The Start of Difficulty
About the Guest
Tom and Dena YoheDena Yohe (pronounced YOY) has been a social worker, pastor's wife, and Cru staff member. She is the mother of a formerly troubled daughter, Renee´Yohe. Renee´ was the suicidal, addicted, depressed, self-harming girl whose situation led friends to start the well-known nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms. Renee´’s life was also portrayed in the 2015 Sony Pictures release by the same name. Dena is an avid blogger. She and her husband, Tom, have three grown children, enjoy being grandparents,...more
Tom and Dena Yohe’s daughter, Renee, started cutting herself at 12 years of age. Gradually, other behaviors surfaced including suicidal tendencies. Find out how Tom and Dena handled parenting a prodigal.
The Start of Difficulty
Bob: Tom and Dena Yohe never imagined that there would come a time when their adolescent daughter’s life would be controlled by drugs and despair.
Dena: When you find that your child is seriously suicidal—oh, my gosh; yes! You launch into rescue mode and you’re afraid to sleep. You want to be with them 24/7 to build a little cocoon around them and keep them safe. It was so hard to trust God with her. I was gripping on as tightly as I could, wanting to be in control. All I wanted to do was save my child.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, May 29th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What would you do, as a parent, if you learned that your child had wandered far down the wrong path? You’ll meet Tom and Dena Yohe and hear their story today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Probably most of our listeners are familiar with the story in Luke, Chapter 15—the story of the Prodigal Son.
Dennis: You stole that! I had my Bible open. You looked at it! [Laughter]
Bob: I didn’t!
Dennis: Okay! So what was your point, Bob? What was your point?
Bob: My point is that there’s very little in that story—it’s treated so matter-of-factly when the son comes to his father and says, “I want my inheritance,” and then he leaves. There’s nothing in the story that describes what that was like for the father. We can imagine the heartbreak of that kind of a situation, because some of our listeners have experienced moments like that—maybe not somebody coming and saying, “I want my half of the inheritance,”—but a prodigal leaving home is a heartbreaking experience.
Dennis: I think there are a lot of prodigals in the church today, and parents of prodigals too. It’s a hurting minority that, I think, suffer in silence; because they don’t feel comfortable sharing their hurt. They feel like they’re going to be judged for being poor parents. It really isn’t a matter of being a poor parent, necessarily—although that could be a part of the process. It’s that we don’t raise robots—our kids have a choice.
As I like to say, going back to Genesis, Chapters 1, 2, and 3, the perfect Father had a pair of prodigals who chose to go their own way.
Bob: Now, wait! I had my Bible open to Genesis 3! [Laughter]
Dennis: Bob! You don’t even have a Bible out here! [Laughter]
Bob: I’ve got it on my phone!
Dennis: The listeners—
Bob: I’ll open up my phone! [Laughter]
Dennis: We have a pair of guests with us, Tom and Dena Yohe, who join us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to the broadcast—
Dena: Thank you.
Dennis: —home of some bitter quarrels between Bob and Dennis. [Laughter]
Tom: Well, thank you so much. It’s quite a privilege to be here.
Dennis: Glad to have you here, Tom.
Dena: Yes; I’m very happy to be here with you, two guys. [Laughter]
Dennis: Thank you, Dena.
They have been married since 1978—have three children. They have started a ministry called Hope for Hurting Parents. Dena has written a book called You Are Not Alone.
You indicated, early on—that when your middle child was born—that you had a suspicion, or observation, or inclination, or maybe it’s that mother’s intuition.
Dena: Well, it was—we had planned what sounded like it was such a wonderful experience for a newborn—this warm bath that, after your child was delivered, they would lower them into this warm water. It would just be so soothing and calming, reminding them of the environment they had just vacated. We made this plan, and Tom was there—he was a great coach for labor and delivery. They handed our daughter, Renee, to him; and he put her in the water. As soon as he did, she started screaming! We were like: “Oh, my gosh! What does this mean?! This is supposed to be soothing and relaxing.” Right there, I kind of wondered: “Hmmm. What does this mean?”
