You’ve raised your child going to weekly services. You bless the meals that you eat. You celebrate the holidays – and one day, your teen says to you, “I don’t believe.”
Or maybe you’ve been a little lax on their religious upbringing. You may be one of those HHT folks – “Happiness, Holidays and Trouble.” Those are the only reasons that you darken the door of your professed faith.
Either way – the moment that your teen begins questioning the faith that you’ve raised them to follow is a great moment. It’s a moment that you should treasure, and remember always. It’s a moment that you can begin teaching your child about adult thinking, and more about right and wrong, and observing cultural norms.
Being raised by parents with consistent religious beliefs makes a difference in your teen’s perception of the world. Religion brings a much more ancient connection with generations of the past in today’s world. Modern culture is all about the “here” and the “now.” Religion has stories and texts that tie us as humans to systems of behavior and beliefs.
Things to do when your teen begins questioning YOUR faith (or lack of faith):
1) DON’T berate your teen with evangelizing speech – Your child is becoming aware that there are differing views out in the world, and wants to know more about other cultures and religions in the world. Encourage them to question – but gently guide them to some answers, if needed. Point out stories from your religious heritage and views about people that question their beliefs, and what the answer to them revealed. Let them explore other beliefs, and read texts from other faiths.
2) DON’T embarrass your teen by making this a group discussion – Keep this quiet, between the two of you, if possible. Bringing up this subject as a family or social group debate is a terrible way for your teen to feel emotionally hurt and bullied by a crowd. And don’t bring a group of people into the discussion by bringing it up in a meeting or on social media. This is a private discussion with your teen.
3) DON’T panic and change your schedule – If your child is questioning faith, don’t take it as a prod to go to weekly services more regularly if you’ve been skipping. Suddenly changing the family schedule shows that you feel guilty about how you’ve been practicing your faith. Don’t taint the message to your child with guilt.
4) DO talk with your teen about your own experiences in religion – Be honest with your teen about how you got to where you are in religion. Tell them about your experience as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. If you have any special stories that you’d like to share with them, now is the time to do that. On the other hand, if there were some bad experiences that you’d rather not share – don’t make up stories or gloss something over. Just don’t mention it at all, for now. Keep it relevant.
5) DO ask your teen if they’d like to visit other places of worship – Some religions have programs in place that will take entire groups of teens to other faith houses to see how they worship. Visit with your faith leader and see if this topic is something that your religion handles. If not, then check out some other worship houses. Call them or look up the service times – and go with your teen. Some religious communities will want your name and phone number so that they can contact you. Be firm, tell them that you are “just visiting, thank you.”
6) DO be accepting if your teen decides to pursue a different faith journey than you do. This may just be a temporary thing, most kids will return to the faith they were brought up in after a brief absence. Keep the doors open for discussion about their journey and their experience.
7) DO watch out for “cult” activities. Cults are sometimes difficult to spot! Things to look out for – beliefs that are distorted from the cultural norm, beliefs that close the members off from all worldly contact, and beliefs that involve giving up all financial and monetary earnings to the collective group. If your child gets involved with such a group, reach out into the community to other families that have had similar experiences. You may find some people that have been victimized by such a cult, and can help you convince, or even extract your child from a bad situation.
8) DO watch out for the “I don’t believe in anything” statements. Help your child clarify ambiguous non-beliefs. Ask them – is it something about our faith that you don’t believe, or is it organized religion? Find out if they are just needing clarity about something, and help them find the clarity. You may be able to help them along and letting them know that they don’t have to absolutely believe in every little detail about your faith, just the big main ideas. On the other hand, if your child decides that they don’t believe in religion at all, ask them what they do believe in. Do they believe in having an “attitude of gratitude” about all of the things around them? Do they believe in good and bad, in right and wrong? Do they believe in being kind to people and helping others? Then they do believe in something. Keep the discussion lines open, and don’t hide your own beliefs – find a common ground that your child can be comfortable with. But don’t be afraid to bring up the topic from time to time. Your teen may just be going through a phase, and later realize that they want to come back to the family faith. Be ready to welcome them.
9) DON’T allow your teen to drop “truth bombs” as a way to garner attention. Some teen try “pushing buttons” by teasing their parents about religion and religious beliefs. They may take religious texts out of context and start an argument to prove a point that they are more informed than you are. Be ready for this type of behavior, and don’t fall for it. Joining an argument with a person wanting attention is non-productive. A simple – “Let’s discuss this later” can diffuse the situation, and set a time when to continue. This gives you time to formulate an answer, if any is needed. You can also just choose not to pursue the question, that is your choice. Let your child know that you don’t wish to argue their point, and end the conversation. You may hear parting remarks from them, such as: “You know I’m right, that’s why you’re not saying anything!” Don’t get pulled into an impossible situation that you aren’t prepared to handle. Don’t give credence to their argument by arguing, just ignore them.
Giving your child time and space to explore their internal questions is essential to their growth process – let them figure it out. If they ask for your help, give it to them in a loving and practical manner.
But… what if your religious community chooses to “shun” your child (removed or excommunicated from the faith), or even to shun you, because of your child’s departure from their faith? That is their choice, and their drama. Your child likely knows that this will happen, and is peaceful (at the moment) with their decision.
The matter of you being shunned is something different. You are not defined by your child’s actions, necessarily. You may be told by your peers and religious leaders that you have “failed as a parent,” or have invited sin into the community by failing to curb your child’s actions. Best practice – don’t argue with them. Agree with them and move on. Your child has made an adult decision, and faces adult consequences.
What if your religious community tells you that you should have no contact with your child? Whether to abide by their request or decree is your decision, and is between you and your higher being. Most religions have beliefs about “returning to the fold,” and that is something to meditate on when faced with such a situation. Most religions also have beliefs about sharing the faith with non-believers. You can rest on this belief to justify contact with your child.
Again – this time in your life is a precious time with your teen as they journey towards adulthood. Support their learning path, and be patient as they parse through all of the information about religion. If you aren’t well versed in your own beliefs, take this as a time to learn more. Your child’s experiment and questions may prod you to do some questioning, as well! You may decide to try a different worship house with your child for a while. Be open to change – you were open to raising your child, be open to raising your own consciousness with them.