Is your teen’s questioning or rebelling against your religious beliefs worrying you?
Holiday Memories From Our Childhood & Teenage Years
The other day a friend and I were sitting over a cup of coffee and reminiscing about how we celebrated the holidays with our families when we were teenagers. “I loved Christmas when I was a little kid,” said Angie. “My brothers and sisters and I would wake up before dawn and sneak down to see if Santa had eaten the cookies we had set out for him, and then wake our parents so we could open presents under the tree”.
“What about when you were teenagers?” I asked her. “Well, the holidays were never as much fun,” she replied sadly. “It’s what I call holiday let-down. I thought the holidays were cheesy, and I really just wanted to be with my friends. The old traditions were OK, but they had much less meaning to me. I was beginning to wonder about who or what God really was, and the answers I was getting from my parents and my church were not helpful at that time. I guess the holidays really are the most fun for small children.”
Looking Back and Having Questions
Angie’s mixed feelings about the holidays – nostalgia combined with a sense of loss -- are very common for teenagers and their parents. Holiday rituals that were exciting and joyful for young children, whether lighting the Hanukkah candles, opening presents under the Christmas tree, or participating in the Kwanzaa Karamu (community feast), can sometimes feel boring to teenagers.
At this stage in their social development, teens typically turn outward towards their peers for friendship and entertainment. Criticism of family or religious traditions can be part of this stage. They begin to grapple seriously with life’s difficult questions – Is there a God? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?
Although this criticism and questioning is a necessary part of becoming an adult, it can be a heartrending time for parents. They see their children beginning the process of “leaving the nest”. Parents may feel rejected when kids no longer want to participate fully in holiday traditions that hold much meaning, and memories. Some teens rebel against religion altogether, which can frighten parents and make them feel they may have failed in teaching them values.
Approaching Holidays as a Family
Although these situations can cause pain and conflict for families with teenagers, they can also be seen as an opportunity for the family to grow and change together, rather than distance and grow apart. In fact, by rebelling and testing limits, teens play an important role in the family by pointing out what is outdated and not working effectively. But parents are by no means obsolete! They continue their all-important function of being an anchor for their children, a flexible boundary to push up against but not break.
The differing views of parents and teenagers can combine to create something new and revitalizing for the family, by helping to rebuild and update rituals of celebration.
Reconstructing Religious Rituals
Being in a family by definition means encountering flux and change, and religious beliefs are no exception. Rather than helplessly watching your teenagers go through the motions of participating in traditions that may have lost meaning for them or downright refusing to participate, try to have a judgement free zone family meeting.
Step 1: Ask questions. Pose the question: “How do you feel about the way our family practices our religion?” Encourage your kids to be open and honest about what they enjoy, and what feels stale. Similarly, be honest about your own feelings. It’s all right to disagree, as long as it’s done respectfully and with the understanding that there can be compromise.
Included in the conversation should be the question: “What are religion and the holidays really about for us?” Is it a time to give presents? A time to give thanks? A time to celebrate our beliefs? Like my friend Angie, your teenagers might have some serious criticisms and doubts about their religious faith. Use this as an opportunity to let them know you are not afraid of their questioning. Allow them to share their feelings without being defensive or judgmental. Let them know if you sometimes have (or had) similar doubts or feelings of frustration, especially when you were their age. Then you can talk with them about how you are able to find meaning or faith despite them.
Step 2: Brainstorm ideas. Propose that you have a “brainstorming” session, where everyone will be encouraged to reinvent the ways your family practices religion. At this stage, no idea should be considered too silly or impossible. Suggesting whatever comes to mind can spawn creativity, so don’t automatically negate the proposal that you all take a trip to Africa, or paint the house red and green, or send potato latkes to all of your relatives. This kind of joking around, combined with proposing serious ideas, can be a real ice- breaker for teens and show them you believe their opinions and ideas matter. And don’t forget to include the tried and true activities that everyone still enjoys.
Step 3: Choose your favorites. After you have finished making your list, go through each item and decide which activities are realistic for the family to try this year. Then, choose only one or two of those activities rather than most or every one. You want to experience success rather than bite off more than the family can chew.
For example, after creating this type of list with their children, one family I saw in my practice decided to sponsor a child overseas through a well-known charity that expressed their religious values. They are still sponsoring that child three years later, and are even planning to visit his country as part of their holiday activities next year. Once you incorporate some of these new rituals, you can add more the following year. In fact, the “pre-holiday family meeting” can become a yearly event itself, keeping the family communicating and changing together.
A key component to getting your teens excited about trying these different ideas is to include their friends in some of the family rituals, as well as allow them time to go out with their friends over the holidays. Expecting your children to remain solely with family over the holidays is a recipe for resentment on their part. By welcoming their friends into your home, and encouraging social time away from the family, your children will feel you understand their needs, and will seek out the family time without needing to be begged or persuaded.
Here are some more suggestions for adding new religious traditions
- Volunteer to help the needy together as a family. Every year let a different family member choose the cause they wish to support and how the family will do so.
- Have a family discussion where you share with each other what each person feels they achieved during the past year, what they regret, and what they hope to accomplish in the year to come.
- Try cooking a big holiday meal using a holiday menu from a different country or culture.
- Have a “family exchange” holiday, where your children spend a day with a friend who celebrates a different holiday from yours, and the friend then comes to learn about your family’s traditions.
- Have a family “night hike” where you take a picnic to a beautiful spot in nature and watch the sunrise together.
- When your kids have a party, encourage them to invite someone new and to help them feel welcome.
- Do a family history project where your children interview parents and grandparents about how they celebrated their religion when they were children. Have grandparents and parents interview the children about how they experience the holidays. Encourage your teenagers to create an audio or videotape of the discussions.
If you’re having trouble with your teen’s pushing the limits, remember the therapists at The Body Image Counseling Center are here to help. We can facilitate family communication and help you end fighting and conflict through family counseling. Just click here to request a free 15 minute consult to get advice and learn about the ways we can help.