There are not many universal truths out there. People will argue about whether God is love, or if all people are created equal, but few care to challenge this truth: parenting a teenager is difficult. I am certain it always was difficult, because just looking at what is happening inside teens’ bodies and minds is enough to make any parent pray for reinforcements, but I think it has gotten more complicated over the years. Now not only are teens changing quickly, but society with it as well, and it can be very hard for parents to figure out how to parent teens when the world around them is shifting so rapidly.
You all have a hard job, possibly the world’s hardest. You get few thank yous and no raises, but you are expected to do your job anyway. So please stop reading this and take a minute to give yourself a pat on the back, because just trying to be a good parent is a monumental task.
Now I want to focus the rest of this article on one small but important part of your parenting task: your child’s faith development, and particularly how to engage your teen in conversation about their faith. I have learned from my own experience with teens that it can be hard to get teens to talk about anything, much less the important topics. A lot of teens avoid discussing anything heavy with people, and their parents in particular. Let me tell you that this is NORMAL. At this stage in their development, they are going about the task of individuation. Their whole lives up until this point have been largely directed by others (parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, etc.), but now they are starting to take a second look at how they have been living. They want to figure out who they are, what they believe, and who they can trust.
All of this may seem scary, especially to parents, but I think it provides a special opportunity for parents and other caring adults to minister to teens. They may not be asking for it, but they desperately want and need people who will walk alongside them as they navigate this new world they are discovering and trying to make sense of, the new self they are discovering and trying to make sense of, and the new God they are discovering and trying to make sense of.
So how can we better engage our teens in their lives and faith? Here are some principles and tips I have learned over the years:
- You can’t give what you don’t have - the first step to guiding anyone on their faith journey is to have one of your own. All of us go through ups and downs in our faith, where God feels particularly close or distant, so there is no need to fret over trying to be a perfect Christian if things have been rocky for you lately. It is important, though, that we have lives oriented towards Christ if we are going to try to point others towards him.
- You have the best co-parent - As much as you love your child, God loves them even more (and loves you that much as well). God wants you to succeed as a parent, and will empower you to love and nurture your kids in ways you didn’t think possible. So lean on God in prayer through this time and trust God to work in and through you.
- Faith can be articulated through actions - If your teens see your faith is a big part of your life and influences how you make decisions, they will be learning about your faith even without you having to speak about it.
- Persistence is your best tool - I have found that you can literally wear teens down with love. Although teens are often not trusting, and put up walls to others (even their parents), they will open up when they realize your love for them is relentless. Teens really need to know that you are in their corner no matter what. So even if your efforts to engage them may seem fruitless, know that your teens are slowly and steadily seeing that you are a person in their lives who truly loves them and will not abandon them.
- There is always more time. Time is finite, but there are always gaps of time you can find to have meaningful conversation with your teen if you really try to find some. Check out this article from Focus on the Family that outlines some creative ways of finding time to chat with your teens: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/spiritual-growth-for-kids/faith-at-home/make-time-to-talk-about-faith
- Quality time is important - find time to do something special with your son or daughter. Go fishing, get ice cream, have a movie night, get coffee, etc. These experiences show them you value your relationship with them, and always tend to lead to moments of vulnerability where you all can talk about things that really matter.
- Listening is more important than speaking - teens, and really everyone, will be more likely to open up if they know they will really be listened to. Remember the acronym: WAIT - Why Am I Talking? All too often parents fall into the trap of lecturing their teens, teaching their teens, counseling their teens, when really they just want someone to listen to them. Check out this video to see tips on how to show your teens you are really listening - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toVJG0Uu3uM
- Look for conversation, not confirmation - teens are reluctant to share if they are worried their response may not be the response you want to hear. It is important that you cultivate a space of acceptance and safety, where they know their real thoughts and beliefs are valued and accepted, even if you disagree with them.
- Current events are open doors for conversations - Because teens are trying to make sense of their world, what is happening in the world is great way to engage your kids in conversation. I have found that our teens are constantly processing the events they are seeing unfold in the news and on their news feeds, and they want people to discuss them with. Through discussing what is happening in the world, you can find places where our faith overlaps and allows you to discuss not only the nature of the world but the nature of our God.
- Everyone loves stories - It doesn’t matter what age you are, everyone loves a good story. Teens may not want to discuss their beliefs with you or read the Bible with you but they may be interested in hearing some of the important stories in your faith life.
- Don’t try to be an expert - None of us will ever fully understand God, the Bible, and our world, and that is okay. Be honest with teens about the things in your faith that you are wrestling with, because it will make them feel safe to have their own doubts. This shows them that you can still have real authentic faith and still not have it all figured out.
These are just some principles and ideas I have found to be helpful as I have worked with teens for the last decade. In addition to the link I share above, I have come across these other resources that are tremendously helpful:
Many blessings to all the parents out there who are striving to disciple their kids! And please post any questions or suggestions you may have about your family's faith conversations in the Comments section below.
Director of Youth Ministries