Counseling Troubled Youth: 
The Parent's Task of Relinquishment.

 contact.gif 2002, A.H. Carter. All rights reserved

Abstract: Raising children and youth in today's culture is no easy task. Parents need help when dealing with the great variety of problems and situations that they face as they seek to teach and to train children in both spiritual and societal principles. As parents seek to control the environment that they form around their children, there are some areas where excessive control can be detrimental to the relationship between parent and child, and consequently diminish the parent's ability to train them. John White, in his book, Parents in Pain discusses seven "rights" that parents must relinquish to avoid many of the common pitfalls of parenting. White argues that applying the principle of relinquishment means, 

  1. to forsake the right to be proud,
  2. to be willing to forgo any repayment for what you have done for your children.,
  3. to give up my right to possess my children,
  4. 4. to allow your children to face pain,
  5. 5. to give up your right to respectability or your right to immunity from gossip,
  6. 6. to give up your right to uninterrupted tranquility, and
  7. 7. to give up the right to uninterrupted enjoyment of your children.

This paper will investigate and illuminate each of these seven areas of relinquishment..

The Parent's Task of Relinquishment

Raising children is an awesome and sometimes overwhelming responsibility and experience. God's word gives us many guidelines and various examples of good and bad parenting. In today's culture the raising of children can be confusing for a parent. The media tells us one thing, the psychologists another, and usually neither lines up with what the Bible instructs about child-rearing. As Christians we try to do the right thing, but aren't always taught the proper way, or allow ourselves to go the way of the world because it sounds good or is less harsh than God's word. In John White's book Parents In Pain he dedicates a chapter to the idea of relinquishment. This chapter was very helpful to me personally and allowed me to make some hard decisions about the nurturing of my son, ones that are producing a positive change. I am a nurse in a county jail and deal with young adults who never were relinquished to God, nor were they given responsibility to grow up because their parents have hung on to them and enabled them to continue to make excuses for their misdeeds. In many instances, parents simply could not "let go." They could not go through this process of relinquishment.

In a society where we strive to acquire more and more for ourselves, it is hard to think about something so anxiety-producing as relinquishment, especially in terms of our children. Relinquishment means to let go, to release, to give up. When we let go we take our hands off of or remove ourselves physically from something. How, as a parent, do you do this for your children?

Relinquishment does not mean to avoid our parental responsibilities. Our children continue to need food, shelter, clothing, love, and training. Relinquishment also means to teach our children self-respect and gratitude, as they learn to solve their own problems. "To relinquish our children is to set them free. The earlier we relinquish the better."1 

White writes of relinquishing in a way that allows parents the freedom to be honest and caring and loving without being authoritarian or autocratic. He likens the relinquishment of a child by the parent to God's relationship with us. Parents are to choose right (rightness) over results of relationship just as God does with us. "We are to choose what is right without demanding that the right shall always gratify our vanity, satisfy our carnal longings or even the yearning of our least selfish loves. If God has wept over a rebellious humanity, then we at times may have to grieve over rebellious children.2 It is right that we provide our children some latitude that comes from relinquishing some things that we would prefer to keep. This can be a task that is easily compromised to the detriment of our children.

When we think of relinquishment we must consider how God allows us to make mistakes. He does not force our obedience. He loves us, and instructs us, and grieves for us when we commit sin. He does all He can to call us back to him, but never forces our surrender. As parents we must have this same attitude when dealing with our children. We need to direct them and teach them to be obedient, but by trying to force them we may cause them to move farther away. "To relinquish your children does not mean to abandon them, however, but to give them back to God and in so doing to take your own hands off them. It means neither to neglect your responsibilities toward them nor to relinquish the authority you need to fulfill those responsibilities. It means to release those controls that arise from needless fears or from selfish ambitions."3 This does not mean to let them do as they choose. We are still required by God to discipline them and to instruct them, just as God does us when His children are disobedient.

