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If it seems that your teen is tackling the tough questions of life these days, you're right — it's part of what they do as their brains mature and they become capable of more complex thinking. And whether you raised your children under the umbrella of a specific faith or without any religious training at all, this is a time when teens begin to question the concept of faith and belief. How can parents help their teens grow and learn without alienating them entirely?
Where is this coming from?
The older your teen gets, she has more freedom, a broader circle of friends and acquaintances and a higher level of exposure to world views and ideas. Maybe your teen son works with another teen who happens to be reading an interesting book on Judaism and offers to lend it out when he's finished. Or your Catholic-church-raised daughter begins to question her religion based on real-life situations she has witnessed and how they apply to the teachings of the Catholic church. Ideas and questions often surface during the teen years based on layers of experiences and conversations. "The teen years are the exploration stages of strengthening an identity, and there tends to be a more passionate response to causes and beliefs as well as opinions," says Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC.
Don't take it personally
This might be the most important thing, and the hardest. When your teen has questions about faith, don't take it as a personal attack on your beliefs and values. "It might be hard to accept the questioning of children when it comes to belief," shares Lisa Peacock, LMFT. "We want the best things for our children and usually believe that we have found the best answers. However, it is important to understand that we feel so strongly because we were able to question and decide for ourselves," she adds. Beyond the ideals of a religion or the basis of faith lies the personal interpretation of how that faith or belief plays a part in our daily lives, which is very personal.
"It's natural for parents with strong faith backgrounds who have raised their children in a certain way to be defensive, angry and saddened or hurt when their kids ask questions, but how they respond is critical," says Dr. Chester Goad, a former youth pastor and high school teacher who currently works as a college administrator. Dr. Goad shares that in his years of working with high school kids, and now at the college level, he has yet to meet a young person who hasn't had questions or doubts about his or her faith. "I've met some who, during a time of questioning, distanced themselves, but they often return," he shares. "I've only met a few though who have outright denied or turned fully away."
How should you respond?
Your response to your teen's questioning sets the tone for the conversation ahead — which will likely take place over a long period of time. "The religious beliefs and culture of the parents may play a large role in how they respond to their adolescent's questioning or denial of their faith," shares Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., NCSP. "While some parents may come from cultures which encourage youth to make their own decisions regarding religious views and practices, other parents may come from cultures which hold more conservative views on this issue. Because of this, there is no one 'right' way for parents to respond," she adds. Parents should attempt to put themselves in listening mode initially, until their teen has had a chance to unload some of her questions or issues she has been grappling with. Mihalas says that parents should refrain from clamping down even harder on their teen, as they run the risk of rebellion or alienation. Remember that it's perfectly normal behavior at this stage in life to try and individualize themselves.
Encourage a two-way conversation
This may be easier said than done for some parents, especially if you have a strong faith yourself. But don't let your fear of the unknown jeopardize your relationship with your teen. "I encourage parents to be open to discussion and to encourage their children to find their own answers," says Peacock. "When parents become less judgmental, their children will feel safe coming and talking to them. This will allow the parent to feel at least some comfort in knowing what their child is thinking about and not feel completely in the dark. It also allows the child a foundation to come back to if they have questions or concerns," she adds.
Dr. Goad shares that while it's important to tell your teens they can talk to you about anything, you need to be prepared. "Parents who extend that type of offer should be prepared for difficult questions and have a game plan in place for when those questions arise," he says. Give your teen room to ask and share, but you should also be welcome to share your thoughts as well. This is one issue that won't be resolved with one conversation, but over a period of time.
In the end, your teen is going to make his or her own decisions about religion and faith, and often will eventually come back into the fold of the religion they were raised under. But part of being a full-fledged adult means listening to your heart and standing up for what you believe in. So when your teen is going through this challenging phase of questioning faith, keep in mind that your job is to raise a confident, thinking young person who can make his own decisions — and that you are a very important sounding board for this young person who is finding his way in the world.
Still need help talking to your teen? Try watching a movie with a strong faith-based message together.
This post was sponsored by "Heaven is for Real.".