Teenagers by nature will push the envelope. In the process of defining their identity they may resist family rules, try a new hairdo, wear clothes they wouldn’t have dreamed about wearing a few years ago, and listen to music they know drives their parents crazy.
Parents valiantly endure this defiance and can usually find a happy middle ground between needing to control every aspect of their teenagers’ lives and providing their kids the freedom to make their own choices. But there is one type of rebellion that is particularly frightening and arresting for parents of teens.
It’s one thing for a kid to have goofy hair. It’s a totally different matter when a teenager questions his faith. This is an agonizing situation for parents because they are not just dealing with weird clothes that will be forgotten in a few short years. A teenager who questions or outright rejects his faith is not only pushing against family values. He may also be putting his life on a destructive course that leads to sin and pain and ultimately separation from God.
For that reason it is no wonder that parents are concerned and saddened when their kids express spiritual doubts. As a parent it is completely understandable you would feel that way. But a little insight into cognitive and spiritual development may change your perspective and make your child’s doubts a little less troubling.
When kids enter puberty in the early teenage years (usually in middle school) their brains begin to develop the ability to think abstractly. Moving from concrete to abstract thinking opens up a whole new world of mental capabilities.
Spiritually, it means they can start to think of theological concepts abstractly. For example, they begin to grasp attributes about God that used to be incomprehensible. It also means they can critically evaluate Bible stories. Instead of taking biblical teaching and doctrine at face value, they can weigh evidence and come up with their own conclusions.
This newfound ability to think about God abstractly and reason critically about the Bible means their childhood faith is blown up. The simple faith they were taught as kids no longer works. They need to figure out how Christianity fits within their newfound mental capacities.
That means to some extent it’s a good thing for teenagers to question their faith. The questioning process may simply indicate his brain is figuring out what Christianity looks like according to an abstract-thinking brain. He is not flirting with abandoning faith as much as he is struggling to develop a faith that will last into adulthood.
So if a middle school student you know is questioning his faith or expressing doubts, here are some things you can do to help him (and help yourself):
- Keep in mind it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to question their faith to a certain extent.
- As much as you want to freak out, try not to panic. Going into panic mode won’t help anyone as you walk through this situation.
- Indulge him in his questioning. Help him articulate and process his thoughts and questions. By doing so you can show him it’s possible to be a Christian and think critically.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question or are struggling to communicate with him, ask another wise Christian adult or pastor for help.
- Continue to show love and concern for him. What would it tell him about Christianity if you rejected him when he expressed doubts?
- Pray. Ask for courage and wisdom to walk alongside him. Ask God to protect his heart, to surround him with godly influences, and for God to reveal himself in a clear way to him.
- At the end of the day, admit your teenager is a wonderfully complex human created by God. And he is only going to grow more independent the older he gets. You do not ultimately control his spiritual destiny. You can and do play a huge role in his spiritual development, but it’s ultimately between him and God.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is entrust your teenager into God’s hands. I’m not a parent but I can imagine it’s awful to think about your child walking away from his faith as a middle school or high school student or as an older adult. Thankfully we serve a God who is bigger than our parenting struggles and the doubts our teenagers may express.