A Downward Turn
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Craig Svensson walks us through his son Eric’s painful journey with drugs and addiction. After taking several steps to stop Eric’s drug use, Craig and his wife continued to pray that Eric could be rescued from this downward spiral.
A Downward Turn
Bob: When a son or a daughter starts heading in a direction different from the way he or she was raised, parents rightly become alarmed. Craig Svensson knows something about this; he was the father of a prodigal.
Craig: It’s an incredible burden when you see your child making destructive choices, and it’s very difficult to watch. It’s so painful; you just want to try to get them on the right road. But you know, when you have a prodigal in your family, it is so absorbing that it’s easy to neglect your other children; because so much time and energy has to be poured into a prodigal.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 18th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What should parents do when a son or a daughter is starting to make destructive choices? I mean, beyond praying, what do we do? We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We are stepping into a subject that is going to be a pain point for a lot of our listeners, and it’s a pain point to revisit some of what we’re going to hear about today.
Ann: It will be very relatable for many.
Dave: Yes; I mean, you can say one word and it evokes emotion: “prodigal.” Just say the word and you have a whole array of thoughts, and feelings, and emotions.
Bob: Craig Svensson is joining us on FamilyLife Today; Craig, welcome to the program.
Craig: It’s a delight to be here.
Bob: Craig lives in Indiana. He is a part—
Dave: That means he’s a Hoosier! I went to college in Indiana; I appreciate Hoosiers.
Bob: Speaking of college, Craig is on the faculty at Purdue University and teaches pharmacology; right?
Bob: Craig has been married for 36 years, father of three. We’re going to talk about one of your kids today, and about this chapter in your life and in your marriage, because you’ve written a book called The Painful Path of a Prodigal. What we’re talking about—this painful experience—is something that you and your wife never expected you would be going through but found yourself in the middle of about 15/20 years ago; right?
Bob: When did you start to look at each other and say, “We have a child, who’s not just acting out, but somebody who is strongly self-willed, who I’m not sure how he’s doing”?
Craig: Yes; I would say probably that was late elementary school. You know, a prodigal doesn’t become a prodigal overnight. There are serious heart issues there that develop over time. You have no idea where it’s going to go when things start turning south; and obviously, it just causes your prayer to drive up.
For us, probably the big downturn started when our son Eric turned 15. That’s when he began a very deep descent into drug abuse and all of its associated problems that come with that.
Bob: So 12 to 15, what were you observing then that really was the bud that was not yet flowered as a prodigal?
Craig: I think, first and foremost, it was an unwillingness to seek God and His will in his life and a rebellion against those things. It was issues that arose in school of not wanting to submit to authority, of acting out in school, of doing things that were obviously disruptive in the classroom and outside the classroom, getting into mischief.
When you see a consistent pattern of that, then you begin to worry and say, “Alright; this is more than just an occasional phenomenon. What’s going on in his heart here?” and struggling with him there.
Ann: You had had two older kids that you didn’t see this going on?
Craig: Yes; certainly, our daughter, who was the closest to him, was probably the polar opposite of that, whose life experiences were so close in time—and therefore, so much of what they experienced in terms of our parenting, what they experienced in our church, what they experienced in school was so identical—because they’re so close in age.
Bob: Do you think her compliance was a factor in his desire to be different/to be his own person?
Craig: No; I think it was his draw to sin. That’s, ultimately, what it is when someone enters into rebellion; right?
Craig: It is because they are drawn to sin rather than the things of God. Really, that’s the natural path of us all; we have a sin nature. David said: “Behold, I was born in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” “The wicked go astray from the womb,” we are told. The real remarkable thing is that anyone follows Jesus. The natural path is the path of rebellion, and it’s only when God does a work of grace in the heart of a child that you see them going a different path.
Bob: What kinds of conversations were you having with your son in these early days, when there were behavior issues at school and you were trying to intervene and get him back on the right track? Was he responsive to what you were saying, or was he tuning you out?
