The Wayward Child: When a Sword Pierces a Parent’s Heart

In a restaurant, a family of five shares a meal together.  An older man and woman sitting in the booth across from them smile and wave at the children, and when the family gets up to leave, the older couple approaches the parents.

“What nice, well-behaved children you have,” they say. “You are doing such a good job raising them.”

The parents beam, and the compliment makes their night. They are proud of their children, proud of their family, and happy that their parenting skills have been publicly affirmed.

It is, indeed, a beautiful occasion to see a happy family, and a lovely thing to take the time to affirm parents, who pretty much universally appreciate affirmation in their vocation. Yet, while these parents were receiving approval, there was something else happening that they didn’t see at that restaurant.

They didn’t see the mom who pulled into the parking lot with a child who was throwing such a violent tantrum that she couldn’t get out of the car for ten minutes. They didn’t see the dark circles under her eyes or the way she was unable to smile when she carried her whining child to the register to pick up their order. They didn’t know that she cannot eat at restaurants anymore, because her child’s behavior is so difficult that they avoid being out in public. They didn’t see the child kick his brother when he wanted to carry the food and his brother got it first. They didn’t know how desperately this mother needed to hear that she was doing a good job—but no one ever said it to her, because most of the time, her child was neither nice nor well-behaved.

Although this is a fictional scenario, it is far too real for many mothers and fathers, to varying degrees. These parents carry a heavy burden, and it is doubly heavy because it is magnified by a sense of shame. They live with a difficult child, and they are afraid that others will blame them for their child’s behavior. If “good” parents raise well-behaved children—these parents think to themselves—what kind of parents do poorly-behaved children have?

Good Parents, Challenging Children

When children behave well, our society tends to think well of the parents: They have good parenting skills! They know what they are doing! Conversely, when children do not behave well, many people point a finger at the parents: They need to learn better parenting skills. They’re too lenient, too strict, too uptight, too relaxed, they punish too much, they don’t punish enough, if only they would do such-and-such, their child would get in line.

Over the years, I have met an increasing number of parents who are dealing with a silent shame in their homes: They have a child (or teen) who is difficult to be around, whose behavior creates chaos in the home with opposition, anger, criticism, aggression, tantrums, or negativity.

Often in our culture, the knee-jerk reaction is, “What did the parents do wrong?” There was a time in my life—before I was a parent myself—when I might have thought the same thing. If a child is acting out at home, there must be some parenting issue, right?

What I have learned, through years of growing as a parent and through knowing kind, wonderful people who have at least one extremely challenging child, is that parenting is not a mathematical equation. Good behavior does not necessarily equal good parenting, and bad behavior does not necessarily equal bad parenting. (I wish I did not need to use the terms “good” and “bad,” but I’m using them because they’re relatable, if inadequate.) I’ve known many conscientious parents who have patiently and lovingly employed sound parenting techniques, and yet have ended up with a child who has significant behavior problems.

Along the way, I’ve come to understand that behavior issues have many possible roots. Do they sometimes result from poor parenting skills? Yes, but certainly not always. Many other factors can affect a child’s behavior. Sometimes parents are fostering or have adopted a child who experienced early trauma with lasting behavioral effects. Sometimes children have chemical imbalances, neurological issues, nutritional deficits, or genetic predispositions that induce behavior problems. These and many more factors (not to mention personality, temperament, and free will) contribute to a child’s ability to exhibit self-control, to regulate emotions, and to make socially aware, acceptable decisions.

We understand that the elderly can develop behavioral issues such as uncharacteristic anger, aggression, and negativity as a result of brain dysfunction and neurological disruptions from things like dementia and strokes. We don’t blame their caregivers for their outbursts. Why, then, do so many people automatically attribute children’s unruly behavior to parental weakness?

Obviously, good parenting skills can contribute favorably to the formation of a child’s character. But is there a cookie-cutter, fail-safe, fool-proof, guaranteed method that will always yield perfect results? Not on this side of heaven.

Mary’s Paradox

The parents who are gifted with behaviorally-challenged children walk a lonely and isolated road. These children are special gifts from God; and the parents who receive them have a particular understanding of Mary’s paradox, where her great joy is also her great sorrow: Her beautiful, beloved child was the cause of the piercing of her heart with a sword (cf. Luke 2:35).

