Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am 16 years old and an atheist. I was raised Catholic, my father is a Catholic, my mother a Lutheran, and I went to Sunday School, all of that, for quite some time. My great-uncle is even a Catholic priest. For a time, I was happy being Catholic. My brother always enjoyed it, and it’s just the religion most of the people in our small town practice. But, I always had my doubts. It wasn’t until age 12 that I really started to lose faith in it. I never told my parents; I thought it wasn’t a big deal.
About two years ago, I was to be confirmed in the Catholic church. That was when things started going downhill. I didn’t want to lie; it was disrespectful to the religion, myself and my family. I knew my father wasn’t the person to consult about religious matters; he’s a very single-minded man. Instead, I went to my mom. I told her I didn’t want to be confirmed in my father’s church, and she asked me why. I told her I did not believe in any of it, and she kind of started to poke fun at it. She tried negotiating with me! At first, she asked me if I would at least believe in some sort of god. Then she offered to let me be a Lutheran…completely missing my point. When I asked her to be serious, she just said that we would talk about after I was confirmed. I tried dropping the topic on my father…it didn’t really get anywhere. The priest in confession was more open-minded than they were, but he still only suggested I talk to my parents about it. In the end, I had to lie to the church and get confirmed, and now, some people will not believe me when I say I’m an atheist because I was confirmed. It felt forced, and I felt terrible.
I understand they may think it’s just a phase. I get that. It’s been almost four years since I’ve reached these conclusions. I believe this. I’m fine with my parents having different beliefs. What I’m not fine with is when they yell at me for not knowing certain terms I was supposed to learn in Sunday School and getting upset when they ask me to go to church. I go for Easter and Christmas out of respect, but I can’t stand going any other time. It just doesn’t feel right.
They make fun of me. They yell at me. They don’t accept me. I’m comfortable with what I believe in; my friends all accept it, and they know it’s not a phase because they accept me, even the Christian ones. The way things are going with my parents, especially my father, just doesn’t feel good for our relationship. Every time they poke fun at me, I feel myself getting farther and farther away from them. They won’t accept who I am, and it’s beginning to make me feel like they don’t care about me. Sometimes, and I don’t want to sound sensitive, it makes me cry in private. I want to be an open-minded, accepting person. They’re just making me resent the Christian religion and…well, people in general. That’s not what I want. That doesn’t make me happy, and I’m not happy. Yet, they do not notice. One of my teachers noticed how it was impacting me, and she’s been comforting to a degree; she’s just not my mom. They don’t even see that I’m upset; they don’t even notice when they’ve gone too far or say anything when I feel like crying. If they do, then that just makes me feel like they hate me. What should I do? How do I make them understand? At the very least, how do make myself happy? I can’t take this.
I really need this advice from someone who knows what they are saying. Thank you; this is greatly appreciated.
My first concern is for your safety and well-being.
You’re expressing a level of frustration and unhappiness that sounds like it borders on despair. Young people who think that their families not only don’t understand them but also don’t care about them are sometimes at risk for depression and for self-harming actions or suicide.
Please forgive me if that is not what is in your mind. As a therapist, my instinct is to respond directly to that possibility first. I’d rather err on the side of caution than overlook signs of danger. If you have any thoughts about harming yourself, or wishing to die, or if you have made any plans or attempts to harm yourself, PLEASE immediately tell the caring teacher whom you mentioned, and/or a school counselor, or a doctor. Let them help you get out of danger. If you are referred to a counselor, insist that you have a regular, secular counselor, not a pastoral counselor or a priest. Make sure that you are safe and sound first, then we can sort out how you can make your situation better. You deserve a chance to make your situation better, and you can.
If that issue is taken care of or is not pertinent, then let’s move on:
Firstly, I admire your honesty and integrity. It’s sad and ironic how most parents will agree that honesty and integrity are important virtues that they want their children to have, yet when those qualities bring their children into disagreement with them, some parents will berate and punish their children instead of praising and rewarding them.
I think your parents do love you and they do care about you, but they simply don’t know how to properly respond to what you’re telling them. Their making fun of you or yelling at you probably comes from fear rather than from anger or meanness. They’re afraid, and like children, they don’t want to believe or accept it. I’m not making excuses for them or condoning their behavior, but if you understand their emotional motives correctly, you will not make the mistake of concluding that they don’t love you or care about you.
I think at this point you should do two things. The first is to find a way to communicate with your parents about this topic that does not escalate the tension into a yelling match. I get the impression that when you speak to each other about this, it bounces back and forth in a kind of feedback loop, getting more tense, louder, and more hurtful, because it’s getting more scary. Remember, if you see this as coming from fear, both theirs and yours, you can respond more constructively than if you assume it’s all about anger or meanness.
Try a different method of communication to break up the verbal feedback loop. When they make fun of you, be completely silent and write on a small piece of paper something like, “Making fun of me only pushes me further away,” or “I’m not making fun of you, don’t make fun of me.” When they yell at you, remain silent and write something like “Yelling at me means you’re afraid. You don’t need to be,” or “Yelling does not make you more convincing,” or “Yelling at me does not make Christianity attractive.”
Now here’s the part that will be the most challenging for you: You must remain calm, cool and collected. I know this is asking much from a normal, intelligent, and passionate 16-year-old, but since your parents’ reactions are basically child-like, you must be the adult in the room.
Write your note calmly, and gently place it in their hands without any angry or aggressive body language. Then either calmly walk out if you can, or wait with patient composure for their response. If you resume talking, then speak softly, slowly, and carefully, as if you are the patient, loving parent, helping her children to calm down and behave like little ladies and gentlemen. If they persist in their mockery or yelling, write one more note saying, “This is abusive and unhelpful. I will not talk with you if you continue this.”
The second thing to do is to expand and improve upon your support system, including that sympathetic teacher and your accepting friends. You need people who listen to you and accept you openly and easily. Also, find supportive groups online, but be careful to protect your own privacy. Use a pseudonym, and never write anything on Facebook or other such places that you don’t want the world to read. It gets out.
Laurie, I commend you for wanting to restore a loving and respectful relationship with your parents while keeping your integrity. You can keep your heart open to that possibility even though you’re not accepting any more of their childish scorn or browbeating. Forgiveness is not about going back to the old ways. It’s about moving on with love and respect when their treatment of you becomes acceptable. We teach people how to treat us, and we teach best by example. So keep your treatment of them respectful, even as you demand respectful treatment from them. You’re growing up. Parents have to grow up too, and accept their children as newly minted grownups. It can be difficult for them.
I also commend you for wanting to be an open-minded, accepting person, and wanting to keep your resentment of your parents’ application of religion from expanding into resentment of people in general. Cynicism and misanthropy would be a tragic handicap for someone like you, who has so much positivism to offer the world.
Please feel free to write again, and keep us appraised of how things are going. You have a larger “family” surrounding you in all directions who respect, accept, and care about you.