Youth & Spirituality

by Randall A. Ramirez, LCSW, LMFT

One of the more troubling experiences that can happen to parents is when their youth openly rejects their family's religion or when the youth adopts a spiritual belief system that has not been promoted within the family.  Extreme images often run through parents' minds including fears of their child abandoning all faith and suffering eternal damnation, or of their child becoming fanatical and taking on strange, new practices.

In general, youth may challenge or reject their parents' religion or beliefs for many reasons.  Some include:

  • Youth are beginning to experience themselves as separate, thinking individuals who can point out discrepancies between what adults say and how they practice what they say;
  • Youth are developing their own personal relationship to a higher power that stands on its own, and does not have to be expressed in the same way as their parents;
  • Youth struggle with believing in a higher power when they have been disappointed by adults who should have been their first representation of a higher power; or,
  • Youth have different needs or learning pathways that their family's practices don't connect to.  An example would be youth who do better grasping a message through modern music or dance versus a long sermon.

In his book, The Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles (1990) states:
"Children try to understand not only what is happening to them but why; and in doing that they call upon the religious life they have experienced, the spiritual values they have received, as well as other sources of potential explanation (p. 100).”

This quest has been found to result in better psychological and physical outcomes as youth attempt to move from merely experiencing distressful events in their lives, to attributing larger meaning for themselves, their family, and their community.   A resilient and healthy progression, this is similar to certain trauma victims who are able to put their narratives into a context of meaning for their own cultures, and then move towards giving back to others as a form of self-healing.  The search for meaning in youth establishes the foundation for adolescent altruism and caring for one's neighbor.

Overall, parents can help by maintaining open communication with their children, listening to the development of their critical thinking and values, and encouraging them to explore all aspects of their stated beliefs, while challenging apparent discrepancies between the new beliefs and the child's own value system.  For those youth who tend to be more black-and-white in their thinking and have adopted a more dogmatic belief system, parents should role play certain scenarios that can entertain more than one fixed outcome or set of consequences.  For those youth who are confused or searching, parents can help by addressing the youth's personal strengths, values, and character, and how one's beliefs usually line up accordingly.

In either case, the long held words of King Solomon still ring true today,
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6, NKJV)