The world is quick to adore well-behaved, articulate, socially adept children. Adults gush over their maturity, their capability, and the credit they are to their parents. Interestingly, many parents who have a child with behavior problems also have one or more of these “good” children, too—proving that children can be raised the same, loving way, and still turn out differently than anyone anticipated.

Behavioral challenges can strike at all ages. Some parents say their children showed signs from babyhood; other children don’t display problems until adolescence. Sometimes a “model” child will become a heartbreakingly wayward teenager. No matter what age it happens, though, one thing is usually true: These parents are emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually broken from the fight. Day in and day out, they are battling tension in the home, researching parenting strategies, seeing counselors, seeking medical help, and praying through their tears. They love this child, and they know the child is hurting as much as they are. They carry the child’s pain along with their own. And on top of that, they are acutely aware that, to outsiders looking in, the blame appears to lie squarely on their own shoulders.

These parents will often be the first to tell you they made mistakes. They tend to perform their parental examination of conscience with more scrutiny than parents whose children are well-behaved, because they feel responsible for their child’s problems. The frightening question, Did I do anything to cause this? weighs heavily on their minds. These parents are trying hard to love their children in the best way they can, and we must lift them up in prayer and in encouragement.

Pro-Life Means Pro-Family

To extol parents with orderly and mannerly children, and to frown upon parents with wayward ones, implies that parents are ultimately accountable for controlling their children—which, as we know, is misguided, because, by God’s design, we cannot control the actions of another person who has free will. This attitude also runs counter to the heart of what it means to be pro-life.

A person who is pro-life is pro-family, and that means supporting parents who are in difficult situations. If we are open to life, we must care for every person, not only those that are convenient and that don’t disrupt our personal peace. We must love every child and every parent, especially when it’s hard. Even if the parents had some culpability in the behavior problems of their children, they are still in a crushing situation, and they need support, not blame.

That toddler whining incessantly—that teenager with the perpetually angry look on his face—that child who hits his little brother and makes him cry—that mom who looks ready to give up—that dad with his head in his hand: They need our compassion. Being pro-life does not mean expecting everyone to have obedient and sweet children, nor does it mean pretending that we can produce perfect families just because we love children. It means embracing life in its joys and its sufferings. It means welcoming the beautiful Baby that Mary brought to the Presentation, and accepting the sword that accompanies the Baby’s presence.

That sword can pierce a parent’s heart in many ways—when a child is sick, or hurt, or disabled, or teased; and also when a child is wayward, disobedient, ungrateful, angry, disrespectful, or belligerent.

And in the end, aren’t we all children like this? Aren’t we wayward with our Father, disobedient, ungrateful, angry, disrespectful, belligerent? Some more than others, but we have behavior problems, too. Do we blame our Heavenly Father for our behavior problems towards Him? Why, then, do so many people glare, or look down their noses, at parents whose children are not acting the way they wish they would? These tired parents need our support, our acceptance, our understanding, and our unconditional love.

They also need our prayers: that the Lord who gave us the beautiful story of the prodigal son, will return their prodigal children to the fullness of love in their family. When all is said and done, the best a parent can do is to emulate what our Heavenly Father does. He loves His children, no matter how difficult we are, never gives up on us, and always welcomes us back again with great joy when we repent.

The parents who are raising challenging children, who are working so hard with so few tangible results, who are trying with all their heart and soul to make their children happy and healthy, are showing mercy to the world. Each challenging child is, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Jesus in distressing disguise.”  He is the stranger in the home, whom these parents welcome again and again. Many times, he acts like someone they don’t recognize, like a child they never thought about when they dreamed of becoming parents. Although the child is not what they expected, they know he is a precious gift from God, and they continue to show the child God’s merciful love.

In this Year of Mercy, may these struggling families receive all the grace and peace they long for and need from their Heavenly Father, who knows what it is to have wayward children. And may they find hope in the paradox of Mary: for the sword that pierced this mother’s heart was the suffering of love that led to her eternal joy with the child she raised—the child who, in the mystery of divine love, also raised her to the heights of heaven.

image: photogolfer /

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Maura Roan McKeegan is an award-winning author of twelve Catholic children’s books. Her most recent titles include Julia Greeley, Secret Angel to the Poor (Magnificat-Ignatius Press), In This Catholic Church (OSV), Peter and Jesus by a Charcoal Fire (Emmaus Road), and Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press), co-authored with Scott Hahn. She is also a contributor for various magazines. She has a special interest in Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo and writes about him at her new Substack site, Stories of Don Dolindo ( can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan(at)gmail(dot)com.

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