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Insights on Fathering a Prodigal

I wanted to bring you this story because sometimes we don’t hear enough from the father’s point of view when facing a defiant and self-destructive child. Tom Yohe is the real deal, and he has fought hell for the victory with his daughter. Today he shares some powerful insights and feelings about being a father of a prodigal. I asked him, “What would you be the dynamic difference between the father and mother? Do you find that the struggle is similar? Or do you find that you deal with it differently? Please share your personal experience.

Tom and his wife get the hell parents to face when struggling with a prodigal child. Tom shares, “Well, Dena, my wife and I have been in full-time ministry. For most of our married life, we met in college at Christian University. We were in the pastoral ministry for several years. Then we transitioned, went overseas for a one-year stint with Campus Crusade. Then they asked us to come on staff after the end of that year. So we served with them. We were in mission work. Our dream was to serve overseas, but things were going south with our daughter. We first noticed it when she was age 12; she cut herself back then, you know, we just never heard of that as their concept. I had no way to process that. Then as she got into high school, she began experimenting, using drugs and alcohol, and things just went, went south from there. Her high school senior year was a mess. She barely graduated, but it went on for years after that. Again, we were around many full-time ministries, people who weren’t going through this. It was very isolating. We would tell our friends who were looking at universities for their children and tell us, “Oh, my son’s going into there, my daughter is going here.” We were looking for treatment centers, and that’s not a big conversation you want to have with everybody. It was tough, very isolating and a lot of guilt involved. Some people who were friends didn’t want to hang out with us anymore. I guess I could understand it. Maybe they didn’t want their daughters or their children around our daughter. I would probably want the same thing. But why did they isolate from us? Why did they push us aside? So it was, it was hurtful.

Tom shared, “Well, fathers do deal with it differently. A tendency, I think, for many men is to throw themselves into work because they see themselves as a provider. A lot of these things are costly. You know, if you get into treatment centers and counselors and what have you, then it’s easy to say, okay, this is how I’m dealing with it, I’m going to be the provider. I’m going to make sure that the counseling happens or their treatment centers, we have insurance, or what have you. But that’s also their way of escaping and disengaging from what’s happening. And often, the wife, you know, is left to deal with a lot of heat daily. So we were fortunate we were in ministry together, and we were with an organization that gave us leverage or freedom. We explained that we were walking through something hard right now. Then they go, okay, take some time. 

We would pass through. We would take hours, literally, up in our bedroom, trying to get on the same page when we were trying to deal with our daughter because we realized it didn’t take long, that if she found a weakness, she would exploit it. If we weren’t on the same page, we weren’t united, and what was coming out of our mouths, she would be quick to exploit that to get the attention off herself and onto us and get us arguing with each other.

There was a moment when God spoke to me and directed me to the book of Genesis. As I read through that, I looked at that and said, Oh, my gosh, God is a hurting parent. God created Adam and Eve and put them in a perfect environment. They didn’t have all the stuff going on and gave them one boundary and couldn’t keep it. Then they had children, and their son murdered their other son. I mean, it’s practical’s from the beginning. Yes. So I realized that God is a practical parent, and He knows my pain. He understands my fears and every emotion that I’m walking in. I can come to God with that because He’s walking with me. I mean, think about how many rebellious kids he has right now. It wasn’t too long in Genesis that He was ready to wipe out Europe because the hearts of men were so wicked. He said, “You know, I regret I’m grieving over what’s happening here.” Well, that’s the father grieving over what his children are doing. So thankfully, God didn’t wipe us out and had a plan to give us His Son.

There were some points of clarity as we battled the devil over our daughter. Some of these moments were more powerful than others. I would say that the one was when I had to rush to the hospital. Renee had cut herself up so deeply that they had to take her to the hospital. We had gone through so many other things with her, and I didn’t know what to do. God just spoke to me. He said, Tom, “I love you unconditionally. Tell Renee you love her unconditionally.” So when I went into the hospital room, she was so full of guilt and fear. She goes, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I said, Renee, it’s okay. I said, look, nothing that you’ve done or has been done to you will ever change our love for you. We will love you unconditionally, and we will always love you. That was a powerful moment in our relationship. It wasn’t the end of her prodigal journey. But our relationship was there. And when she got into horrible things, she called us. She called for help. And that was very, very important.

Another important point is to learn about boundaries. We also need to learn how to set appropriate boundaries, and that’s part of it. You know, the verse, I think it’s in Hebrews; “God disciplines those whom He loves.” You know, discipline is not unloving. It’s sometimes the most loving thing we can do. When we set some clear boundaries, Dena and I spent time we figured out what those boundaries were, we figured out which ones we could enforce because I could set boundaries, but none of us were going to enforce them. What good is it? And we explain those boundaries to Renee. She knew them, and she understood them. So there was a very, very hard, hard reality that came to us one evening when she violated the boundary and had to experience the consequences. But in her writing and reflecting, she told us that was one of the most loving things we did, and she doesn’t resent us for it. She appreciated it. As a young boy, my father worked a lot. And he wasn’t in the home a lot. I knew they loved me and stuff like that, but I missed having him around. And I wasn’t the best of kids either. But, you know, if they didn’t discipline me, I began to wonder if they loved me or not because I think love does speak words of discipline at times.

Well, one of the things I got from this journey, fathering a prodigal, was gained a sense of humility. You know, it’s easy to be proud Out of everything’s working right, and you think, Hey, I’ve got this. But there was a deep sense of humility and added compassion for people walking through painful journeys. Unconditional love, you know, is the verse that God manifested His love for us and that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Christ didn’t wait for us to clean up our act, didn’t wait for us to earn or deserve it. He gave it unconditionally, without concern about our response or lack of. So I think that love needs to continue to be there for our children; just as Christ loved us, we need to love them. Then I believe not to isolate, please, please don’t isolate. That’s the tactic of the enemy. God wants us in the community. That’s why He created the body of Christ, the church, and we’re not perfect as the body. But that’s the place to be supportive, other people who understand and will walk alongside you without criticism or judgment.

About Tom:

Tom and his wife, Dena, have spent the latter part of their lives with a ministry called. “Hope for Hurting Parents. They offer all kinds of resources and small groups. They have helped so many parents that have prodigal children. Please visit their site today.

Here is the link to the ministry: https://hopeforhurtingparents.com/
Here is the link for his book: https://amzn.to/3xR5T9K

Tom has also just released his amazing book, Moments of Clarity: Wisdom from the Father of a Prodigal. In this book, he shares the moments of clarity and wisdom from God he received. At the same time, his family endured the tumultuous journey through the mental illness, addiction, and self-harming actions of a rebellious teenage daughter. Each chapter contains hard-fought moments of clarity that are like refreshing therapy sessions, providing a much-needed deluge of grace.

I pray that this helped us all see deeper into a father’s heart facing a prodigal child for many years. Tom gave us insight into his parent’s broken hearts as he watched his daughter head down a destructive path in life. Yet, God’s redemptive hand moved through him and his daughter, and victory was found.

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