Parenting: What To Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

We’ve All Been There

At some point, it seems like every mom of a teen girl witnesses the heartache, trauma, or failures in her daughter’s life and says, “I miss when she was little, and band-aids fixed the problems.” Sound familiar? During my daughter’s high school years, there have been many seasons when her life was filled with pain and hurt, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do to help. Friendships I couldn’t mend, boys’ slicing words I couldn’t erase, choices and consequences that couldn’t be reversed, and failing grades that extra credit couldn’t save. And there amid brokenness was my daughter’s heart, battered and aching, desperate for healing, yet resistant to help. 


It’s a new season as a mom to realize countless situations come up for your daughter in which you are painfully aware there’s nothing I can do. This can be challenging to accept at first since there was always something I could do in the past. But no, I cannot heal her eating disorder or change the desires of her heart. I can’t delete the text she never should’ve sent or undo the night when everything changed. Perhaps as parents, we begin to realize entirely new ways we are not in control. And let’s be honest, it sucks.

The New Normal

Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness aren’t destined to lead us to despair. We have to acknowledge and accept that we aren’t in control. Listen, this isn’t easy. It can feel like we are wimping out as moms, giving up, or running away. We often battle inner tension as we stumble towards a different role in our child’s life. We might second-guess previous decisions, wonder if we should call teachers, or debate how closely to virtually monitor their location. 


So when little earthquakes seem to shake our foundations (over and over and over again), we must remember this is normal. Being unsure is normal. Being unsettled is normal. Feeling clueless and angry and sad, and terrified are all normal. Earthquakes happen unexpectedly and expose a weakness. Yet even if we can’t control the situation, we can move toward our daughters with unconditional love and hope.


Accepting that we can’t manage our daughters or their decisions is designed to lead us into the presence of Jesus. He is the One who offers peace beyond understanding and loves our kids more than we do. Control was never the goal. 


So What Can We Do?

Pray. In seasons of uncertainty and distress, God reshapes my prayers unexpectedly. One summer, my son headed to the Colorado mountains to work at a camp for two weeks. This camp was far out of cell phone range, and I soon became aware that even though he’d traveled to Africa and been out of town for weeks at a time, I’d never gone this long with complete radio silence. Nothing. Not a word, a text, or even a proof of life. Was he miserable or loving it? Was he sick? Did he have friends? Maybe he was agonizing over every minute or having the time of his life. Either way, I had no idea.


In those two weeks, my prayers changed. I didn’t pray about his daily activities because I didn’t know what they were. My prayers simplified: Lord, grow him, whatever it takes. Jesus, let him experience you like never before. Father, do in his life what you think is best. I stopped praying for outcomes that avoided heartache and began entrusting his life to God’s tender care. I realized many of my previous prayers asked God to spare him the necessary pain of growth. During that time, God invited me to trust His plans for my son over my own desires. 


God used that season of not knowing to remind me that even when I do know the situation, I still don’t know what’s best. I don’t have God’s point of view. My prayers are often too small and too safe. My simplest prayer for my kids has been reshaped: “God, help me to want what You want more than what I want.”


So when you don’t know what to do, pray. Ask God to do what only he can. Beg God to grow her character rather than simplify her problems. Remind yourself of who God is. He adores your daughter and knows her entire story, from beginning to end. He never wastes suffering and cannot act apart from his unfailing love for his children.


Pray more than you talk. Pray more than you ever have. Pray with Scripture or on your knees. Light candles to remind yourself of the Holy Spirit praying on your behalf when you don’t have the words. Remember that tears are prayers, too. Picture your daughter’s face in the presence of Jesus and ask him to hold her heart. Keep praying.

Get a friend. My best friends each have three girls, and we have never faced the same crisis twice between the daughters in our lives. Together, we’ve endured break-ups, being cut from the team, mean-girl drama, failures in judgment, and fallout from really bad decisions. It can be hard to reach out to a friend for support or help because, let’s face it, it feels like we’re all on the same sinking ship. I don’t want to add to my friends’ stress or seem needy (spoiler: I am.) And, of course, I know that she can’t do anything to help either. 


But moms, don’t let that stop you. The other day, I texted my best friend, saying, “I am out of strength. I can’t do this.” She lovingly responded, and I got teary when I read her words. She was compassionately hurting for my daughter and me. She was with me in the heartache. She listened, empathized, and then reminded me, “You have done all you can. God is letting her walk through this, there is a purpose, and the pain will not be wasted.”


A few simple words helped me feel seen, loved, and cared for. She reminded me of the truth when all I could see was a future that involved disappointments and dead ends. 


Sometime soon (probably next week), I’ll get the chance to be this friend for her. I’ll get to remind her of the truth and bolster her heart when it’s shaking. We joke that we can just copy/paste the same text back and forth: “You have done all you can. God is letting her walk through this, there is purpose, and the pain will not be wasted.”


Hold on. The hard truth is that suffering often lasts much longer than we expect. In parenting a teenage daughter, I’ve learned the many phases of grieving a break-up, always more messy and complicated than it seems at first. I’ve learned that physical injuries from sports or sickness often carry long-lasting and complex emotional trauma with them. I’ve learned that poor choices rarely occur in isolation and the consequences often unfold slowly and spiral much deeper than I first thought. And yes, suffering is never linear, easily fixed, or tidily handled with a Bible verse.


Praying for our kids and gathering support in community supports us as we do the very hardest work as parents: holding on. On my best days, when I’m reaching for optimism and praying with hope, I remember Paul’s words in Romans 5. “We also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame…” When I can remember that perseverance, character, and hope are being produced, it gives purpose to the suffering, and I rest knowing God is working whether I see it or not.


But on my worst days, I honestly don’t care if suffering has purpose. I just want it to end. I don’t care about character, I just want Jesus to stop the pain. And on those days, I need to remember God is holding on to me. When I feel done, when I don’t want to pray, or when I feel hopeless, nothing about God changes. He isn’t dependent on my fortitude in prayer or faithfulness in love. He freely gives me his grace because that is the kind of God he is. 


Holding on is the work done by the Holy Spirit in me, not my own strength. Again, Jesus gives me the grace to do what I cannot do for myself.


So, if you do not know what to do amidst your child’s hurt, welcome to the club. It’s a sacred calling for the humble, needy, and dependent. It’s a front-row seat to witness grace dispensed as you never knew possible. It’s a place where the arms of Jesus are the only comfort, the One who has suffered as we do. 


Hebrews 4:16

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

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