“Help! My teenage son or daughter is an atheist!”
Call it a natural part of a teen’s development into their own person, or call it a simple act of teenage rebellion, but it’s no secret that the teenage years are the most common time for individuals to renounce their parents’ faith. But if your faith is important to you as a parent, it can be hard to cope with your teen’s reluctance to believe.
Unfortunately for you, there’s no way to force your teen to believe, as beliefs are an entirely personal decision. Forcing them to attend church is one thing (a completely ineffective tactic, for the most part), but forcing them to believe is another thing entirely. However, there are some steps you can take to deal with this issue.
Try to be understanding.
Many parents’ first reaction upon hearing that their son or daughter is an atheist is pure shock. Others react with anger. Still others are depressed, wondering where they could have “gone wrong” as a parent for their child to stray.
It’s important to stay calm and realize, though, that this is not the end of the world. Teens rebel against their parents in every way they know how; there’s absolutely nothing new about that. Whether it’s with the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, or the beliefs they hold, teenagers have always striven to carve their own paths. Unfortunately for parents, this usually results in the teen renouncing their parents’ values.
Try to be as understanding as possible during this time, though. They’re still your son or daughter, after all, and they need your support and love just as much as they did before. Remain a calm and loving parent. As will be discussed below, anger and attempts to force your child to believe are unlikely to be effective and will probably only serve to drive a wedge between you and your child. The best you can do at this point is to pray and to…
Never force the issue.
In some cases, teens will eventually reverse their decisions or “grow out of it.” For these individuals, renouncing religion is often a brief phase, meaning they’ll return to their religion in due time.
For others, though, this could be a longer-lasting mindset. In this case, as much as you might hate to hear it, there’s truly nothing you can do other than pray. The simple fact is, beliefs are not something that can be forced. Consider this: No one could force you to believe in a God other than the one you serve, right? Of course not! Put yourself in your teen’s shoes and understand that that’s how they feel when you try to coerce them into believing. Although your heart is in the right place, finding God is probably something that your teen needs to do in their own way.
Also, most teens and young adults are so determined to carve their own path that forcing the issue is likely to result in your efforts completely backfiring. Ill-advised is the parent who forces their newly-atheist teen to come to church on Sundays or “suffer the consequences.” Such punishments only serve to reinforce your teen’s new belief that religion is a negative thing. Associating religion with negative consequences or angry discussions is only going to drive your teen further and further from where you want them to be.
Likewise, “subtle” hints are probably not going to work. While you may think you’re planting a seed in your teen’s head when you say things like, “What a gorgeous morning GOD has given us today!” you’re actually probably irritating your child or even hurting their feelings. Such comments, which are often inserted “subtly” into regular conversation, only give your child the impression that when you’re spending time with them, all you notice is their religious beliefs.
In addition to possibly opening the door for yet another emotional (and ultimately fruitless) religious argument, these comments often make your teen believe that you don’t love them the way they are and that you will never truly accept them as your son or daughter unless they return to their old religious beliefs. Parental rejection is a terrible feeling for a teenager who is already questioning themselves as a person, so try your hardest to avoid making your teen feel like you only love them if they worship like you do.
But again, no matter how much you might want to, you can’t force someone to believe Instead, it’s important to allow your teen some freedom in terms of their beliefs and to simply try your best to…
Be a good example of all your faith has to offer.
One of the absolute worst things you can do as a parent of a teenage atheist is to punish your child for their disbelief. If your child has strayed, then they probably did so because they have negative opinions about religion. That means that one of the worst things you can do right now is to give them even more reasons to avoid God. Reacting with anger, judgment, etc. is a near certain way to alienate your child for years to come, not only from you, but also from God.
Instead, show your child all the positive things that your religion has to offer. As mentioned above, don’t force the issue; rather, live by example. Be a loving, caring, and accepting parent. Be a loyal and joyful spouse. Be a giving and kind person in general. If you live by God’s example, your teen will eventually take notice. If you show them, through little more than your everyday actions, all the joy that your faith provides, perhaps your teen will be drawn to its more positive aspects, as opposed to letting their opinion be controlled by religion’s uglier side like they are now. If your teen doesn’t come around as quickly as you’d like, the best you can do is to…
Trust in God.
Believing in God also means believing that He has a plan for everyone. Sometimes you may not understand that plan, and sometimes (like when your teen rejects their faith), God’s plan may seem downright terrible.
However, it’s important for you to place your trust in His hands. Perhaps having your teen stray is God’s way of testing your family’s love. Or perhaps losing your teen temporarily is His way of gaining your teen for the rest of their lifetime. It’s impossible to know what He has in store, so it’s best for you to avoid trying to control what’s beyond your power. Instead, it’s important for you to weather this storm with as much grace as possible.
Part of trusting God is to allow your teen to explore their beliefs and to come to their own understanding of things, in their own time. Even if they do not return to God on the timeline that you deem appropriate, have faith that things will work out as God intends.
Joe Bigliogo says
While on the surface you appear to be tolerance even accepting of atheist teens, you blow your credibility by treating atheism as if it were an act of rebellion when it is anything but. Instead of viewing young atheists as deviants and lost souls you’d be far wiser to grant them the same respect you expect given to you in return. For the day may come when your own beliefs are threatened and no one’s there to stand up for you.
Judy Banta says
I agree…and I believe if teens do not rebel in some ways at some times, they have difficulty becoming whole persons apart from their parents identity.