When Adolescents Renounce the Family Faith

Teenagers can reject religious training and attendance, returning to it later.

Posted Dec 02, 2013

The parenting question from Heidi Stevens who writes an informative column for the Chicago Tribune (“The Parent ‘Hood”) was this: “Your teen just declared himself atheist. You want him to celebrate the upcoming holidays with the family. Help!”

This got me thinking like this. Many families with an adolescent are anchored in some religious faith and attendance that the young person has participated in through childhood. This shared observance provides one common bond which unites the family. To declare against this faith not only challenges one of the basic supports of family life, but it signals resistance to joining in. Why might this declaration occur?

What can sometimes happen, usually around mid-adolescence (ages 13–15), for reasons of differentiation (becoming one’s own individual) or independence (operating on one’s own terms) or both, the teenager may declare that religiously believing and participating is no longer for them. The reason sometimes given is because now they have become an unbeliever. (From what I have seen, unless they have a strong middle school youth program, and a compelling youth minister, churches can lose young people at this time.) The early part of adolescence is a period when young people do more questioning of all kinds of authority -- parental, social, expert, and spiritual, for example. It is no failing to question one's religious beliefs at this juncture. In fact, for many young people, it is entirely appropriate. 

So, what are parents to understand, to say, and to do in the face of this apparent falling away?

In terms of understanding, and perhaps most important, is that parents not lose faith in the foundation that religious upbringing in childhood has taught. That is instilled. It is not going away. While the teenager can suspend traditional adherence, the beliefs and associated values that were taught remain as part of the young person’s historical record, whatever additions or revisions she or he chooses to introduce now. It is best to treat this declaration of atheism as a trial change and not a terminal one. What is forsaken in adolescence is not erased and can often be reclaimed in adulthood.

Adolescence, after all, can be a prodigal process. The young person who strongly rebels against family structure to seek freedom to grow may, in the company of adventurous peers, experiment with more forbidden experiences and alternative images. However, by the end of adolescence, having gotten this run out of her or his system, the young person often returns “home” by mixing lessons from new experiences with old family influences to forge an entry identity for young adulthood. Often to parental surprise, this definition turns out not only similar in character to the person they knew as a child, but also reflects a return to some core family values.

So what might parents say when their adolescent declares he or she has fallen away? First, honor the adolescent’s declaration by taking it seriously. Invite an explanation out. Could he tell you what he means by “atheist” to help you better understand? His intent may turn out to be him simply wanting to take a temporary break, not to make a permanent one. If he thinks removing himself from holiday celebrations must accompany this suspension of belief, explain that is not so. He can be part of the holiday celebration that includes religious observance without having to believe. He can simply participate in it as part of a family gathering tradition, treating it in a more secular way. So turn a faith issue into a family issuue and treat it like that.

Second, in many cases the faith that the child accepts the adolescent must question in order to later recommit out of independent choice. Therefore, what to do, if your adolescent raises any of those questions is to empathetically, non-judgmentally, and with interest hear them out, offering to suggest what answers you can. The main thing at this important juncture is to help keep the adolescent’s freedom of religious choice open and not create, with argument or criticism or disapproval, a need for the young person to close the door for opposition’s sake. And if weekly worship is part of family functioning that he wants to stop observing, see if you can negotiate a reduced pattern of attendance that partly meets his needs and partly meets your own.

Then you can describe the contribution of active faith in your life. Explain how you came by it, how you may have questioned it, even lost it, and reclaimed it, and how all that occurred. Do not oppose the renunciation, because you cannot force faith. You can only encourage it, and your example is one of the most powerful ways of doing so. You can talk about the importance of instruction and congregation and devotion and service and the power of spiritual relationship. Then you might say something like this.

“Everyone believes in something, and that includes atheism, which is also a belief -- one that proposes basing judgement about spiritual matters on evidence one considers reasonable. How you choose to believe is up to you. During your growing up we have shared the religious faith that nourishes us—that give us understanding, guidance, support, purpose, and promise. We wish that whatever beliefs you find, they sustain and strengthen you.”

Why and when might an adolescent who has earlier renounced his faith be open to it at a later time? In the last stage of adolescence and the first part of young adulthood (in the early to mid-twenties) there is an opening for a return to religious faith that I have seen. I think the reason is that so many of these young people feel like they are wandering in the wilderness. Lost and lonely, they feel disconnected. Establishing independence and starting a coherent path into the future seems beyond their reach. Footing is hard to hold, direction is hard to set, meaning is hard to find, and hope is hard to come by.

At this juncture, a faith to embrace, membership in a community of believers, teachings to ponder, rituals to follow, ceremonies to celebrate, a practice of prayer, an opportunity to connect with some transcendent power beyond one’s self: all these can prove of inestimable human value.

Renunciation of religious faith in adolescence does not necessarily mean loss of that faith for adult life. Sometimes, there is a direct return. Other times there is a variation. For example, a young person will reassert an active religious faith, but do so independently by electing a different religion to follow. And even when an active faith is lost, the experience of early religious training usually has some effect on lasting personal values.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE, (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: A Detachment Theory of Parenting Adolescents