What to Do When a Teen is Spurning the Family Faith

Adolescence is a time of separation and individuation. Teens are drawn to creating their own identity and exploring the world on their own. They may begin examining the ideals they grew up and analyzing them from a different lens.

During this period of time, adolescents also begin experimenting. They become eager to try new things and experiences with their peers—even if these activities are risky.

The ages of 12-17 can thus be a trying time for parents of teens.

And in religious households, this process of teen differentiation can be even more pronounced. Some teens who grew up observant may start re-examining and questioning their strong-held beliefs. They may push boundaries, and begin shrugging off religious duties they’ve always kept. They may also try going even further—to experiment with previously-forbidden activities involving drugs, sex, and more.

Adolescence and Religion

Puberty brings with it dramatic changes in your child’s brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of the brain that controls impulses and considers the consequences of actions).  As the prefrontal cortex is still under construction, teenagers may be more impulsive, emotional, and reckless from the age of 12 through young adulthood.

“The early part of adolescence is a period when young people do more questioning of all kinds of authority — parental, social, expert, and spiritual, for example,” says Dr. Carl Pickhardt in his Psychology Today article, “When Adolescents Renounce the Family Faith.”

“It is no failing to question one’s religious beliefs at this juncture. In fact, for many young people, it is entirely appropriate.”

Leaving Religion Behind

Why do young people leave the family faith? Sometimes, teens stop believing in specific aspects of theology. Other times, teens leave the faith because they don’t like specific stances the religion takes on certain issues (e.g. the LGBTQ community). In many instances, teens didn’t have a good experience with religion.

Some teens who leave religion behind can experience a full upheaval in their life, resulting in an upsurge of negative physical and mental health symptoms.

Mental health professionals attribute this rise in negative health symptoms to the trauma of leaving a tightly knit, supportive community and abandoning one’s long-held beliefs. Dr. Marlene Winell calls this Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS. Other experts say it’s simply PTSD for religion.

In any case, as with all instances of trauma, teens often resort to substance abuse or other types of risky behavior (like provocative outbursts or unsafe sexual practices). They do this usually to mitigate their pain. Depression and anxiety are common, especially because teens who leave their communities may find themselves now more alone than ever. Friends and family members back home can shun them and their new lifestyle, which can make already-depressed teens feel worse than ever.

Treating Mental Health/ Substance Abuse Issues

As Dr. Winell writes:

“The challenges of leaving are daunting. For most people, the religious environment was a one-stop-shop for meeting all their major needs – social support, a coherent worldview, meaning and direction in life, structured activities, and emotional/spiritual satisfaction. Leaving the fold means multiple losses… Consequently, it is a very lonely ‘stressful life event’ – more so than others described on Axis IV in the DSM. For some people…it may be possible to simply stop participating in religious services and activities and move on with life. But for many, leaving their religion means debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger.”

Ex-religious teens can become so lonely and depressed that they often consider suicide. “I can’t think of many members who haven’t, at one time or another in their journeys, contemplated suicide because they have felt they have no other options,” says Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, an organization committed to helping former Orthodox Jews navigate the secular world.

So, what do you do if your teen has not only left religion behind but is also engaging in rebellious, risky behavior like drugs, alcohol, unsafe sex, or illegal activities?

First, it’s important to mention that any teen who is struggling with mental health problems (like depression or anxiety), behavioral issues, or substance abuse needs to enter a mental health or dual diagnosis treatment facility. Depending on the severity of the adolescent’s issues, he or she may need a 24/7 residential treatment center, a partial hospitalization program, or intensive outpatient program (RTC, PHP, or IOP, respectively). If the teen is engaging in suicidal ideation, inpatient hospitalization or an RTC is essential.

Walking the Middle Path

At the treatment center, the work can begin. Most mental health treatment centers for adolescents will employ individual and family therapy. Matt Metcalf, MSW, LCSW, program director at Evolve Santa Barbara PHP/IOP, says one thing he does when parents of a struggling teen come to him in family therapy is ask them to explore and identify their values.

“Often, parents haven’t completely articulated their values—or don’t even know what their values are! This causes them to fight with their teen on practically everything, every day.” Metcalf instructs parents to narrow down their values to just three items. For example, a list can look like this:

  • A peaceful home
  • Education
  • Family members spending time together

After the parents have identified their three values, Metcalf asks the child to perform the same exercise—individually. “After we have both lists of values, we all kind of look at it all together and try to see if there’s some common ground. Are there overlapping values at all? Usually, there’s something we can build on. We can find some middle ground that both sides feel comfortable standing on.”

This is part of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy process of “Walking the Middle Path,” which helps adolescents and families develop greater harmony with each other by finding common ground.

Faith Vs. Teen

What happens if the parents decide “faith” is one of their values, and they don’t want to budge at all when it comes to their religion—at the expense of kicking their child out of the house?  Or, on the other hand, what if the teen decides that he doesn’t want anything to do with his family?

Metcalf points out that completely rejecting the other side this way (the parents rejecting the child, or the teen rejecting his or her parents) is not a wise option.

“I do take a traditional approach that regardless of what a teenager values, the reality is that an adolescent is still a dependent of this family. This binds both parties together: the parents to care for the child and the child to abide by the rules of the home.”

Metcalf also reminds parents to be patient and empathetic with their teen. “Just like you might be able to recall a time in your life when they felt more devoted to your faith than other times, your teen might not be feeling religious right now when they’re 16 or 17, but there’s a possibility that they could come around to it when they’re 25, 30, or 40. But even if they don’t, your job at this point is to be the best parent you can…whatever your teen chooses, or doesn’t choose, to believe.”

Relinquish Control

He often reminds parents that just because they put in a lot of hard work raising their kids in a certain faith doesn’t mean their kids will stay religious in the future. “It’s one thing to decide if you want to raise children in the faith. But there’s no guarantee that once they grow up, they’re going to continue that. Parents should realize on, from very early on, that they really don’t have that much control over their children.”