During my nine years teaching high school theology, I did my best to communicate to my students the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Catholic faith. My top priority was creating an atmosphere where my students could encounter Christ, but I also wanted them to leave at the end of the semester knowing that it is reasonable to be Catholic.
Why did I emphasize the reasonability of faith to such an extent? Because many of my students came to my class with doubts, questions, and a skeptical attitude toward belief in God in general and Catholicism in particular. This isn’t surprising, considering the popularity of the new atheism presented to young people in the media, and the poor quality of catechesis and evangelization in many families, parishes, and Catholic schools.
Often, when my students would express these doubts to their parents, I received panicked emails from mom or dad saying something like, “Help! My son/daughter is losing their faith and I don’t know what to do!”
Today, I want to share with you what I told those parents, in case you are concerned about your teenager’s doubts or outright rejection of the faith. These are not formulas for getting your child back “on the right track”; they are proposals for how to engage your child in a fruitful and ongoing conversation, just as Jesus did with those He encountered, so that you can show them faith and doubt are not incompatible.
If your son or daughter comes to you with his or her doubts about the faith, it’s best not to react as if it were the end of the world. In fact, it’s quite normal for teenagers to have doubts, and it’s a good thing that they are asking questions.
It does not mean that they are “losing their faith”, necessarily, but that they are going through an important developmental stage: deciding what they believe about life’s ultimate questions. When your child was little, they probably believed whatever it was you or their teachers taught them, simply based on authority, which was appropriate and important for them at that age.
Now that they are teenagers, it’s natural and good for them to work on making their faith their own.
If you panic when your teenager shares their doubts with you, they might feel as though it were somehow sinful to ask any questions about their faith.
I encountered this misconception time and time again during my years of teaching. My students with doubts sometimes confided in me that they thought God was angry at them or that they would go to hell for not having enough faith. I would always reassure them that doubts are a part of any thinking person’s faith journey, and that even the greatest Saints struggled with doubt from time to time.
Although it’s tempting to launch into a lesson in apologetics or a lecture on why it’s important to have faith, that is not what your child needs.
What they need is for you to ask good questions and listen to their answers. Ask them how long they’ve had these doubts. Ask them if they’ve already sought answers, and if so, what the results have been. Ask them what you can do to help them. And then let them talk for as long as they need to and say anything they need to say, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
The more open and non-judgmental you are, the more likely they are to keep talking–and listening–to you.
Adolescents are not satisfied with incomplete answers. It’s not enough to tell them to believe something because the Church teaches it, or because “the Bible says so.” They want to know the reasons why and won’t be satisfied with anything less.
In our current cultural climate, science is often pitted against religion, so your child may come to you with questions about the compatibility between certain Catholic teachings and scientific discoveries. They will probably also have lots of concerns and questions about the Church’s teachings on gender, sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of human life.
You don’t have to have a degree in Catholic theology to answer most of your teenager’s questions about the faith; if that were the case, the Church would have died out a long time ago. As a Catholic parent, you are your child’s primary educator, especially when it comes to faith, so you do need to know the basic content of the Church’s teachings.
If you feel daunted by the prospect of having to answer your child’s questions, or have already struggled to do so, never fear! If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, find someone who does.
It will make a huge difference to your child if they see that you’re taking your education in the faith seriously as well as theirs. I would also recommend proposing that you and your child explore these questions together, because chances are that their questions are also your questions. This approach not only strengthens your parent-child relationship, it also shows them that even adult Catholics still need to grow in their faith.
Where should you look for information? Thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are so many resources at your fingertips: lay evangelists, priests, bishops, and professors who can answer your questions and give you the information you need to help your curious teen.
Praying for your child is both the least and the most that you can do for them, especially when they are in the midst of teenage doubt, confusion, and rebellion. Pray for their spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth. Pray for protection from the evil one. Pray for (and seek out) godly Catholic mentors for your son or daughter. Pray for solid friends who will support and encourage your child in their faith.
Pray that they would have encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, because it is only in that encounter that living faith is born.
At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do for your teen’s faith life is to be a credible witness: show them what it looks like to be a joyful, imperfect Catholic who is seeking the truth. In nine years of teaching high school kids, I have learned that it is the parents’ witness that has the longest lasting impact on kids’ faith as they leave high school, enter college, and eventually become adults.
Christina Dehan Jaloway is a blogger, Catholic Texan and high school theology teacher with a passion for the True, Good, and Beautiful. She is also the Associate Editor at Spoken Bride, a Catholic wedding website for brides and newlyweds.As a wife and mother, Christina hopes to be a source of encouragement, hope, and healing for others. Visit her blog at www.theevangelista.com.