“I Don’t Believe in God Anymore”–When Your Kids Reject the Faith

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 you something 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 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, you can speak with a Catholic therapist by calling the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s tele-counseling appointment line at 740-266-6461.  Together, we can help your teen become everything God created him or her to be.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • ToyStory2WasDecent

    I’m 16 and love the bible! Everything in it is a rule to live by. I don’t eat any pork or shellfish (GROSS!) But I couldn’t believe it, I went to a friends church the other day and the women were allowed to speak! I was in awe and a little disappointed in the husbands who couldn’t keep control of their disobedient wives. That never happened when my parents and I went to church, at least until they got divorced. Sadly they both have recently remarried and as a result will rot in hell for eternity with all the harlots and murderers from across the globe. It still love them though!
    -Dougie

  • ToyStory2WasDecent

    Hey! Fuck the moderator that didn’t allow my last comment up! FREE SPEECH NIGGA! I’M KEEPIN THIS SHIT REAL AS FUCK AND YOU THINK YOU CAN PLAY ME OUT LIKE A BITCH?! WELL I’M FROM WISH-A-NIGGA-WOODS AND IF I COULD I’D TURN YO 5 DOLLA ASS INTO CHANGE!!! NICKLES & DIMES FALLIN OUT YO AASSHOLE BRUUUUHHHH!!!

  • Chris K

    I could write another of those letters about my son who left the faith. I think his heart is broken from learning about certain issues, and says no loving God would allow this, so he insists that if science can’t prove something, then it must not exist. He is especially adamant about hell, and how the concept proves our “SkyDaddy” is vindictive.
    Yes, we homeschooled. Yes, he was an altar server. Yes, he was the best student in his confirmation class. Yes, he’s breaking my heart. Please say it’s just a phase. Please say he’ll rediscover his faith/Our Lord’s love.

  • Celia

    “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.”
    Nope. I nearly left the practice of the Faith entirely when I was 16 because I had actual intellectual questions no one I knew could answer. Teenagers are capable of intellectual problems that are not a pretense. When I read Anselm’s “Cur Deus” a couple of years later, the trouble was resolved. This was before the Internet, so intellectually satisfying answers were harder to come by than today. But still, respect teens enough to admit that at least some of them can have genuine intellectual conflicts/crises!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    A man who isn’t liberal when he is young, has no heart. A man who is not conservative when he is old, has no brain.

    It is common for cradle catholics to drift away from the Church when they are in their late teens to early twenties.

    The answer is twofold- first, get them involved as you can. I’m still Catholic today because when I was Wicca, when I was Buddhist, when I was Atheist- I was also a eucharistic minister every weekend I came home from school. The second, buy them books. Let them explore the history of human belief and human faith. Don’t just stick to Catholic either- I like to say the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra (Zen) taught me a love of paradox that led me right back to Christ.

  • Eric D Red

    Do you really believe it’s “always, always, always some personal experience of suffering or pain “? In many cases, that may be true, but many walk away from faith because it just doesn’t make sense. And the question of suffering of others or in general, is neither a “personal experience” or an entirely fallacious question.

    Like many Christians, you seem unable to believe that there are those who genuinely don’t believe in gods and came to that position intellectually and honestly. You even seem dismiss what’s in front of you as “apparent” rejection because you can’t accept it may actually be rejection of faith. And then you go on to reject this as a “red herring”. Note that I say “seem” because I can’t guess you’re actual thinking, although you claim to be able to do universally for teens.

    Teens can think further than you give them credit for, even if they don’t have the knowledge and experience to dig through the theology. In highlighting problems like suffering and the Catholic stance on homosexuality, they aren’t necessarily creating strawmen or finding excuses. Theodicy is a valid issue that many, even great theologians and other philosophers have struggled with for centuries. These are valid questions that do challenge the concept of God. You may have found your own answers to those, but many come to a different conclusion quite validly.

    I can understand that you’d treat loss of faith a problem, but when you dismiss it as not really being a valid question of faith, you aren’t treating these teens as valid people, and frankly you are deluding all those involved.

