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  • Karen Pickrell

How to Win Back Your Prodigal Child

Did you know that only 1 in 3 kids will keep their faith?

That’s an alarming statistic. I don’t know if it’s true or not, … but it sure feels true. It seems like everywhere I look, I see Christian families who have one young adult child staying strong in the faith, and two lost sheep who’ve wandered off.

Maybe our grown kids are not squandering their days in wild living like the prodigal son in the Bible, but even so our faith or values just haven’t become theirs. Whatever the situation, how should a parent respond? The best example of this I know of is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Let's take a look and see how the prodigal son’s dad responded when his kid went off the reservation. Here are a few observations I see:

He allowed him to make mistakes.

What amazes me is when the prodigal son asked for his inheritance, the Father actually gave to him. He made it possible for him to leave and make mistakes knowing full well what he’d probably do with it. I don’t know if I could do that! I’m not sure I could make his trip to Pleasure Island possible. And I certainly don’t know if I could have said a tearful goodbye without a few words of caution or an all out intervention.

He didn’t rescue or enable him.

And while the prodigal was spiraling downward from all his poor choices, it never talks about the dad pulling out a rescue mission or at least sending a check in the mail. That’s a hard one for me. It’s one thing if they’re struggling, but when they start looking like they’re going to hit bottom, that’s when my parental instincts kick into hyperdrive.

Of course, every situation is different. I’m not saying there aren’t times to intervene. Sometimes we need to get out of the way, though. If we keep rescuing them, or continue to finance their lifestyle, when will they learn? It’s tough love. It’s letting them experience the natural consequences and learn from it.

He kept hope alive.

I love that the Father was looking for his son when he returned home. He kept hope. He had faith that someday he’d return. That’s the mindset we need to embrace. Without hope, the stress of worrying about our prodigal will take its toll on us. In the age of social media, not worrying about our kids is even harder. We have a front-row seat to all the stuff they’re doing. Sometimes we need to not look, just for our own sanity.

He protected him from personal attacks.

When the prodigal returned home, the Father ran to him with open arms, welcoming him home. I heard once that part of the reason the Father ran to his son was to outrun the other people who would come to stone the prodigal. Not everyone is as loving as the Father. Not everyone is as forgiving. Standing in the gap and shielding our young adult from the condemnation of family and friends is often necessary. Sometimes we need to have an honest, but loving, conversation with family or friends, like the Father had with the older son, giving them a new perspective.

He loved him unconditionally.

Running with open arms to our prodigal is such a beautiful picture of unconditional love. It takes a lot for a prodigal to return. They are painfully aware of their failings. Often prodigals don’t return, out of shame and feelings of guilt. In order to come home, they have to know what’s waiting for them is love, not judgment.

He celebrated his return!

When the prodigal returned, there wasn’t a come-to-Jesus meeting. There wasn’t any lecture or any expectation of making amends or a forced apology or I told you so … just a big party to celebrate his return. The prodigal wasn’t expecting that. What better way to make his son feel loved, valued, and accepted? What better way to announce his excitement to everyone else?

What can we conclude?

Loving a prodigal isn’t easy. Allowing our child to express his free will and not protecting him from the consequences. Keeping hope that he’ll return. Taking the disapproval of family and friends and protecting him from their condemnation. Loving him unconditionally. Being excited to see him and throwing the party of the century when he returns! That’s a crazy, unconditional love … the kind of love that makes a wayward kid want to come home.

For more tips about loving and launching your young adult kids, visit me at

Want more of Life Is Relationships? Click here to read past issues!


Meet Karen Pickrell

Karen Pickrell is a guest blogger for PTLB, who gives great advice and perspective for parenting young adult children. She is a published author in Focus on the Family magazine (The Reluctant Recruit, December 2003), and a former elementary school teacher and special day class teacher. Her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Biola University and her master’s degree in education have prepared her to supervise student teachers at William Jessup University, and coach new teachers with the Placer County Office of Education. She lives in Northern California with her husband, who she playfully refers to as "Mr. Wonderful," and together they have three grown children and two kids-in-law, who are scattered across the United States. Karen is an author and blogger at, where she helps parents launch their young adults into the big, wide world. Her humor is refreshing and her advice is wise. She also writes children’s picture books, which you can check out on her website, as well as more tips about loving and launching your young adult. Visit her at or find her on Facebook, @karenpickrellauthor.

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