Bob: You didn’t have any sense that things were going to be hard with Renee until puberty, though; right?
Dena: Well, more serious; no. I mean, she was a challenging child most of her life.
Dena: Strong-willed; yes—stubborn. There were many times I would be on my knees, beside my bed, in tears, pounding the pillow, praying: “Oh, God! I don’t know how to parent this little girl! I’m not smart enough,” or “…wise enough,” or “…strong enough. Please help me!”
She was also a great delight—there is a lot of both—very creative, and energetic, and athletic. But, yes, puberty brought out a lot of other challenges.
Dennis: At age 12, you found out she was cutting.
Tom: Yes, for the first time.
Tom: It was so unexpected. There was an incident between Dena and Renee. We sent her to her room to think about this, and then went back to check on her. We found her with cuts on her arm. We just didn’t know how to process that. What happened? She found some glass in the windowsill, and began cutting. We thought, “Oh, my goodness!” Again, we didn’t know how to react with that.
Dennis: A lot of our listeners hear that, and they go, “That is so strange.” What’s behind that? You’ve now done a lot of research on that.
Dennis: You’ve seen a lot of other children who have expressed their anger, and their fear, and their depression in this way. Unpack it a bit, if you would, for parents—to help them understand what that represents.
Dena: Sure. Well, it’s very complicated; but the best summary that I have learned is that this is a way that an individual expresses deep pain that they are not able to verbalize. Either they’re too afraid that, if they speak it, they couldn’t handle it; or that they just can’t even find the words. It’s actually a coping mechanism. There are many reasons that people do it—all the way from they’re numb, emotionally, and this makes them feel alive—they can feel this. Our daughter, however, said she never felt any pain when she cut herself.
For some, it’s a way to punish themselves, because they feel guilty for things. They need to see the blood to feel that they are justified in what they’re doing to themselves. It’s very, very complicated; and it’s very difficult to find healing from. It can take years, because it takes a long time to get to the root of what is really going on behind the behavior.
Bob: Tom, take me to the point where you discovered—how did you discover, and what was your daughter’s response when you said, “What’s going on here?”
Tom: Well, we walked into the room to talk to her, and when we saw these things, I didn’t know if she was trying to take her life. You know, I just couldn’t process what was going on.
Bob: Was she wasn’t trying to hide her arms from you at all?
Tom: No; she showed us; you know? And, as we talked—well, Dena talked to her later—she [Renee] said she had never heard of it. It’s not like somebody else had done it before her and she learned from them or heard from them.
Dennis: Were these deep cuts?
Tom: They weren’t.
Dena: No; it looked like she’d gotten in a fight with a wild cat, and the cat won.
Both arms—wrist to elbow—had those kinds of scratches.
I was just so shocked when I walked in and saw this. I remember—I just literally fell to my knees, and scolded her: “This is not a good thing to do! Why would you do this?!” I am so embarrassed to admit now that I said to her, pointing my finger: “Don’t ever do this again! If you ever do this again, you’ll have to see a counselor!” as though that were some terrible punishment.
We’ve talked about that since, in recent years. I have asked her to forgive me for that, and she has. She does say that that is the one thing that she wishes we had done differently—that we would have given her the opportunity to talk with a counselor sooner. She has no idea if she would have taken the opportunity or actually opened up and talked; but at least, she would have had the chance.
Bob: Your reaction, though, as a mom, is from a heart of fear.
Dena: Oh, yes!
Bob: You see these scratches on your daughter’s arms that are self-inflicted. It’s no wonder that you responded sternly. You were really just kind of covering over the panic in your own heart.
Dena: To be honest, I didn’t want to admit that anything could really be wrong with my daughter: “I’m not going to tell anybody about this.” We never did.