To relinquish our children is to give up "delusions about your own power, the delusion that you have the power to determine their destinies."4 We wear ourselves out with worry and anxiety over our children. The apostle Paul states "Do not be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6, NIV)." We try to change our children, to make them excel in academics, sports, music, etc. We cause them to be anxious as they try to meet our standards, even when not gifted to do so. This parenting error is what Paul is referring to when he states, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children (Ephesians 6:4a, NIV)." What we need to do is train them in God's way, and relinquish them to Him, "instead, bringing them up in the training and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4b, NIV)." In the book of 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11, we find where Hannah gave up, (or relinquished) much when she committed her long-awaited son, Samuel, to the service of God. Hannah surrendered "her right to possess, to enjoy, to be proud before her rival Peninniah, to control Samuel's development, to be repaid for all her tears. She did not know her son would change the destiny of Israel, towering above the nation's history as the founder of two dynasties of kings, setting the moral tone of the nation for generations to come. The fashioning of such a man was the work of God himself."5 

John White discusses seven different areas in which parents should realize that they have to relinquish their children. We will look at each from a biblical point of view and also see what other authors and theologians have to say about this subject.

1. Relinquishment means to: forsake the right to be proud.

Parents want what is best for their children. As parents, we want them to do well and we want to be proud of them, but we do not have the right to be proud. We are not to expect things from our children that they cannot give, or have no desire to do, solely to gratify our own desires for them. We certainly may have our own dreams for them, but are those the same dreams that are shared by our children? We should not try to realize our lost and unrealized personal dreams by vicariously living them out in our children. "Your children were not given to you in order for you to boast. Let your boast be in God's goodness to them and to you, in all he has taught you through them and in the privilege He gave you of watching over them."6 

"The Lord gave you your children and not somebody else's who are seemingly better behaved than yours. You couldn't pick the color of their eyes or hair. You didn't get to pick their looks, athletic skill, scholastic aptitude, etc. God made those choices for you. Indeed, God has foreordained whatever comes to pass in your life. For His honor and glory? Yes, of course, but also for your best interest."7 

As parents we must look at our children as little human beings, with thoughts, skills, talents and personalities of their own. We are challenged to help them build character so that these skills and talents can be used in a proper and godly fashion. Today's society is so enamored with popularity, looks, and acceptance that it forgets that these attributes are vain and superficial compared with the true character and integrity a person should personify. "The key issue: do they reflect the kind of character that is consistent with their faith?"8 We should ignore what society, sometimes even friends and relatives say, and remember "if your child reaches adulthood with faith intact and a clear sense of right and wrong, I'd say you have a very successful child."9 

We learn from God's word that pride is not a good thing. Proverbs 16:18 states "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (KJV)." And in 1 Cor. 10:12 we find "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (KJV)." The opinion that we can be so prideful of our children in the sense that we think they can do no wrong, or that they are better then others, or that they deserve only the best material possessions, etc. is not from God. Acting on such an attitude gives children a false sense of who they are and teaches them that they come first. 

In Luke 15:11-24 we find the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father knew that his son would waste the inheritance that he had coming to him, but he gave it to his son anyway. Everyday the father went out to see if his son was returning, not because he didn't trust him, but because he loved him and desired his return. This father was "unashamed of his love for his children and unafraid of the perception of others. As parents we must become more and more confident in our relationship with our Father and less dependent on the approval of others. Our sons and daughters need the freedom to fail in the context of a loving home so they will not become addicted to the drug of pleasing people to gain acceptance." 10

2. Relinquishment means: to be willing to forgo any repayment for what you have done for your children.

Our goal should not be to "control the behavior of our teens, but to determine our response based on our security in Christ and to develop some additional communication tools."11  Unfortunately, in our society we tend to expect that our children should be grateful for all that we do for them. We should demand that they care for us as we do for them. The desire to care for our parents should come from our hearts and from a feeling of responsibility to help them in their need. Our children should be able to develop this same sense of responsibility from our example, not from our demands.

"To care for the aged and infirmed is beautiful: it is a trait that distinguishes humans from the animals."12 We care for our children out of unconditional love for them. Demanding such love in return can cause hurt and bitterness. We need to teach children gratitude by our example of how we treat others around us, especially older family members. By so modeling, we will pass on to the next generation what is right. "Don't cling to your right to gratitude, for then if gratitude comes, you will be overjoyed. Demand it and you may grow bitter. Teach them to express gratitude. Nevertheless, to look for gratitude from them because you yearn to savor it is to poison your relationship."13 

Love should never be self-seeking (1 Cor. 13:5). To have children so that they can satisfy your personal needs, or to prevent you from being lonely when you are older, is a grievous mistake. We should never expect anything in return from our children. They are not ours to own, but are on loan from God, and we are given the gift and joy of raising them. They are to be His instruments to further His kingdom, not our instruments of gratification.