Craig: I think it probably varied with the day, you know. There were times when he would listen. We would certainly/we had him involved in youth group—and all those other activities—very involved in Sunday school; he was also involved in extracurricular activities that you might think would build his character. We tried to spend some time through Proverbs with him, which is a great resource for parents to point children to what the natural consequences are of certain types of behavior.
Certainly, he saw those things; and you could see there was a struggle. I don’t think, at that age, I would call him just open, full-borne rebellion. He would have his good times and his bad times. But we could tell that he struggled with self-control and being able not to respond in anger, or not taking advantage of a window of opportunity for mischief—that he would seize it was his tendency.
Ann: I think, as parents, we all go through stages with our kids. We’re hoping and we’re thinking, “Is this just a stage?” I think, because our kids go up and down and they’re kind of all over the place, was there a point even that your wife thought, “This has gone on a little longer than we had anticipated”?
Craig: I think, for us, when we discovered him involved in drug use at the age of 15, that was a critical turning point. Literally, what happened is I walked outside of our garage and went to the side of the house. I was looking for him to call him for dinner; and he was at the side of the house, smoking a marijuana joint.
First of all, that was our first clear indication that he was using drugs. Secondly, I have enough of a background to know, when a kid is using drugs alone and in isolation, that’s a real serious concern. Most drug use takes place in a social setting; but when you have a kid using a drug by himself, you know you have a very significant problem going on.
Dave: What happened?—you walk around and see him.
Craig: It was an interesting moment in his life; because, despite everything that was going on, he had an association with some detectives in the police force in our area. They actually used him, as a shopper, to go into convenience stores/gas stations to try to buy cigarettes—because he was 15, he was underage—to see if they’d card him. The police would take him, and he would go in; and if he came back out with cigarettes, then they went in and gave them a citation. He had this relationship with two police in our local police department.
Dave: Did you know that?
Craig: Oh yes; yes.
Craig: I mean, obviously, they got our permission to be able to do that and everything.
Craig: One of the first things we did is we called the police and talked to them about it—not to arrest him—but to say, “I’m not sure you want him doing this,” and also, “Maybe you would be good people to talk to him.” They actually came and spent—oh, I don’t know; it was over an hour—sitting at our picnic tables in the back, and talking with Eric, and trying to really show him the path that he was likely going down.
Obviously, he had to stop serving that role for them as a shopper; they didn’t want someone like that. There were a couple of times, over the next year or so, that they reached out to him; and numerous people throughout his life, in the difficult times that he went through—we’re grateful for—that reached out and tried to draw him back to a road that was not destructive.
Bob: In the moment, when you walk out and see him smoking a joint, all of a sudden, this is taking you completely by surprise. Were you/did you become angry? How did you process it, and how did you interact with him?
Craig: Well, I think there was a big moment of silence between the two of us; because we realized that a bridge had been crossed, me acknowledging/seeing him. I just told him, “Come on inside now.” We sat down and I said, “Why don’t you talk to Mom about what just happened?” and let him converse in his own words that way.
Bob: Was there remorse on his part?
Craig: I think remorse at getting caught, not remorse at what he had done.
Dave: Did your wife respond any different than you did, or—
Craig: I think that her biggest response was disappointment; because again, it was just another step down the road, and realizing, “This is a really serious step, and what does that portend for the future?”
Bob: Later that night, after he’s gone to bed, and the two of you are lying side by side in bed, and going, “What are we doing? Where do we go from here?”
Craig: “What do we do next?” That’s always the challenge when you’re asking a question about your child, who is clearly on a path: “Do we need outside help? Where do we go? How seriously do we take this?” Because at the same time, you can take a single instance and blow it up to something bigger than it really is. We wanted to be careful, thinking that through.
That’s what really led us to call the police, whom he had worked with. We knew they needed to know anyway; but we thought, “You know, this is a good place. They’ve obviously been down this road with other young people before; they’ve been involved in interventions.” We hoped that that would have been helpful for him to hear it from them.
Ann: —and walking through the consequences of what this could lead to.