Bob: You were in full-time ministry at the time?
Dena: Yes; yes.
Bob: That had to play into some of this: “We can’t tell anybody. If our supporters find out, they wouldn’t pay our bills anymore.”
Dena: —or: “Our friends aren’t going to understand this. Their kids aren’t doing this. They’ll think: ‘What’s wrong with [you]? What are you doing? What’s wrong with your child?’”
Bob: This encounter, at age 12, was not the end of the ride for you with Renee.
Dena: Right. It did stop for a while—several years—she was stuffing those feelings. During that time, she began to develop some OCD symptoms, with odd numbers and various things. We just kind of wondered about that: “Okay; that’s kind of different.”
It wasn’t until she was a 16-year-old and we were living overseas—she had become quite depressed and despondent. We just realized that: “Something more is going on here. We’re seeing some red flags. We need to just sit down and talk and be brave enough to ask hard questions and wait as long as we need to until she’s ready to answer.”
It took, literally, all night. Finally, she admitted that she was cutting again. She had become suicidal. We realized, then, that was when we needed to get back to America as soon as possible and get her the help that she needed.
Dennis: At that point, being parents, you immediately moved into a crisis mode.
Dennis: You start thinking: “What’s the worst thing that could happen here? Well, our daughter could take her life!”
Dennis: That’s scary stuff.
Dena: It was the greatest fear I’ve ever faced—I could hardly sleep / I could hardly eat. I lost 20 pounds in a couple of months.
In the mornings, I was afraid to go to her room and open the door—
Dennis: Oh, wow!
Dena: —for fear that she had cut herself, maybe too deeply, in the night: “Would she be dead in her room?” It was too overwhelming, and we had to begin taking turns: “Tom, you have to go this morning—open her door.”
Bob: Tom, how were you processing this? Were you at the same emotional place that Dena was?
Tom: Yes; we were terrified and not knowing what turn to take next: “What step do I take next?” All we knew was: Leave. Go back to the States, and get her help there.”
Dena: Yes; when you find out your child is seriously suicidal—oh, my gosh; yes! You launch into rescue mode, and you’re afraid to sleep. You want to be with them 24/7 to build a little cocoon around them and keep them safe. It was so hard to trust God with her. I was gripping on as tightly as I could, wanting to be in control. All I wanted to do was save my child.
Dennis: And here’s what I would want our listeners to hear—especially those who may be suffering in isolation as well—the real ploy of the enemy—and there is an enemy of your child’s life and yours, as well, as a family—he wants to get you isolated. He wants to get you afraid, where you don’t share with anyone. Yet, the real help comes from outside. It’s going to come from other relationships with people who can coach you in what to do. But in order to find those helpers / those professionals, you’ve got to let some trusted friends in on the inside of what’s taking place.
When you finally did get to a counselor, this counselor made an amazing statement to you.
Dena: Yes; it was really, really distressing. We’d gone to see the counselor, and the counselor had said, “I think she needs a more in-depth evaluation by a psychiatrist.” That was another shock: “What? You think there’s something more serious wrong?” We’ll never forget the day that the three of us were sitting in his office, after he had evaluated Renee.
He said: “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being ‘seriously suicidal’ and 10 being ‘just fine,’ your daughter is about a 1 or a 2. It’s a miracle she’s still alive.” That was like being hit in the head with a 2x4. And the three of us—she still recalls this as well / it really hit her hard too—the reality of where we were at that point in time.
Dennis: You moved back to America at that point.
Dennis: Things went from worse to even more tragic.
Tom: It went well for about six months when we immediately got back. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction. She connected with some good friends; but those friends were older and graduated. So the next school year, things started to change.
Bob: I’m just thinking: “If you’re a high school student, who’s battling depression, you’re going to wind up gravitating toward other people who are in dark places. That’s not a great environment to be in.”