  • Eric D Red

    As of writing this, my previous comment is still in moderation, and I don’t know if it will ever emerge. However, I’ve thought a bit further about this.

    I originally approached this from the point of view of those who ultimately leave the faith, but you’re doing a disservice to those who eventually remain. In fact, I think you’re approach may drive some away.

    You are dismissing teens concerns as not real. To them at least, those are valid concerns. Frankly, questions of suffering aren’t trivial. You’re either telling them they don’t know what they’re actually thinking, which is insulting, or making it seem that you’re avoiding a difficult question that has no answer.

    If they bring up tough questions, they need honest answers. From that they can make their own decisions.

    That said, you are right that it is sometimes simple rebellion or other teen issues, and I don’t disregard your advice about having a solid rapport with your kids, and giving them some room to grow.

  • EJ

    May the loss of rapport have more to do with the disruption of family relationships caused by the education system that isolates teens to being raised by their peers rather than adults, when a teenager thinks their friends are better guides than their parents?

  • Octavo

    “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.”

    That is unbelievably offensive. As someone who rejected the religion of my parents, the last thing I need is someone telling my parents that my atheism likely has to do with a breakdown in my relationship with said parents.

  • DaveL

    I am 25 years old, and I just recently left the faith approx. 3 months ago. Now my de-conversion was relatively mild, I came to it from a very intellectual position (no hurt, frustration with parents or the church) and though I’m not a teenager I find that your categorization the issue is wild oversimplification. I can’t pretend to know all of the individual reasons why someone would become an atheist or leave the faith, but I don’t believe you can either. Worse is the instance in which you basically state that teenagers are essentially immature and incapable of rational thought. If a student were to say “the faith is lacking an explanation for abundance of evil” I understand that to be a completely valid question that is going un-answered. No amount of loving the child or making the parental bond stronger will answer that question. Sadly, the Christianity doesn’t have a strong answer to that question. (which is part of why I myself left) not to say that it doesn’t have any answers, but simply ignoring or dismissing this question posed by your children or advocating that parents do this is a recipe for hurt and insult equivalent to stating “you just aren’t old enough to understand”. Also, to state as a core reason that the parental bond or relationship is the reason for the child leaving the faith is highly toxic to parents. You are saying essentially that they are failures. And frankly that flies in the face of Christian doctrine. Each is accountable for their own faith. A parent can raise them in the church and teach them, however, they are responsible for their own beliefs. You cannot expect parents to carry guilt for something they may or may not have done. So parents if you are reading this. Its not your fault. There is a large spectrum of reasons for which your child may have left the faith. But those things are not your fault. They are outside of your control. You do not deserve any condemnation for the love you hold for your children, and no one should place any burden on you if your children decide not to follow in your footsteps. Much love – Dave.L.

  • kenofken

    Ironically, the hubris which underlies the assertion that “it’s never about the faith itself”, is one of the reasons people actually do leave. There’s also a huge disconnect in this aspect of the culture of Catholicism. You say on the one hand that kids don’t have the mental capacity or life experience to reject a religion for any substantive reason. On the other hand, they’re considered competent at age 14 or 15 to make the decision to be confirmed as adult members of the Catholic community. Which is it?

    • silicasandra

      But that’s not what Confirmation is. In the Latin rite, children are Confirmed when they are older, but it does not have to be the 13-15 age range. It could be around the same time as first Confession and Communion (even before). Eastern Catholics are usually Chrismated (what they call Confirmation) as infants. It is not analogous to a bar/bat mitzvah.

  • David E

    “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.”

    I can understand why religious people would like to believe this but, as someone who deconverted in my teens (I’m still an atheist at 42) and who knows a great many others who did the same, it REALLY IS usually the result of finding the claims of religion irrational and untenable. The fact that parents are often unwilling to understand this only results in them talking past the kid and utterly failing to address the reasons for their unbelief.

    • Matt Davis

      I’ve seen apologetics websites which say the atheist almost always has had a bad experience that makes him an atheist. Why do so many religious people believe this? It really is, more often than not, a conclusion reached after thinking about it and contemplation. Nothing bad happened to most atheists; they just thought about the whole thing and saw no evidence that it was true. Hence they don’t feel belief without evidence is justified. This is an oversimplification but it’s the general idea.