Dave: Did Eric respond, like, “Okay; I made a mistake; I need to stop this,” or did he/was he defiant? What was his response?
Craig: It was actually more placid than maybe I would have expected when that happened. He wasn’t really particularly angry with us; he wasn’t, “No; I don’t want to go down that road anymore.” It was just kind of placid/more nonresponsive than anything else, to be honest with you.
Bob: It sounds like—I’m thinking of a 15-year-old, who’s been caught—a placid response seems to me like, “I have to figure out how to manage this better so that Mom and Dad aren’t up in my grill,” and “Clearly the side of the house is not the place to go if you want to smoke a joint.”
Did he continue with what he was doing, immediately; do you think?
Craig: Yes, yes; in fact, much more depth very quickly. His drug use escalated, and problems at the school that he was at also escalated very rapidly. It came to a point, where the school was very concerned; and we were as well.
At that point in time, we had already done a little bit of counseling with him and realized something like that probably wasn’t going to be enough. We decided that a more significant intervention was going to be necessary. We decided to put him into an explorer-type program/an outward-bound kind of program, where it’s a wilderness camp that you go, specifically for children that are going through serious rebellion—it may or may not be drug use. We actually got permission from the school to have him leave early and go into that camp early.
He spent/I guess it was a little bit more than three months in a camp like that in Canada. We put him into that environment to try to help him to come to make better decisions/realize the path he was going. His anger issues were rising and getting more severe and more serious—and also, to try to address those.
Dave: He goes away for three months?
Dave: Were you talking to him?—any communication?—is he on his own?
Craig: Our communication was in writing; because they were in a pretty isolated area on an island, so you couldn’t exactly escape, if you will. You couldn’t get your telephone there or anything, but we would write back and forth.
His letters were mixed. He didn’t go fighting/he didn’t fight it. He went/I guess I would say resigned to: “This is what’s going to happen.” He realized he was getting in more and more difficulty in school and that that path wasn’t going very well either. He went, fairly resigned, to this kind of intervention.
Bob: You said his drug use had escalated; he’d gone from marijuana into other drugs?
Craig: At that point in time, we’re not sure that he used other drugs, but he just used marijuana much more.
Bob: The group he was hanging out with—I guess was a group that this was what their lives were all about.
Bob: Did you think about: “We have to pull him out of school,” “We have to transplant him somewhere else, getting him away from this contagion group that he’s a part of”?
Craig: Yes; we did certainly think about that. That’s not really easy to do, as you can imagine. You can’t just pick your kid up and go to another school. Because of his difficulties, a lot of schools, obviously, would not take him. A lot of private Christian schools, for examples, wouldn’t take a kid who’s getting in trouble. At the time, he was in a public school.
What happened at that time, though, the Lord just seemed to open the door for when he came out of the residential program for us to change environments completely. We actually, when he went off to this camp, we put our house up for sale. We were living in a suburb north of Detroit; and we were going to move to the west, figuring to get him in a completely different school system/a different environment; but yet, it was close enough for me to still get back and forth to the university.
We did that; and in the midst of that, another university approached me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to consider coming to our university, and to make a move, and come be with us.” They wanted me to be a division head and stuff. It seemed like the Lord was opening a door—right?—to be able to, when he came out of that camp, completely change his environment. We, literally, moved a week after he got out of camp and moved to Iowa, where I took a position at the University of Iowa, thinking, “This will be a really good chance for a start.”
The people in our church were wonderfully supportive and praying for us. Everybody around us said, “Boy, this seems like God is really doing a great work here, opening a door to completely change Eric’s environment when he comes back.”
Bob: Talk about the people in your church; because here you guys are, active in a local church; all your friends are church folks. When your kid’s going off to an outward-bound program—because he’s using/substance abuse—this is the kind of thing you don’t want to talk to friends at church about, or it’s not comfortable to talk to friends at church about.
Craig: Yes, and I was actually serving as the interim preacher for this church.