Tom: Yes; we saw a change in her dress, a change in the way she did her make-up, changes that she would make in her room. Yes; her make-up became very darkened and heavy black—a lot of black.
Dennis: She was self-medicating during this time as well.
Dena: Oh, she started doing that unknown to us. Every now and then, we would catch her. Our prayer was always, “Lord, let her just get caught every time she does something wrong.” Quite often, she did. We jokingly now say, “Most of her senior year, she was grounded.” So she loves to tell us, “You’re grounded!” No. [Laughter]
Bob: How was she self-medicating? What was she doing?
Dena: Drinking, smoking pot, taking pills—I think anything someone would offer to her. Again, the parents are always the last to know. These kids are very good at hiding it.
Bob: How did you find out?
Tom: Well, we caught her on a number of occasions, especially during her senior year.
It really—that wasn’t a joke, because she was grounded just about her whole senior year. She’d just have a week left of grounding, and then she’d do something else: “You’re grounded again.”
Bob: Did you walk in on her smoking weed? Did you find pills in her drawer or what?
Tom: Well, we caught her at school. Dena happened to walk in to the school office to take something to our younger daughter; and there was Renee, checking out. Another friend has forged a note and was waiting in the parking lot to get her.
Dena: She had been drinking that morning in the parking lot—was leaving, and I could smell it on her breath—so I confronted her. But we began to see a lot—these changes came slowly—the dress, the outward appearance, the friends, and the type of music. We were always very strict with the music, trying to keep her away from the really awful stuff; but we could hear angry music—more depressing / hopeless kind of music.
We would try to constantly keep her away from the friends.
We eventually learned from—actually, a school counselor, who called us in one time—that her circle of friends had become some of the worst kids in the school. We were trying very hard to keep her away from them as much as we could; but again, they’re pretty sneaky.
Bob: Okay; so if I could take you back to her senior year, and you could do it over again, is there anything you could have done, looking back? Anything you would have done differently? Anything you think could have steered her off the course she was on?
Tom: I don’t—you know, I think of perhaps a different discipline method that was more appropriate for her.
Dennis: Such as?
Tom: Well, I don’t know.
Dena: We wish we knew.
Tom: I really don’t know.
Dennis: You used grounding—
Tom: We used grounding.
Dena: —withholding privileges.
Tom: Yes: “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” But we weren’t sure what other options we would have.
Dena: We would often turn to Scripture as well.
We would try and choose some that seemed very appropriate and fitting for whatever the issue was that she had done. We would try—and again, a way of continuing to get truth into her mind—we would have her write out these Scriptures some number of times.
Yes; I think maybe more willingness on our part to go to a counselor to even get help for us.
Tom: Even her counselor advised us—she said: “Renee will come in here, and she’ll sit and talk. I’m a safe place for her to talk. But she’s not processing anything—she’s not moving in any healing direction or positive direction. I’m just a safe person, and we really don’t need to keep coming and doing this.”
Bob: Part of the reason I asked the question—and, I think, at one level, it’s comforting to hear you answer the way you did—because parents, who are in the middle of it, are desperate for: “What’s the silver bullet? What can I do that is going to fix this?
Dena: Yes; yes.
Bob: “Does that mean move across the country?—we’ll do it! Does that mean this?—we’ll do it.” They’ll do whatever to save their child; right?
Dena: Yes; we do.
Bob: And you guys, even looking back on it, say, “I don’t know that we could have done anything differently, even from this perspective.” That goes to your point, Dennis, which is that kids are not robots. We can’t control some of what’s going on in their heart and their soul.
Dennis: Yes; and what I would say to parents, who are listening in and they’re suspicious that maybe something is going on in their younger child’s life—late grade school / junior high—I mean, the pressures are enormous today on young people at earlier and earlier ages. Or perhaps, you have a teenager or a young adult living at your home; and you know something’s going on. Here’s what I would say to you: “Number one, begin to ask God, as a couple / or if you’re a single mom—ask God for wisdom about what you should do.