  • Jerry Lynch

    “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.”

    Sorry, I would argue that it has more to do with a third option: a resurgence of seeking autonomy. As ill-equipped as any person may be to take on this process as the teenager, this age is a usual part of ego formation. Of course, rejection does not have to be the case for many reasons. Healthy teens can emerge without the classic rebellion. However, the above statement does not seem to grant them their own character and being but makes them this almost canserous extension of parental authority. How to remove this devilish obstinancy? (Stoning was once the order.)

    “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 agree that this is one way to look at it, just as looking at resistance to the therapist is usuallly taken as a fear or resistance to change and not an expression of individuality. But it might be, yet the underlying thought presumes that the client is somehow at fault. Just the statement “resistant to the faith” implies that, for whatever misinformed reason, they have gone astray. Maybe not. Maybe it is the first step in personalizing their faith instead of it being a hand me down.

    Teens are generally extremely loyal to their peers; both a real hazard and gift from God. We as adults should be so crazy. Again, to presume such unadulterated fialty is misplaced or a defect, overlooks the instilled wonder of a loving God. We are designed for such involved and fiercely loyal fellowship. Which often gets diluted by parents and pastors discouraging what they only see as “peer pressure.”

    “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).”
    This paragraph, I feel, truly misrepresents what is actually going on. They are angry about the lack and feeling of genuineness in their life, and the parents usually become the targets: how else could they have come to this point? On another note, no matter how convicted a parent may be on certain points of faith or lifestyle, he or she cannot instill that same conviction in their child. It is mere opinion, an intellectual idea to them.
    The presumption of defect on the side of the child (“looking to hit back”) is, I feel, enormously damaging to finding the real source of the problem: a true and vital interconnectedness with others. We see this fact in peer loyalty, and they want this same thing in every area of their life, feeling, 85% of the time correctly, that their parents have abandoned this basic of life. Or compromised.

    “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.”
    Yes and no. Over-simplified and too complex. Each child is a unique individual. I was of quiescent temperament, my sister highly spirited as children. I was the obedient and perfect child while she was considered incorrigible. I went on to be an alcoholic of extreme ill-repute while she was ready for local canonization when she died, a staunch and devout Catholic. Can’t tell a book by its cover.

    What teens feel far more than any of us at any other stage is the vibrancy of life inside them. If they have any mental health, the established way has to be wrong: look at all the unnecessary pain and suffering. Absurd. The parents, the whole world, must be deluded.

    And they are right. Political, social, and religious politeness in the face of diabolic insults and cruelty to humanity is the norm this “politeness” incidentally support. How very sick. But most, sadly and unfortunately, get pulled back into the fold, have that edge clipped. The searching, perceived as ungodly doubt, corraled and once there broken.

    While you should be celebrating this Process and looking to aid its completion in an honest discovery of imago dei within, you make it an illness and for that, causing the least of these to stumble, you will need to answer.

  • Heartfout

    Excellent advice. I shall follow it if my (atheist) kids start wondering about converting to the Catholic Church, to make sure they aren’t taken down the wrong path. :)

  • ortcutt

    This doesn’t agree with my experience at all or with the experience of similar people I’ve met. I went to weekly Mass and CCD as a child. I came to the conclusion that Christianity isn’t true during those CCD classes, and it didn’t have to do with recognition of suffering or with discord with my parents. In fact, I credit my parents for having given me the broad education that led me to question what I was being told. My rejection of a belief in the claims of Christianity was purely epistemic. There just wasn’t any evidence for the claims being made. I was pointed to the Bible, but the Bible is a book, like the Iliad or the Mahabharata. Then I was told I was supposed to take it on faith. It seemed strange to do that when I was being told to look to facts and evidence in every other aspect of my life.

  • GBJames

    Or, try this idea out… The teens are beginning to think for themselves. Hard to imagine, I know. But this is a good thing.

  • Jerry Lynch

    You deleted my comment. I would have preferred that you shredded with a rebuttal, even make me look the fool. Censorship in America againt ideas? I wonder what your party affiliation is? (Not really.) Talking to myself right now.