Craig: They were looking for a pastor, and I served as their interim for three years. It also presented a challenge: “Should I step down in this role at this moment?” I wasn’t—I used the term,” interim preacher”—because of Eric’s rebellion, I wasn’t willing to take on a position of ruling authority—so I wasn’t the interim pastor. They had a group of elders, and the elders fulfilled the roles that you would think of for an elder. My role was really just to do the preaching; and I would do baptisms, and communion, and other types of things that were in the public/a ceremony and leading in those. It was a particular challenge whether my role should change because of what he was going through.
I can say that, overall in that church, the support of the people was, for the most part, wonderful.
Bob: Everybody knew what was going on with Eric?
Craig: Oh, I don’t know if everybody knew; but people recognized, and it was pretty well known—and certainly, the elders did—because as things were evolving, I met the elders and said, “Hey, this is the situation. Maybe you ought to think about having somebody else step in this role.” They said, “No, no; as long as you feel like you can do it, we want you to stay there and continue to do that role.” I would say the elders and key people in the church were just very supportive and very helpful to us at times.
We hadn’t always experienced that at a previous church we were at, when Eric’s rebellion was really starting. We experienced our share of being judged by others because of his rebellion.
Ann: I’m thinking about your wife—as you guys are lying in bed at night, praying for, I’m sure, your son—but the emotional highs and lows—your fear of: “What could this lead to?” but then the hope of: “Okay, he’s getting help,” “This is going better,” “I’m hoping that God’s going to grab his heart.” What did that look like for you guys? As a woman, I carry that constantly; and I’m guessing your wife did too.
Craig: She certainly did, and it’s an incredible burden when you see your child making destructive choices. It’s very difficult to watch; it’s so painful. You just want to try to get them on the right road, but you know that God has to do the work in their heart. It drives you to your knees in prayer; and you plead with God again, and again, and again, and just ask Him to intervene.
We were grateful that there were some men who also recognized and tried to pour themselves into Eric/sought to be a mentor. As you know, sometimes a child gets to a point, where they don’t want to listen to mom and dad anymore; right?
Craig: One of the beauties of the body of Christ is that there are others, who they may have relationships with, who can come surround them and try to support him. We had some of that; and we’re very, very grateful for that.
Ann: Were your other kids involved at all, wondering and asking you questions?
Craig: Well, our daughter was the only one that was living at home, and I wouldn’t say she gave us advice on what she’d do. She, obviously, was concerned about her brother. But one thing I’ll tell you I wish that I had been more sensitive, early on, about was just how much it was impacting her life. I think, when you have a prodigal in your family, it is so absorbing that it’s easy to neglect your other children; because so much time and energy has to be poured into a prodigal that you can forget about how it’s impacting their lives.
Certainly, it made a difference about her wanting to have other people over at the house; because she didn’t know how he would act out and what he would do. It was embarrassing to her at school; because she had a brother, who others knew was going off in this very dangerous direction. She had her own struggles—I don’t want to speak for what her feelings were about that—but we recognize that: “This is a trial for her,”—not just for the parents—“This is a trial for her.”
Dave: How about for your own marriage? I know in our home, when there’s something going on with our kids—
Ann: I blame Dave! [Laughter]
Dave: Ann will blame me; I’ll blame her. I mean, there’s just tension—even if we agree, still there’s this big thing going on—and there’s pressure; so it affects our marriage. How was it affecting yours?
Ann: I can remember being in bed at night, and I’m saying to Dave, “So-and-so is not in a good place. I’m worried about what he’s doing right now, out with his friends.” Then Dave would say, “He’s a great kid! He’s not doing anything!”
Dave: And she was always right—because he was—that’s a sort of smile moment in our marriage; but there were tense moments/disagreements about what we should do: “How do we handle this?” Was there any of that going on?
Craig: Well, certainly, there’s a tension that gets created. I think, as he went deeper and deeper into drug use and all the consequences, that tension is only greater; because you’re living with this fear of what’s going to happen next. Fortunately, we more leaned into one another than leaned away from one another. We were mostly of one mind.
