Three Cs for spiritually parenting your teen
The fear crept up on me. My daughter was becoming a teenager. As a child, she’d loved church, she was super comfortable there but as she got older I began to worry.
Would she end up with a real faith, one that stuck with her, or would she drift away like I had done? Why wasn’t she enjoying the youth group? What were her peers telling her? Couldn’t she see how good God was? Why wasn’t she inspired by the worship at church? What could I do? I desperately wanted her to get God, but felt powerless to influence her.
We want the teens in our lives to know and love God and to be connected to him. The teen years are so important. So much is decided in those years, and we can also see so much that can go wrong. How can we spiritually parent them well when sometimes it seems so difficult to parent them at all?
We’d like to suggest there are three Cs that can help you.
You are the expert in your own child and if you are parenting a teen, then you are already doing lots well. But our confidence can take a knock as we transition from parenting a child to becoming the parent or carer of a teen.
Research shows that you are still the most important influence in your child’s life – you are still ‘perfectly positioned’ to parent your teen for faith, so be confident that you can do this! The research backs this up: for example, in 2016, Youth for Christ commissioned a survey of 1001 young people in the UK to examine the culture and beliefs of ‘Generation Z’. These are some of their findings:
- 92% said family is one of the top influences for making you feel good about your self and for 59% of young people family was the number 1 positive influence
- 82% said making their family proud of them was extremely important
- 73% of those who said they believed in a God said family influences the way they think about religion.
Even if your teenager seems uninterested in anything, only grunts, and rejects all your advice and wisdom you can be sure they are actually watching you like a hawk – after all they will be very quick to point out your mistakes!
Your kid needs you to help them navigate this brave new world they are in. Adolescence is a time of rapid change for them. Their brains are doing all sorts of weird things, then the hormones kick in, there are new pressures of exams, peers, romance … from what I remember of my teen years, most of it was spent in a haze of confusion!
- They need to learn from you how to do life with God in it as a grown up. Even if they don’t seem to be interested, you can create windows into your life with God – for example, how and why you read the Bible, what prayer looks like for you, what you and God do when you mess up, how worship affects you, how God helps you when you are let down, where God is in your big decisions.
- Share stories of your life with God today, but also your life with – or without – God as a teenager. Kids love to hear about their parents’ lives, so share stories of your experience of church, what helped you through your exams, where God was when you went to college, etc. And share stories you hear of God working in other people’s lives too – maybe people at church or stories you read in magazines or Christian biographies. Don’t forget to share stories of difficult times, not just the good stuff – they need to know that too.
- Make sure they have a Bible that will be helpful for them, even if they don’t want one – there are some ideas for that here.
- Don’t stop doing what your family does with God just because they don’t seem keen. Don’t force them to join in, but still be who you are with God.
Get educated about their world – as much as you can! When I talking to teens I often find I learn a new word or hear about a new app or vlogger or something huge in their world. It can seem very hard to keep up. But you do need to know enough to talk to them about things and understand what might be influencing them. So get on Facebook and Instagram, ask them about things, go to information nights at school, take a look at the TV programmes they are addicted to. And make your home an open home – encourage them to invite their friends over and put up with the mess and the inroads into the fridge!
Make your home a safe place to wrestle with big questions. Try to create a culture in your home where anything can be talked about. Listen well and whole-heartedly. Stay non-judgmental so it’s OK to say something a bit left field or shocking. And the research shows that teens need answers to big and difficult questions about faith, so allow for doubt and disagreement (and don’t worry if you don’t know the answers – check out our video here for four steps to help you answer any question well.) If your teen is someone who wants or needs to dig deeper into questions of faith, we have an article here with lots of ideas and places to point them to.
When my daughter was small it felt like we were joined at the hip. She wanted to be with me all the time, she told me everything, she delighted in snuggling up on the sofa and just being with me. I was the centre of her world. And then, as she grew older, there began to be a disconnect. It can feel like we go from having kids literally hanging off us, telling us everything, and making all their decisions for them to having these new creatures who are naturally pulling away from us as they become their own person. And that can be unsettling and even fearful for us. There are new friends, new influences, new expectations and we can feel lost and irrelevant.
The research is clear: a warm, affirming connected family helps children find and grow their own connection with God. But it can feel hard to stay connected with our children as they grow older. So how can we build connection with our kids during this stage of their lives?
Be prepared to talk when they want to. So many parents of teens tell you that the significant conversations happen late at night! Welcome those opportunities and don’t close them down, even if it means you are exhausted the next day.
