You gave your daughter her first Bible with her name etched on the cover. You prayed before dinner, told her about Jesus, and tried your darned hardest to not miss a Sunday. Then this happened:
“Mom, I’m not sure I believe in God.”
If you’re like most parents, panic sets in and you wonder what the heck went wrong. That curious little girl who loved vacation Bible school, church camp, and felt a calling to be baptized, all of the sudden is questioning her faith.
Could this be a good thing?
The shift from black and white thinking to shades of gray starts happening around high school when your child enters “middle adolescence.” During this time, they question everything—including their beliefs formed during childhood. As they journey through this phase of adolescence, they start to strengthen their advance reasoning skills, develop abstract thinking, and acquire meta-cognition (which literally means thinking about thinking).
Thinking more deeply about important issues and asking questions is a good thing! Although it can be a worrisome time as you grapple with your son or daughter’s doubts, it is also a time to celebrate their autonomy, thinking skills and desire to personalize their faith.
How we respond to our teen at a time of spiritual doubt is very important. If our reaction is fearful, angry, panicked or condemning, our teens quickly learn that expressing their thoughts and doubts is not welcomed. As parents, we need to be the safest place in our children’s lives to have conversations about anything, including faith.
Try approaching discussions on faith, church and God using these strategies:
1. Prioritize quality time. Car rides, before bed, during dinner—find a non-distracting time to talk with your son or daughter about their faith. Avoid disruptions like cell phones, other kids that may need your attention, or the TV. Finding an ideal time to start the conversation is key.
2. Ask permission. “Can we talk for a few minutes about faith?” While it may seem counterintuitive, asking permission allows teens to feel in control of the conversation and ultimately more open to a deeper discussion. After they give permission, start the conversation by sharing your faith (the short version in order to keep them engaged in the conversation) along with something that grounded you in faith when you had doubts. For me, I shared with my daughter examples of my trust in God to open doors to opportunities that seemed impossible and how those opportunities strengthened our family. Honest sharing works better than preaching or lecturing, which can be hard to avoid when you’re passionate!
3. Empathize. Nobody said this faith thing was easy. Many young people are questioning God as they see high profile societal issues deliberated across social media. When my daughter came to me with her doubts related to what she was seeing and hearing, I empathized first. “Sometimes it feels like God is used as an excuse for people to condemn another group, yet we know Jesus loves all people.”
4. Use open-ended questions. A simple rephrasing of a question from close-ended (that can be answered with a yes or no) to an open-ended question unlocks the door to a two-way conversation. Use open-ended questions to learn more from your teen and to help them process their thoughts and feelings.
“Tell me more about your faith.”
“What role does God have in your life?”
“How do you see your life with and without God?”
End with a key question. “What do you need in order to strengthen your faith?”
5. Affirmations. Different than compliments, affirmations communicate an appreciation to your son or daughter for who they are and can help them internalize their strengths. Affirmations usually start with
Providing affirmations can be powerful to help remind your teen of their underlying beliefs, as long as they are truly descriptions of your teen’s strengths.
“You have a strong commitment to your faith.”
“You are seeking answers.”
“You feel loved by our church family.”
“You believe in Jesus.”
Instead of shaming our sons and daughters for their faith uncertainties, speak life into them! Encourage deeper thinking, celebrate their honesty, and emphasize that they are loved no matter what.
As parents, we shouldn’t shy away from talking about faith with our kids just because we are afraid of the outcome. Being transparent about how we have felt reassures them their feelings are normal. Faith is what stabilizes our belief and anchors us to truth. Join your kids in the journey toward nurturing faith. It’s a powerful thing indeed.
Dr. Jennifer Salerno is an author, national speaker, and founder of Possibilities for Change. Her team developed the nation’s leading adolescent risk screening system, the Rapid Assessment for Adolescent Preventive Services (RAAPS). Dr. Salerno’s book, Teen Speak, and the Teen Speak series—complete with companion workbook and online learning course—has helped thousands of parents develop communication skills to overcome the most common challenges of parenting a teen.