Contrary to glowing reports in family Christmas letters, many parents are struggling over their children.

Why? Parents naturally have high hopes and expectations for their offspring. Often, however, these hopes go unmet.

There are numerous causes of parental disappointment, among them health problems, educational failure, divorce, substance abuse. Whatever its source, when real life shatters expectations for children, parents hurt. This is especially true when parents are unable to positively influence their children’s situations.

Parents may respond to the loss of their dreams for their children with intense feelings of sadness, embarrassment, anger and responsibility. These feelings, left unaddressed, can lead to grief, seclusion, bitterness and guilt.

While popular Christianity teaches us to expect blessing for a life of faith, the biblical message is that God does not mete out rewards and punishments for our works.

Rather, God in Christ understands our suffering and is present with us in it. With God’s grace, even in the midst of pain, parents can live out their responsibilities of faithfulness, unconditional love and forgiveness.

As parents open themselves to healing that comes from God’s grace, they can begin to accept their children as they are. Parents can even find ways to embrace their child’s uniqueness.

When parents begin to relinquish earlier dreams (which may have been ill-founded) and replace them with more realistic ones, they offer their children grace. In the process, parents become less defined by their children and their children’s struggles, even as they become vulnerable to the lessons their children bring.

Parental disappointment can potentially strain other close relationships. Just when understanding is most needed from family and friends, parents may find them unable or unwilling to help.

When this happens, parents can seek support from people outside their inner circles, as sometimes those who have faced similar parental hurt can help the most. In turn, empathy can be extended to these other hurting parents.

What can the church do to help? It seems right that parents should expect to experience God’s grace there. But often parents are afraid to share hurts over children in the church, or are shunned when they do.

The church can become a vehicle of grace for parents through leaders who are willing to admit their shortcomings and disappointments; through sermons, Bible studies and discussion groups that affirm parents’ worth in hard times; and through intentional welcoming of all youth.

The church can also be an ideal place for hurting parents to connect with each other through support groups, further multiplying God’s gift of grace.

Karen Johnson Zurheide and Jeffry R. Zurheide are authors of In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are.
The above is adapted from In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are (Augsburg, 2000).

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