  • Matt Davis

    I disagree. Here in the UK, I went to a primary school that had religious assemblies every morning, hymn singing, prayers etc. By the second year of infants (I was probably about 5 or so), I told all my classmates that I didn’t believe in God, and most of them actually agreed with me. Even though I was that young, I had valid reasons for my disbelief: teachers at school constantly told us about what God did and said, and none of it was believable. In short, there was no evidence any of it was true. Very often, people who become atheists do so because of the lack of evidence in everyday life. In those situations, if the child genuinely doesn’t see any evidence for the existence of a deity and hence sees no reason to believe in one, forcing him to act out the faith isn’t going to make him believe; it’ll just make him resent his parents for forcing him to perform pointless rituals, in his opinion, and will make him more likely to be disrespectful to the faith when he gets older due to disillusionment and anger for being forced to go through all that. I have a great deal of respect for both my parents for not doing this – my dad is an atheist from a Jewish background and my mum calls herself nominally Church of England but really just has a vague God belief, like a Deist really. Neither of them forced their views on me; they told me what they believed and were both very happy to let me make my own mind up and that’s the best way in my opinion.

  • varde

    For me it was easy change. I just took my time in school library which was, if I’m allowed to say, secular.

  • Japheree

    Honestly I can only leave my response as others have done on how this view doesn’t square with my experience. I went to a church of England primary school and pretty early on remember wondering if the teachers really believed these highly unlikely stories (note there was none of sophisticated theology stuff then, you were told either to believe it or not). But for a period in my teens when I did believe for a bit, I have never done so, despite a pretty devout Catholic mother.

  • Iris

    I love all the atheists comments about how it was intellectual reasoning that made them abandon the faith of their parents, as if their parents are intellectual midgets compared to them. They claim no ‘evidence’ for faith so it is reasonable to reject it, yet I have found ‘evidence’ by the loads. I can’t help but think they rather dislike the notion that there is someone greater than they who might actually, gasp, JUDGE them, and so they reject out of hand all the ‘evidence’ or don’t bother to look for/at it.
    For instance, there have been numerous articles on the ongoing study of the Shroud of Turin, all of which show that science simply can’t explain the image. Of course, it couldn’t possibly be a, gasp, MIRACLE, surely. Yet they can not explain it and fall back on long refuted erroneous carbon dating, etc… They don’t bother to look at the comparative study of the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud of Turin. No explanation needed for how the two were clearly used on the same man and how they both line up perfectly with the account found in the Gospels, or how the Sudarium far predates the record of the Shroud and the erroneous carbon dating. Even less interesting to these rational atheists is the ‘evidence’ of blood type being the same on both relics, and on Eucharistic Miracles like the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, which has been revered since the 8th century anno Domini. Long before blood typing was discovered. Yet they all have type AB, a relatively rare blood type. Curious…but the rational intellectual atheists don’t seem intellectually curious at all in the ‘evidence’ that might make them rethink their own superiority.

    Never mind the evidence that rejection of the laws of God leads to the destruction of cultures as we can see clearly all around us. Never mind the evidence found all around us as the fuse burns closer and closer to the powder keg that is our world, following exactly the prophecy found in that ‘book’. Never mind Romans 1…that alone should be all the evidence they need, yet willful blindness would seem to be the order of the day for the oh so rational. ‘For as they liked not to have God in their knowledge…”

    It is all coming to pass, exactly as written. I pray they ‘see the light’ before it is too late. God have mercy.

  • lh

    I believe teenagers refuse God because they have personal reasons that do not involve the faith of God’s existence. One, they don’t want to go to church, so they tell their parents their atheist. And two, they don’t want to be criticized when they do certain things and they want to have a certain life style, so they SAY they don’t believe in God ( when they do) just so they don’t have to except responsibility.

  • Meaza Behan

    I agree with Eric. I left the church as a teen and it was a very hard decision for me because I wanted to believe that those things that helped me find security in a world with out absolutes. In my case I was presented with something that I had questioned about. I looked for the answer that I “knew” was right and couldn’t find it.


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