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According to some estimates, every American is responsible each year for an average of two tons of waste material. That’s ten thousand pounds per person!

But there is another type of waste that weighs more heavily on many parents than several truckloads of garbage-the life of a prodigal child.

The core meaning of the word prodigal is “waste.” The famous prodigal son from Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32 not only wasted the material possessions of his inheritance and much of his life, but he also did much worse. He wasted, through rebellion and foolishness, his precious relationship with his father.

Let’s be candid. All of us Christian parents, no matter what our background, parenting style, or level of spiritual maturity, share a common fear-that a child will become a prodigal child. There is no jolt of agony to compare to the child who says with his words and his behavior, “I reject you, your values, your lifestyle, your God.”

We desperately desire that this will never happen in our homes. But it can and does. And for those who must come to grips with a prodigal child, it can seem like the world is coming to an end.

What is a prodigal child? First, it’s important to realize that many children may exhibit troubling or rebellious behavior, but are not full-blown prodigals. If your child wears a different hairstyle, gets a pierced ear, is moody or depressed, comes home with C’s on his report card, or becomes angry when told to empty the dishwasher, that doesn’t make him a prodigal. I count these part of the norm for preteens and teenagers.

A true prodigal child will show extreme defiance and rebellion as a pattern over an extended period of time. In fact, the word defiance catches it all-a stubborn, rebellious spirit that rebels against authority, refuses to acknowledge responsibility for faults, and doesn’t embrace the truth. Here are some signs suggesting the presence of a prodigal:

  • A prodigal child consistently, flagrantly disobeys rules and crosses boundaries. 
  • A prodigal child shows ongoing active or passive disrespect for authority. 
  • A prodigal child is unteachable and refuses to accept responsibility.
  • A prodigal child persists in self-destructive behavior (drugs, drinking, sexual activity, stealing, violence).
  • A prodigal child lies and continues a pattern of deceit, even after being caught red-handed. 
  • A prodigal child’s life is disintegrating in many areas and is out of control.

Those who work professionally with such teenagers often mention two key root causes.

Selfishness. We are all by nature self-centered, but selfishness becomes an art form in the prodigal’s life.

Desire for control. This issue is often linked to selfishness. During adolescence, young people naturally seek greater control over their lives. Selfishly, they may ask for much more control than they can handle.

Another factor behind prodigal behavior can be a dry relationship between one or both parents and the child. If for whatever reason the parents are not securely tethered to the child and are not relationally filling the child’s emotional tank, the child will seek replenishment from peers, who may be running on empty themselves. The values of these peers may be extremely hostile to what mom and dad believe, and the war for the child’s heart is on.