"By their own words and actions, parents can show love, acceptance, and respect for one another and for all other members of the family. This modeling is likely to be much more effective than nagging, criticizing, or advice giving."14 As youth grow and mature, it is appropriate that more freedom is given to them, but an emphasis on the rights and interests of others should always be emphasized. "Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others (1 Cor. 10:24)."

3. Relinquishment means: to give up my right to possess my children.

"For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son-both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel 18:4)."

Ezekiel 18:4 serves to remind us that we all belong to God. He is the Creator and He has all sovereign right over us. Parents do not have the right of possession of their children; instead God has given parents the responsibility of raising their children, who like themselves are possessions of God.

When children misbehave we have the right and responsibility to correct them, but we need to do so in love, and with an attitude and purpose of training or teaching. We should not command children as we do pets with one- or two-word commands that we expect them to follow. "People who love each other don't ask each other to crawl and ingratiate themselves. People are to be treasured, not manipulated and crushed. People who love each other don't demand control and power over the other."15 

Young people want to be treated as intelligent and trustworthy individuals. They desire to make their own decisions and to choose their own friends. It is hard to accept the fact that they are growing and maturing and need these freedoms, but with proper guidance, trust, and love, we can allow them gradually increasing freedoms as they mature. "Because Christian parents tend to be rules-oriented, we think we are showing our teens how much we love them by keeping them on a short leash, carefully monitoring their every move. Whether motivated by genuine affection for our teens or not, overprotection is not perceived as love by a teenager."16 We need to set boundaries to protect them, but we must make sure that the boundaries are appropriate and allow for maturing growth for the teen. Rules can be softened and changed as they show that they are responsible and can make the proper choices. Even when our children and youth make the wrong choices, we sometime must allow them to suffer the consequences, no matter how much pain or shame it causes us.

Part of realizing that children are not our property is understanding that they may choose a career or life style contrary to our liking or wishes. "Setting aside all of our personal biases and opinions, we need to look at the young person's utmost good and help them discover what God's plan is for their life."17 The gifts and talents that God has bestowed on them are there for a reason. He has a plan and design for their life. Parents cannot choose that plan for them. Parents may help their children to find that plan and support them in their own decision whether they want to follow it or not. 

Parents need to be careful not to be dream killers. All people have dreams. Many times a future hope is all that keeps a person going as they are inspired by the desire to reach that dream. This is especially true with young people. Telling a child that they will never be a good singer, or a sport star, or even a successful student can serve to quench a dream. We need to encourage our children, helping them to realize their own dreams, or help them to discern on their own what is or is not a valid goal. In the latter case we can then help them find a new dream.

To give youth freedom, by not being possessive of them, allows them to make choices and decisions that they know they have to live with. Parents need to teach them that they are worthwhile individuals, and that they will make good and not so good choices in life. Children also need to be encouraged to understand that the love you have for them is not based on the choices they make, but on the fact that they are your children and are part of God's plan. The more guided freedom we allow children and youth as they grow and mature, the more freedom we receive from them, and the more enjoyment we may experience as a family. This dynamic provides the basis for that point in time when they grow into adulthood and we become friends as well as a parent to our child. "Let them go. We do not own our children. In the end, the best we can do for them is to free them into the hands of God."18 

4. This leads us into the next relinquishment: To allow your children to face pain.

Probably the hardest thing for a parent to face is when their child is in pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. We usually can help our children through physical pain, but not always. Nor should we always try to help if the pain was brought on by a wrong choice or bad decision for which they are responsible. Yes, we meet the life threatening needs, but if the physical pain is due to drug or alcohol abuse, it may be best that they experience the pain and learn through it that such abuse is not all fun like Hollywood portrays it. (Deut. 24:16) When a parent rushes in to take away the pain, the child learns that the parent will always fix it. Children and youth need to learn the responsibility and consequences of their actions.