But there’s no question that a prodigal is going to bring a tremendous amount of tension into a marriage. It’s why one of the priorities, when you’re walking this kind of trial, is to make sure you’re building on your marriage; because it’s going to be stressed by having a prodigal.
One of the things that’s so important is that you come to an understanding that—you may not always agree on what should be done—but you have to agree on what will be done, and you have to speak with one voice. There were times when we might not agree with something that my son had asked/something he wanted, whether we should help him here, let him do this, et cetera. There were times I would say to my wife, “Okay; I don’t agree, but we’ll do what you said. I’ll trust your motherly instincts on this one.” There were other times, maybe I would feel strongly, and we would do what I would say; but we would always present a united front.
One reality is that prodigal children can really drive a wedge between a husband and a wife, trying to get what they want. I mean, we’ve all experienced that with little kids. A little kid comes up, “Well, Mommy said I could…” Well, Mommy didn’t really say that; right? When they get older, they can become very skilled at playing parents off of one another to get what they want. It’s hard to think of your children acting that way, but they do; and you have to be aware of that.
We worked hard to make sure we always had a unified voice/we would have one voice: “This is what we’ve decided.” We would never share that, “Well, I don’t really agree with what Mom” or “…what Dad says.” You never want to go there and give them a tool to be able to drive a wedge between you.
Dave: One of the things we say at the Weekend to Remember®, actually on Friday night, as we’re stepping into the weekend with married couples and pre-married couples, is “Five Threats to Your Oneness.” Every marriage is headed toward isolation or oneness. I don’t know which threat it is, Bob—I’ve only done this for 30 years—I don’t even know how we say it, but it’s basically that adversity or trials—
Bob: —inevitable difficulties.
Dave: —inevitable difficulties are going to come into your marriage. I always say this: “Trials will make you better or bitter. The choice is yours.”
We all know couples/we know families that have become bitter, even maybe broken up the family for whatever—could be a prodigal—and then we know others that, when through the same thing, they seem to be better. They made a choice to somehow say, “God can use this, as horrible as it is, for better in our life. We can actually become more mature.”
It sounds like, as horrible as this was, you still fought to make sure your marriage and your family became better.
Bob: I hope every parent, who’s listening, who may be in the middle of this, is hearing what you’re saying about pouring into your marriage; and about being on the same page and presenting a united front; and about making a decision, early on, in this journey, “Look, if we’re going to get through this, we have to get through it together. We’re both in a hard spot, neither of us knows exactly the right thing to do; we wish we did.”
I think part of that journey may involve getting a copy of Craig’s book and reading through it together, and asking each other, “What are we going to do in our situation?” The book is called The Painful Path of a Prodigal. You can find it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, the book is called The Painful Path of a Prodigal by Craig Svensson. Order from FamilyLifeToday.com online, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, these weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and then to Christmas are times when, as families, we can be actively engaged in purposeful, intentional discipleship with our kids, to be talking this week about gratitude and thanksgiving, looking at Bible verses that deal with that. Then, after the Thanksgiving holiday is over, to start pointing them toward the spiritual realities that are, front and center, in the Christmas season. It’s just a great time of year to be focusing with your kids on what really matters during these seasons.
FamilyLife has created a resource that’s designed to help moms and dads engage with kids during the Christmas season—twelve ornaments that can be hung on a Christmas tree—each ornament depicting a different name or a different title for Jesus. It’s called “The Twelve Names of Christmas™.” We want to make this resource available to FamilyLife Today listeners, who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. Your donations make all that we do, here at FamilyLife®, possible. Every time you donate, what you’re doing is helping extend the reach of this ministry so we can reach more people, more often, with practical biblical help and hope.
If you can make a donation today, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate online; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and ask for a set of “The Twelve Names of Christmas”; we’ll send that out to you. You can use that as a resource with your children or your grandchildren during the Christmas season. They’ll love it, and we think you’ll find it enjoyable as well.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue hearing from Craig Svensson about the very difficult season in their family’s life when their son moved away from his faith and started making destructive choices. I hope you can join us as we continue the conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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