Dennis: Maybe part of the wisdom is: “God, would you help us catch him / catch her so we understand what’s happening here?
“What’s the truth?”
Dennis: Because one of the problems that a parent of a prodigal faces is—they don’t know what they’re up against.
Dennis: They truly don’t know how to come back with an offensive game plan, because you don’t know what you’re up against: whether it’s depression—is it peer pressure?—or is it substance abuse?
A second thing I would say—and this is absolutely as important as the first: “Find a couple of mature friends that you can confide in, as a couple. Go to their house to have dinner and say: “We need you to pray for us. We need you to be a sounding board for us, because we’re handling this internally. It’s really difficult to know exactly what to do.”
Bob: And your point there is not so much that your friends are going to have an answer for you, but you’re going to need the emotional support.
Bob: You can’t try to battle this, just the two of you, and expect that weight to be something that you, as a couple, alone, can bear.
Dennis: I think that’s a good point, Bob. I think when you bear this weight alone, even if it’s a couple, you lose perspective.
The third thing that I would encourage a couple to do is—out of this prayer and out of this godly counsel that you get: “Put a plan together in terms of how you, as a couple, are going to approach this child. Part of the plan may be that you’re not going to enable this kind of behavior, going forward, and continue to bail them out of situations that they get themselves into because of their irresponsibility.”
Bob: That may lead to some very hard calls that parents have to make.
Dennis: And that’s what makes this difficult, Bob; because the nature of a parent is to want to protect their child from being hurt.
Dennis: And yet, if you, as a couple, have agreed upon your plan: “Here’s what we’re going to do if and when…”—and you stick to it / you don’t waffle; you don’t wilt; you don’t back-track—
—and you may need to go back to the couple that you confided in and say: “You need to help us here! We may call you in the middle of the night and say: ‘We are about to cave in here!
Dennis: “’Remind us of the truth.’”
Dennis: I just want you to know, as a parent, who faced some days—perhaps not exactly like the Yohes have faced here—I can just tell you, this may be a cross-country race. This may be a journey that’s not just for a season or for a year or two.
Dennis: It could last for a decade. Now, I know that’s not what some parents want to hear right now; but if you don’t develop that kind of perspective, I think you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed.
Bob: Dena and Tom, you guys have, together, turned your experience into an outreach for parents who are on the same journey that you were on, years ago, with Renee. You’ve got a website. In fact, we’ve got a link at our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to your website so folks can get more information about your ministry.
You’ve written a book called You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids. We’ve got copies of that book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. It’s available for order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order from us online—again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, I know, here in the United States, most of our listeners today are enjoying a day off as we take time to remember those who have made sacrifices for our safety. Here, on Memorial Day, we do want to pay tribute to veterans and their families, particularly those families of men and women who paid the ultimate price to protect our freedom. Our hope and our prayer, here at FamilyLife, is that when families go through the kinds of trauma and turmoil that many veteran families have been through with the loss of a husband or a wife / a son or a daughter—
—our prayer is that those families are rooted and grounded in a faith that is strong enough to see them through that trial. Our goal, here, is to effectively develop godly marriages and families; because we believe those godly marriages and families can actually change the world.
We just want to say how grateful we are to those of you who are financial supporters of this ministry. We’re in the last few days of May. During this month, our goal has been to raise $1.1 million that will enable us to continue work on a number of projects that we’re hoping to complete this summer. Many of you, this month, have gone online to contribute to that $1.1 million goal. Thank you for your support. If you’d like to see how we’re doing, you can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; and it will show you how close we are to reaching that goal. If you can do anything to help us get over the top, we would very much appreciate it.
You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or if you’d prefer, you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
Tomorrow, we’re going to hear how Tom and Dena Yohe’s journey with their daughter, Renee, went from a tough situation to a place of even deeper darkness and despair. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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