Teens need the opportunity to grow through accepting responsibility for their choices. It is not helpful to defend them through a "cover up for their mistakes by blaming bad friends, bad teachers, bad books, and even bad luck."19 Parents should not make excuses for their children. Parents should help their children to see that their poor actions are inappropriate and that they are personally responsible to change their choices or face the consequences of them. This is not giving up on your teen. By "allowing them to suffer the consequences of their own mistakes is a compliment; giving them responsibility for themselves is a sign of trust."20 

These consequences may be harder for you as a parent to face then the child, but these are teaching moments that must be allowed and used no matter how much you care about your child. Not letting children learn from their mistakes generally allows them to repeat those errors. "Love in the absence of instruction will not produce a child with self-discipline, self-control, and respect for his fellowman. Affection and warmth underlie all mental and physical health, yet they do not eliminate the need for careful training and guidance."21 

You cannot protect children forever. "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). We teach our children about God, about life, about safety, manners, respect for authority, and with these teachings they must also learn the consequences of not adhering to the teachings.

My son, 20 years old, a junior in college, is a mountain biker. He knows about physical pain. He has made many trips to the emergency room, and I praise God, has done so with no broken bones. But he has had several concussions and significant lacerations. He understands about multiple head trauma, but he does not give up the sport. Why? He is willing to suffer the consequences so that he can face the thrill of adventure, achievement and the adulation he receives from friends. He also owns a used 4X4 Jeep. He has wrecked the transmission and the drive train through abuse. He was required to pay for the repair and replacement of parts, a difficult task when you make only six dollars an hour working part time at school. He had to learn the lesson that abuse has its expense. He no longer takes his Jeep off-road now that he has found that this sport is too expensive. We decided as parents that he needed to learn the responsibility of his actions. I could stop him from mountain biking, but that would cause strife, anger, and bitterness, and make a fairly happy young man extremely angry and possibly cause him to become engaged in yet more dangerous things. He is God's child with a unique personality and decent sense of right and wrong. God watches over him on the trail and so I just pray everyday for his safety.

5. Relinquishment also means: to give up your right to respectability or your right to immunity from gossip.

As adults we can control our own actions. We can work hard to build good reputations, keeping ourselves out of trouble, and maintain a good and righteous appearance. However, maintaining any such image when we have children is another thing. "It is not so easy to control your children's actions to the same degree."22 

When our children get into trouble we need to be concerned about them and not what our neighbors will say, or what the church will think. As we hear gossip about our children's problem's or other parents children's problems we need to enter the conversation and say something like: "Yes, I heard about that. We need to make sure that our facts are straight, and to do anything we can to help the whole family through the situation. Lets quit talking about it and start praying for them and supporting them."

If we learn not to gossip, if we learn not to be embarrassed for them, then we learn that when a problem arises in our own family we can accept that it is a problem, and tackle it head on with God's help and guidance without concern of what others think. In Col. 3:13 we are admonished to forbear one another and to forgive one another. This command to forbearance includes the patient forgiveness of our own children. They may bring you shame, but your goal should be to help them through the time of difficulty without worry about your reputation. Proverbs 24:28-29 reminds us to be careful what we say about our neighbor, and not to lie about him. When we gossip are we always telling the truth? Are what we saying, even in truth, helpful and uplifting to the person? We have no right to demand respectability if we are not 100% willing to give it.

6. Relinquishment means: to give up your right to uninterrupted tranquility.

Anyone who thinks that they will have tranquility in their home after a child is born is in for a big surprise. "Children are like clocks; they must be allowed to run."23 Order, peace, and tranquility in the home are a good thing. When one comes home from work exhausted he wants nothing more than to sit down and be left alone. In a home with children this is close to impossible, and not even practical. The child has waited all day for the parent to show up, and they see their arrival as playtime. Youth are the same in that they need someone to share the day with rather than face an argument about homework, or the cleanliness of their room. Youth need a nice peaceful conversation with an adult. Sometimes the parent creates the lack of tranquility by demanding more than their child or youth is capable of giving.

