Within hours of his arrival, our son was diagnosed with a life-threatening birth defect. While he endured major emergency surgery, I wrestled with guilt. What did I do wrong? Did those two drinks before my pregnancy was confirmed cause this? Why is God punishing our child instead of me?
Though I never smoked or did drugs, always ate right, exercised, and followed the doctor’s advice, the questions were incessant; our reality was damning. My baby wasn’t perfect, and it had to be my fault.
Over two decades later, while interviewing moms and dads for Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs, I learned my reaction was normal. One father admitted, “I thought my partying at college had ruined my gene pool. I felt a lot of guilt.” “I was the dad,” another man said. “It was my fault.”
The mom of a 10-year-old fighting cancer said, “Even now it drives me nuts. Did I breathe in something and the fumes were too much? Did I get bad chicken?” And the mother of two children with a condition that weakens joints and muscles said she frequently thought, “I must have caused this.”
A Spiritual Crisis
Left unchecked, unrelenting guilt often leads to a spiritual crisis. A parent’s faith either grows or is abandoned. The resolution of the crisis has a profound effect on the spiritual lives of every member of the family, including the kids.
Ministry workers can walk with parents through their faith crisis by acknowledging it for what it is: a spiritual battle. Recognize that the enemy will use one of two weapons. He will convince parents to gloss over real sins and redefine them as something other than sin. Or, and far more likely, the enemy twists parents’ perceptions so they believe what they’re doing right is wrong. Constant guilt spurs them to fight battles that don’t need winning. Their burden of guilt grows. It’s a vicious cycle.
Real or Imagined?
The ministry worker can help parents discern between real and imagined guilt. This can be done in discipling pairs, group Bible studies, Sunday school classes, or support groups. Start by asking God to reveal truth. Then, examine pertinent scriptures together. Allow parents time to search for any evidence of disobedience in their lives and to work through misconceptions about what Scripture really says.
In rare cases, parents will discover their guilt has its roots in sin. Fetal alcohol syndrome or brain damage due to child abuse comes to mind. When that happens, the guilt cycle ends when parents confess, repent, and move forward. Afterward, walk with the parents by extending forgiveness, providing continued accountability, and encouraging parents to seek counseling or treatment.
But for the vast majority of parents, guilt is the result of twisted perceptions. In those cases, the church must compassionately guide them to truthful thinking. These five strategies can lead parents to right perceptions.
Strategy 1: Build relationships of trust where parents can share freely.
Foster these relationships by plugging families into already existing programs such as small fellowship groups. Other options are to create new support groups, match parents with accountability and prayer partners, or encourage organic friendships.
Strategy 2: Reinforce God’s standard of perfection.
A second strategy is to show parents that only Jesus Christ is perfect. When parents understand that all human beings are imperfect in comparison to Christ, they are relieved of a great guilt burden. Their child may be imperfect, but so is every other child.
Strategy 3: Differentiate between a parent’s job and God’s job.
Parents often feel their efforts are inadequate. When they can identify what God put in their control and what remains in His control, they gain a healthier and more realistic understanding of their job. My husband and I learned this lesson when our son was an infant. We couldn’t protect him from pain. But we could comfort and care for him when that ended. Beyond that, we learned to trust God to deal with the traumatic consequences of surgery and medical procedures.
Strategy 4: Teach parents to pray Scripture.
Parents who pray for their children are proactive partners with God. They are doing something important for their kids. When they pray Scripture, they grow more confident because their prayers are in God’s will.
Strategy 5: Recognize when professional help is needed.
Sometimes the challenges of parenting a child with special needs leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental illnesses. In those situations, professional treatment should be recommended, as would be done for a parent who develops diabetes or high blood pressure.
Parents of kids with special needs battle guilt every day. When believers walk through the struggle with them, parents are empowered to disarm spiritual strongholds. With compassionate Christians beside them, parents will win the spiritual battle once they start asking the right question.
Not – What did I do wrong?
But – How is God using our family to make all things right?
Five Scriptures to Study with Parents
2 Samuel 9