How to talk to a teenager about religion: A guide for parents and youth workers

Teenagers Need a Spiritual Life

Help teenagers find a spiritual identity by asking questions and opening conversations.
Help teenagers find a spiritual identity by asking questions and opening conversations.

Tips for Talking to Teens

  • Find a quiet spot--No screens, no music.
  • Sit on the same level.
  • Make frequent eye contact.
  • Ask more questions. When you don't understand or you think they have more to say, you can say, "Tell me more about that."
  • Good conversations do not have an ending. They are on-going.
  • When a teen finishes talking, don't immediately go to respond. Sometimes, they just want to know you have heard them.

Teenagers spend most of their time developing their identity. It is what they are thinking about when they are getting dressed in the morning for school, when they taking a Science test, and when they are making plans for the weekend. It drives what they do and say at all times. Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, described lifelong development as the succession of eight stages, each characterized by a central dilemma. It is no surprise to people who work with teenagers that the central dilemma for teenagers is Identity vs. Role confusion. Either teenagers achieve an identity or they languish in role confusion, which is why young people try on many different identities, date different kinds of people, and try new activities, including risky activities.

Parents have an important role to play in this stage. Finding a way to challenge your teen to wrestle with religion and faith without demanding that they believe the same creeds that you believe can be the formative struggle they have been waiting for.

The danger of presenting church teachings in a heavy-handed way is that we may deprive teenagers of the opportunity to struggle with their faith identity. If faith is presented as a closed question (God is x and you either take it or leave it), we run the risk of foreclosing that aspect of their personality . Foreclosed identities never explore other alternatives and can lead to moments of crisis. Sometimes young people are praised for having strong faith when in reality they have retreated to a foreclosed identity where they see the world in terms of black and white, us and them.

Churches or other places of worship also have a role to play. Much what makes a religious youth group powerful is that it gives young people a way to identify themselves in the church and the community that is tied to their faith. For the first time in their lives, teenagers get to choose if they are going to make church and God a part of their identity.

Often issues of faith are not presented in such a way that allows for choice. Creeds and catechisms make church a difficult place to encourage questioning and exploration, which may be why churches do so well at making youth group fun but struggle to make youth group spiritually engaging. It's hard to engage teenagers in questions that already have answers. They spend most of their time thinking about questions that don't have answers yet.

I, like others who work with teenagers, have wanted to make these struggles for identity easier. Young people come to me hurting, and I have been foolish enough to believe that I had the answer that would alleviate their pain. When I resist the temptation to give answers to young people about who they should be or what they should do, it is the smartest and toughest role I can play.

When parents resist the temptation to tell their teen what kind of faith they should have, they help their teenager develop a solid religious identity, one that they can grow into for the rest of their lives.

Best Resources About Teens

I have read a lot of books about adolescents, but none have taught me more about the kinds of conversations that are helpful than Understanding Youth (see side panel). This resource is written by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and summarizes decades of wisdom about working with teenagers. I recommend it to anyone who works with teens (including their parents).

Many of the books on parenting (you may have noticed) has conflicting information. Sometimes, a parent or youth worker has to simply "choose a side." This book is worth choosing.

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