It’s coming up on Easter Sunday, the holiest of days for Christians, and my mind has been on all the teenagers and young adults who have stepped away from their religious upbringings to pursue something else… or nothing at all. These are kids who spent all or most Sundays at church, who have prayed before thousands of meals with bent heads and joined hands. They’ve celebrated religious holidays, sung religious songs, and participated in religious rituals and rites of passage. Then, sometime in their teen years, they announce that they’re not going to church. They stop showing signs of reverence during family prayers, they roll their eyes at the mention of God, and if they’re brave, they openly state the fact that they’re “not really into the religion thing anymore.”
If you’re a parent who has raised children in a religious faith, this moment can be the most deflating one of all. You’ll question where you went wrong, and you’ll consider yourself a failure in the religious education department. It’s one thing to worry about your kids’ education or peer groups, quite another to worry about their souls.
But I’m here to tell you that what you’re experiencing is normal. It is the natural progression of children transitioning into adults, asserting independence, and questioning previously accepted mores. It is the process of moving from indoctrination (believing something because someone you respect told you to) and true enlightening (believing something because you, yourself have experience with it and have developed your own insights). This process is an essential part of growing up and making decisions about your own bottom line and life standards.
What should you do if you children announce that they no longer wish to follow the faith?
1. Don’t overreact. Many people consider their religious beliefs to be paramount to their lives, the foundation of who they are. It only makes sense, then, that kids who are desperate to be independent of us will start with what they believe to be the foundation of their childhood upbringing. In their minds, the one thing they can control 100% is their belief system, so it makes sense that this is where they start their journey to independence.
2. Don’t force the issue. If you do overreact, you will drive them further away. I say this about everyone and everything. If you push stubborn people in one direction, they will go the other way if for no other reason than to prove you wrong. You can’t force faith.
3. Encourage open, non-judgmental conversations with your kids about what they’re thinking. What doubts do they have? What questions would they like to ask? You may find that they don’t want to go to church but still enjoy praying and participating in family traditions. Or, you may discover that they have legitimate concerns or worries about their faith that a religious leader may help in addressing.
4. Treat religion as a journey, not a destination. That means that you’re growing right along with them. You don’t have all the answers, but you’re willing to seek them. Teenagers will find this approach refreshing and it might help them relate to you a bit more. Instead of looking at religion as something you have or don’t have, thereby creating the push and pull of the haves and the have nots, they can freely pursue it at their own pace and in their own way, thereby relieving the pressure.
5. Give them time to explore. Exploration leads to discovery. They may find another path that makes you uncomfortable; they may even travel down that path for an extended time, but everyone’s journey is different. It may be that they need to experience other faiths or no faith at all so that if and when they return, they’ll do it with conviction and strength of self.
6. Pray about it. You may be able to control your children’s actions and routines while they live in your home, but once they’re adults, you can’t make them do anything. At that point, the best you can do if you’re a person of faith is lean on that faith and pray. According to Christianity Today, two-thirds of Christians who leave the church in their youth return to it as adults. That’s why what you’re doing now as parents is so crucial to the people your children will eventually become.
Regardless of whether you affiliate with religion or eschew it, your beliefs form your children’s beliefs and contribute to family traditions and daily life. In most cases, your kids will return to their foundational roots, and exploring other branches is part of that process.
For help identifying normal teenager behaviors,”check out my book Teenagers 101.