Problems always arise in families. Children "will pay no heed to your plans, your convenience, your schedule, your health, your headaches, or your finances."24 Problems come and we need to be ready to solve them in a mature and godly manner. It is appropriate to set house rules. Children and youth can be expected to turn the level of the stereo down, keep expected curfews, and be compliant to other basic house rules. But parents need to "forfeit all right to immunity from the unexpected, the unlooked for, the unplanned, the disruptive, the bombshell that changes the course of your whole life."25 

The movement from the dependence of children to the independence of youth serves largely to remove tranquility from the home. Adolescents desire "freedom in large doses, but they handle it better in small and slowly increasing amounts. What young people want and think they can handle often differs from what parents are willing or think wise to give. This can create tension, frustration, rebellion, and persisting power struggles."26 As parents we need to know when, where, and how to choose our battles. The color or cut of my son's hair is a battle I choose not to fight. It was first too long, and then too red and then too pink or green. I then realized that the issue of conflict was only hair: The conflict was not over a tattoo, body piercing, or drugs. It was only hair that with time grows out or gets re-dyed. Some battles have to be fought, but parents must be sure that they are the ones that matter. Colossians 3:21 admonishes, "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged." Battles over trivial, superficial things can easily provoke a teen's anger, but they also show a priority of image over person.

As parents it is important to remember that we are the example, the model, for our children to follow. What are we portraying to our children when we demand certain things that really don't matter? The things that matter: truth, integrity, respect of others and faith in God are the ideals that we need to encourage above all else. These traits are taught by example, not by command. If our children catch these ideals, then the house rules will be considered and usually obeyed. Tranquility in the home ends the day a newborn, crying baby enters and does not come back until you enter your rest with your heavenly Father. Our children are people with minds, thoughts and ideas. They will express them and sometimes they will agree with ours, but remember above all to pick your battles carefully, teaching your children to have respect and the battles will be fewer and less bloody.

7. The last area of relinquishment that we will discuss is: To give up the right to uninterrupted enjoyment of your children.

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. Ps. 127:3, KJV.

Children are generally a joy to parents. They are fun to be around. We watch them grow, we observe them growing and learning new skills. We delight in watching them achieve success in areas that bring them happiness. "But we can poison enjoyment unless we are prepared to relinquish our right to it."27 To expect our children to always be around us, to go with us to places they have no desire to go, except church and school, is not a reasonable thing. Many days I sat in the cold at the BMX bike track waiting for my son to ride one race because the experience brought him joy. But for me to ask him to go with me to a quilting bee would be absurd. He needs his space, and so do parents. To demand from them that they give us joy is wrong and selfish. To expect that they work or live near us is also wrong. God may have other plans for them. Children are a heritage of the Lord. They belong first to God and are only a gift to us for a designated period of time.

Children belong to their creator. We need to place them in His care, and in His hand of protection. For me to dictate their every move is to stifle them, to frustrate them and to remove them from the calling that God has for them. 

Relinquishment: a hard word. A harder task, but one that parents must learn early in their parenting career. We have to let them walk, run, talk, sing and be the person God intended for them to be.


1White, John. (1979). Parents in Pain. Downer's Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 165.

2Ibid., White, p. 164.

3Ibid., White, p. 165.

4Ibid., White, p. 174.

5Ibid., White, p. 176.

6Ibid., White, p. 176.

7Ulrich, Dean R. (Spring, 2000). Lines in Pleasant Places: Joshua 15-19. The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 18(3). p. 54.

8Anderson, Larry. (1991). Taking Trauma Out of Teen Transitions. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress. p 38. 

9Ibid., Anderson, p. 38.

10Ibid., Anderson, p. 40.

11Ibid., Anderson, p. 90.

12Ibid., White, p. 170.

13Ibid., White, p. 171.

14Collins, Garry R. (1988). Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing Company. p. 176.

15Chapian, Marie. (1988). Mothers and Daughters. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers. p. 135.

16Laurent, Robert D. (1991). Bringing Your Teen Back to God. Elgin, IL: David C. Cook Publishing Company. p. 54.

17Luce, Ron. (1977) The Rescue Manual for Parents. Tulsa, OK: Silbury Publishing Company. p. 74. 

18Ibid., Collins, 164.

19Ibid., Laurent, p. 57. 

20Ibid., Laurent, p. 58. 

21Dobson, James. (1973). Dare to Discipline. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers. p. 21.

22Ibid., White, p. 173.

23Ibid., Dobson, p. 50. 

24Ibid., White, p. 172.

25Ibid., White, p. 172.

26Ibid., Collins, p. 173.

27Ibid., White, p. 168.

Ann Marie H. Carter, BSN (SUNY Institute of Technology Utica/Rome) is a Master's Degree Student in Christian Counseling at the Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, IN.