and respect their children’s desires and aspirations that differ from their own.

Support Your Prodigal Child in Wisdom. Often there are others who have greater influence in your children’s lives than you do during troubled times. Eventually one of them may ignite the spark that begins the process of turning around your son or daughter. It may be a close friend, a sweetheart, a teacher, a wise Scoutmaster, a seminary teacher, or a priesthood, Young Women, or Relief Society leader. Sometimes youth reconsider their choices or lives after experiencing the hard knocks administered by judicial or law enforcement systems.

Often, however, youth finally turn again to their families. As in the parable of the prodigal son, a wayward son or daughter will sometimes come to himself or herself and return home for balm and support. When this happens, we have an opportunity to help them make a new beginning after receiving them with open arms.

Avoid Denial and Undue Feelings of Self-Blame. While all parents make mistakes, most have deep desires to honorably fulfill their parental responsibilities. Some parents, however, deny the reality of the path their children are treading. They make excuses hoping the evidence is not what it seems. It is better for everyone involved to determine quickly whether or not problems are serious, for early intervention can be vital in curbing problem behavior.

Other parents become overwhelmed in self-pity and shame. These emotions may crowd out their love for a daughter or son. Think of the effect on a child of feeling that his parents are ashamed of him or her. This can drive a wedge between parent and child that closes the door to the prodigal if and when he or she desires to return.

If we don’t step up to challenges that can serve to perfect and polish our own characters, we lose opportunities to grow and expand our capacity to understand, love, nurture, and serve others. Thus, through our personal efforts to help our children secure their salvation, we may also be working out our own necessary contributions to our own salvation.

Remember the Last Human Freedom. Every morning, parents whose children have gone astray face the stern test of whether they can continue to function, love, and serve as parents when faced with so much pain. I suggest they remember Viktor E. Frankl’s survival as a Jew in a German concentration camp. Though only one prisoner in 28 survived, Viktor Frankl lived to write that a “man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning [1981], 74–75).

He added that prisoners facing the daily cruelty, savagery, and lack of respect for life and human dignity either perished or learned that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 85). As with parents of straying children, they were the ones being questioned by life, every day and every hour. These tests were different for every woman and man and changed from moment to moment. They learned that nothing can be so bad as to ruin their inner peace and dignity. They discovered that proper attitudes gave them freedom from some of the ills they were having to endure.

Our friends whose son has caused them so much pain told me, “We spend far more time in our scriptures and on our knees than we ever did before.” Parents often learn to survive themselves and become much stronger as they struggle to help and reclaim their wayward children.

Although many parents will not experience bumps and turbulence as hard to navigate as some of those we have here discussed, some, including the family into which I was born, have and will experience frightening challenges. Do not give in to paralyzing feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Seek spiritual help and peace. Be strong and courageous. You will see it through.

In 1919 at general conference, Alonzo A. Hinckley, then president of the Deseret Stake of Zion, quoted Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as follows: “I promise the Saints in the Deseret stake of Zion that if their lives are such that they can look their sons and daughters in the face, and if any of them have gone astray, that the parents are able to say, ‘It is contrary to my instruction and my life’s example; it is against every effort of love, long suffering, faith, prayer and devotion that that boy or girl has gone,’—I promise you, fathers and mothers, that not one of them shall be lost unless they have sinned away the power to repent” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1919, 161).

Balm and hope abound in that counsel. We may not understand exactly how Elder Talmage’s counsel will come to pass in this life, but we can understand that there is more to the relationship of righteous parents and their children than we fully understand in this life and more help available with the problems that arise in that relationship than we grasp with our worldly logic. We are not alone in our struggle to save and preserve the sealing between us and our children.

I hope that all parents of wayward children will do their best to help their children and yet retain a bright hope within themselves in the ultimate outcome of their divinely appointed parental mission.

Let’s Talk about It

This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:

  1. How can we show love and support for suffering parents whose children have gone astray?

  2. Why is respecting agency important when trying to help wayward children?

  3. What can parents do to maintain their own balance and strength during troubled times?

Photo by FPG International

The Lost Lamb, by N. C. Wyeth, reproduced by permission of the Colby College Museum of Art

Photo by Steve Bunderson, posed by models

Liahona, by Arnold Friberg

The Greatest of All, by Del Parson

Photo by Steve Bunderson, posed by models

Photo by Jed Clark, posed by models

The Prodigal Son, by Clark Kelley Price