By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
I’ve been hearing from a lot of parents whose teens are rejecting their faith. The stories are all terrifically painful but they tend to represent different variations on the following theme.
The other day my son/daughter was refusing to go to Church. S/he told me that s/he doesn’t believe ‘all that stuff’ anymore. We had a huge fight about it. I don’t understand. I never had any problems before. When s/he was little, s/he loved to go to Church. S/he was an altar server (lector, choir member)! Why is s/he being so stubborn all of a sudden?
When teens fight you about Church, it usually has little to do with their actual beliefs about God or church. Usually, a teen’s apparent rejection of his or her faith has to do with one of two things; a personal encounter with suffering he or she can’t make sense of or the breakdown of their relationship with you.
Teens and the Problem of Pain:
One of the most common reasons teens become resistant to the faith is because of a personal encounter with suffering that they can’t make sense of.
“I have a friend who says he’s gay. The Church says homosexuality is a sin. I don’t believe all that stuff anymore.”
“My friend died of leukemia. If there was a God, he would have saved him.”
“My parents are getting divorced. They always went to Church. They’re such hypocrites.”
Generally speaking, teens who are struggling with their faith for this reason tend to couch it in more philosophical terms. “There’s so much suffering in the world. How could God let all (those people) in (that far off place) suffer like that. I can’t believe in a God who would allow all that.”
Even though their teens’ statements tend to be phrased as philosophical dilemmas, parents should resist the temptation to address the problem as a mere intellectual struggle. For all their intellectual pretensions, teens—even teens in middle to late adolescence—tend to be more emotional thinkers than abstract thinkers. Adolescents are in the early stages ”formal operations” (i.e., philosophical, abstract thinking). They are certainly capable of asking hard questions and thinking deep thoughts, but they aren’t all that good at thinking all the way through them. An adolescent’s attempts at deep thinking tend to result in more brooding than brilliance.
Parents of kids who are struggling with their faith for these reasons would do well to remember that their children’s attempt to make this an abstract issue is a red herring. There is always, always, always some personal experience of suffering or pain that is making the teen question the existence or relevance of a loving God. The best response to this is to build you relationship with your teen, help him or her identify the specific, painful experience underlying the intellectual pretense of disbelief and—sensitively—work through that pain. Sometimes this might require professional assistance. The good news is that, in most cases, if the suffering teen encounters a loving, sensitive, effective parental response to their pain, their faith will come back online.
Loss of Faith as Loss of Rapport
The other most common reason that teens lose their faith is that they are angry with their parents and are looking for a way to hit back. In my experience, this accounts for about 85% of teens who adopt an anti-God/anti-church posture (with the other 10% being a personal encounter with suffering and 5% being other factors).
In this scenario, teens often feel that God and faith are the reason their parents are overly strict or controlling. They’re angry at their parents rules and, for whatever reason, they believe that those rules are a direct result of their parents religious devotion. That said, the teen isn’t so much angry about the rules per se, as they are about the needs/wants they feel those rules jeopardize. In other words, the teen feels he has certain needs that his parents don’t respect, and won’t listen to; needs that his parent’s rules forbid him from wanting much less getting. As a result, he experiences his parents, his parents’ rules and, by extension, his parent’s faith, as obstacles to his growth, independence, and well-being. This teen comes to believe that the only way he can be his own person is to reject—and even rage against—his parents faith—the source of the rules that are threatening his ability to grow up and be an independent person.
Again, in this case, the teen’s rejection of the faith isn’t really about the faith. It’s a symptom of a deeper and very serious relationship problem between the parent and child or, perhaps, within the family itself.
Healing the Wound: Two Steps
Two things need to happen to heal this wound.
First, parents need to invest in the relationship. They need to make a commitment to regular one on one time with the teen—especially if the teen resists it. They need to make this one-on-one time as pleasant as possible: No lectures. No lessons. Better yet, do something that the teen is good at that you’re not. Let them teach yousomething for a change. Focus on being compassionate. Sincerely convey that you are more interested in them than your agenda.
Likewise, parents need to make family life more enjoyable and more intimate and they need to reduce the conflict between them and their son or daughter by whatever reasonable means they can. They also need to do a much better job picking their battles. Scale back rules to cover the most important issues (e.g., basic respect, safety and order) and intentionally let almost everything else go—for now. You can go back to working on the other, less serious but still important ,behavioral and attitudinal issues once rapport has been re-established.
Second, parents need to look hard at how they might be able to help their teen meet the needs that have been inadvertently frustrated by the parent’s rules. Increasing the rapport with the teen by spending more one-on-one time together, making family life more intimate and enjoyable, and picking battles will allow the teen to open up about what they need and why. This will give the parent the opportunity to help the teen find godly and effective ways to meet their needs instead of just saying “no” all the time. The more the teen feels the parent is invested in meeting their needs instead of frustrating those needs, the more willing the teen will be to see the parent as a mentor. The restoration of the parent’s mentor status is what allows the teen to be receptive to the parent’s attempts to form the teens faith, values, and worldview.
The more effective you become at proposing satisfactory, godly, alternative ways to meet your teens needs instead of just shutting them down, the more you should see your teen be more receptive to God and the Church.
The Bottom Line
Just remember, if your teen is fussing about going to church, being faithful to your values, or believing in God, don’t assume it’s “just a phase.” Address the problem behind the anti-religious posturing and you will see your teen’s faith flourish once again.
If you need additional help to work through these issues, please check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids or, for more individualized assistance, contact your PaxCare Tele-coach. Together, we can help your teen become everything God created him or her to be.