Auggie comes home one day from high school, walks through the door and declares to his Jewish mom that he has decided he wants to be Buddhist. A friend that he knows has been exploring some Buddhist teachings on the internet and the idea that people are supposed to let go of all material connection to the world makes a lot of sense to him.
One Sunday afternoon after church, Eve tells her parents that she doesn’t believe what the pastor was saying and that all of the folks at church are a bunch of hypocrites. People only go to church to see and been seen, and she doesn’t want to step foot in that building again.
Damian has been working his way through catechism over the past school year and now confirmation is only a month away. He goes to the priest and tells him that he is not sure what he believes and doesn’t want to be confirmed. The priest gives his parents a call and relays the message to them; they have no idea how to handle this new development.
Watching teens as they grow and change can be exciting as they spread their wings and explore the world on their own. It can also be a time that rattles nerves and makes parents wonder if they are doing anything right. Conversations about faith and religion can be especially unnerving because they are close to your heart, an important piece of your family and personal history, and yet incredibly difficult to explain.
For families that place importance on religion, there often comes a time when the fabric of belief that was taught throughout the elementary years can become frayed at the edges as questions about meaning start to arise. As children move into adolescence, the faith that parents tried to instill during early years needs to be given room to change as they develop. It is not uncommon to encounter scenarios similar to the stories of Auggie, Eve, and Damian, where resistance and questions about religious faith meet us head on. How can parents respond? How do parents continue to model and share their beliefs without dictating behavior and shutting down active questioning? To answer some of these questions, this week we will talk about why teens question their faith and how parents can respond to these challenging questions.
Why Do Teens Question Their Faith?
In the teen years the brain starts to undergo changes leading to a greater ability to reason, examine how the world works, and make meaning out of life and relationships. With these changes also come new gifts and challenges that our teens must wrestle with in order to integrate who they have been, who they are, and who they will be in the future. What used to be absolutes in the mind of an elementary student can now be examined for more shades of possibility and held up for more critical analysis. Faith will probably, and hopefully, be one of those things that teens scrutinize as they become more able to examine the world and their place in it.
One of the major shifts that occur in the teen years is that youth try to understand who they are in relation to others. The parent-child relationship starts to lose some of its primacy as teens begin to explore how they might be perceived through the eyes of others, especially peers. This means that peer relationships become more important and what friends say or believe have greater bearing on the way they understand the world. This change can lead to teens “trying on” different personas and seeing if others’ expressions of faith might suit them better than the one that they have inherited from their family.
Another shift occurring in the teen years is a change in how youth think about their faith. During the elementary school years, the focus of faith was on the stories of the tradition and what they literally meant for the child: What did Moses do at the Red Sea? How did the Buddha find enlightenment? Who were the first people to visit Jesus after he was born? Faith in elementary school is also focused on the rules that the faith community expresses: Love one another. Care for the poor. Keep the Sabbath.
With the growing ability to take a step back from the stories of the faith community, teens are better able to understand more of the meaning that is implied in the story: What does its mean that the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea? Why did it take Buddha so much time to figure out enlightenment? Why is it important that shepherds received the first news about Jesus’ birth? Such questioning allows youth to form ideas about how the meaning behind faith-based stories related to their daily life, as well as how these values align with the beliefs they are forming about the world around them.
They also start to take the meanings of the stories and apply them to the new situations that they are encountering in their lives: If God saved the Israelites, how should I respond to other people who are not treated well? If it took Buddha so many years and attempts at finding enlightenment, what are the experiences that I am going to have to go through? If God favors people who are poor, like the shepherds, what should I do to help the poor?
As teens develop, they start to emphasize relationships more and more. This includes an awareness of the way that one is perceived by others. This perception has an impact on how teens view the idea of God. In the elementary years, children often understand God as an impersonal parent-like figure who makes rules to keep people safe and be fair. For teens, the image of God usually starts to shift away from this impersonal view to a more personal, interactive other who is concerned with us and our actions. God becomes more real as an individual who can and does interact with people.
How Should a Parent Respond?
So, what should a parent do when their teen begins to question their faith?
- First: don’t panic. Because of the developmental changes that teens are experiencing, questioning is normal and even to be encouraged. When faith is questioned and explored, it is usually strengthened so that it can engage even more difficult issues in the future. This questioning also allows the teen to start to claim the faith as her or his own instead of something that is simply handed on from the family.
- Second: try to normalize the experience that your teen is going through. Share an experience where you found yourself questioning what you believed. Relate a story about someone you know who encountered a struggle in belief and made it through. Let your teen know that this happens for many people at many different points in their lives. By doing this, you can help to frame a conversation that is less emotionally charged for both of you. It also allows you to work together towards exploring the meaning in particular situations that arise.
- Third: actively encourage your teen to explore more deeply what their experience says about them and where they fit within a community of faith. This may mean you and your teen take some time to schedule a conversation with a religious leader in your faith tradition. If your teen is exploring a path that you don’t have much experience, you may want to find someone from that faith tradition who can serve as a resource for both of you as your teen explores new perspectives. Working with an outside religious leader may also be a good option if you feel that the conversation with your teen will be too emotionally charged to be effective.
- Finally, and most importantly: work at staying connected with your teen and trying to understand where they are coming from. Try to avoid shutting down conversations about religion and faith. If you are having a difficult time, ask to reschedule the conversation to a time where you are able to focus. Listen to what your teen has to say with as little judgment as possible and reflect back what you hear from them. Share some of your questions, doubts, and hard points of living with faith so they know they aren’t the first to feel this way. If you are able to do this, you stand a good chance of being able to stick with your teen as they make this transition from the faith that suited a child to one that will serve them as an adult.
Religious faith can be a strength that we nurture in our kids as a way to help them understand who they are in this world and how to live a life that has meaning and purpose. However, in order for faith to truly be useful, they have to claim it as their own. In their transition through adolescence, teens are changing and growing in many ways and faith is no exception. In order to assist them through this process we have to be aware of what they are going through and respond to their experiences with patience, understanding and active support.
Article by Will Houts
Will Houts is a PhD student in the Civil Society and Community Research program and an ordained Minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Prior to coming to University of Wisconsin-Madison, Will has served congregations in the southeast Wisconsin area for over a decade, including three years as an associate pastor working with middle school and high school aged youth.