Create opportunities for connection. As your teen naturally pulls away from the family it’s important you make times to be together. That might be a regular meal together; it might be a Saturday morning going out for breakfast; it might be a trip to the cinema or to watch your local team play. Good conversations often happen in the car – so you might want to offer them lifts somewhere even though you don’t need to. You can leave them notes, texts or little gifts reminding them that they are wonderful and loved (as well as the ones telling them to do the washing up!).
Prioritise them and let them know it! I once heard of a dad who realised that the most important time he ever had with his teens was the first few minutes after they arrived home – so as his kid came in, he would stop whatever he was doing, get up and go and greet them. For the next few minutes they would have his full attention – and also know that their dad valued them above everything else. Ask about their day, their world, seek their opinions, ask how you can help, what they’d like to do. Even if they don’t answer, they know that you’ve asked and care. And be careful to let them know that you respect their views and choices – and resist the temptation to embarrass them in front of other people. You may also find that kids who adored seeing themselves on your social media posts really hate this now.
When things go wrong, be quick to seek to put it right. Teens can be the most frustrating people on the planet. I know that my daughter and I fell out regularly. I sometimes felt dreadfully hurt and misunderstood, but I quickly learned there’s nothing to be gained by staying in that place. A friend explained it to me like this: you are the grown up here. So be quick to offer the olive branch, to apologise, and make amends.
I found I was unexpectedly fearful about my daughter becoming a teenager. What choices would she make – good or bad? Would she pass her exams and find a fulfilling career? Would she avoid having sex? Would she find good friends? Would she make her own connection with the God who loves her? How could I help her do that? It felt as if I had lost my small child who relied on me and was happy for me to shape her life, and I was now throwing her out to the wolves. Being the parent of a teen requires courage to let them go – and maybe let go of our previous expectations as we discover who our child is growing to be and allow them to discover that.
Be prepared to let them go and accept them as they are. Actually, from the moment they are born, a parent’s responsibility is to bring up their kid to leave the nest a rounded adult, ready to take their place in the world. So the teenage years are times when we let go, and let them take more decisions and forge their own path. This can mean that they’ll make decisions we wouldn’t have or really don’t want for them. Spiritually, this can be hard. Many teenagers stop coming to church or doing the God things you’ve always done at home, and our instinct is often to force them too. But that won’t work – they need to work this stuff out for themselves. One article I read described it like this: moving from control to conversation. You won’t always agree with their choices or opinions, but remember they are first and foremost your child whom you love.
Get help! The Sticky Faith people have identified that if a teen has relationships with five significant adults who are Christians, it has huge influence on their own faith development. One of the best things about being church is that you have people around you, loving and supporting you and your kids. So do get stuck into church, doing the social events and hanging around getting to know people. It’s often the case that teens seem more influenced by others’ opinions than yours (many parents will say that their kid has come home and said ‘so and so said this’ – like they’d never heard you say the exact same thing a hundred times!). Link your teen to a peer group of Christians; get to know the youth leader; build relationships with other adults your child likes and admires – maybe other adults at church, or family members or godparents. Encourage them to go (and pay for) to summer festivals and other youth events – there’s something so significant for them in seeing thousands of other young people loving and worshipping God and hearing stories of people like them.
Be wise with boundaries. Boundaries are incredibly important and make kids feel safe, cared for and secure. So make your boundaries and expect your kid to keep to them. Involve your kid in setting boundaries and in agreeing consequences for not keeping the boundaries if at all possible. However, be prepared to change these as your kids grow older and within the boundaries give them as much choice as possible. So, for example, you may choose a boundary that is: you must go to church – but that could be church on either Sunday morning or evening, or church as in youth group.
Facilitate new stuff for them. The teenage years are a voyage of experimentation and discovery. Their brains are wired to seek out new stuff, and you will see skills and gifts emerging in them, some of which will stay with them throughout adulthood. They will be discovering who they are spiritually too, and what passions and skills God has placed in them for use in his kingdom. As parents and carers you are in the amazingly privileged position of being in a prime position to help them, whether it’s driving them to practice, encouraging them to have a go, paying for lessons or linking them up with someone who can help them. Spiritually it’s really useful to look for ways for them to use their skills and passions for God: are they musical, practical, techy, hospitable? How could they use that in church, at home or out in the world? Teenagers are often bored with church because they don’t want to be passive consumers – but can come alive when given roles and responsibilities. One of our key tools, surfing the waves, explores this and includes a tool called ‘the six stage circle’ which can help you work through how to support or grow a passion or skill in your teen.
And of course, as well as all these things, pray, and remember that God loves them even more than you do and longs for them to love him back. God has promised to give wisdom to those who ask, and as parents of teenagers we need that!