The words that Christian parents dread hearing just passed by my teenage daughter’s lips. “I don’t know if I even believe in God … and I’m not going to church,” she said, with a frightening (to me) confidence in her voice. My heart sunk. I feared this could happen because Katie faced emotionally painful challenges during childhood that were never fully resolved. God had not answered her prayers in the way she hoped—(curing her high-functioning autism—or at least stopping its anxieties, limitations and social consequences). This left her wounded and angry at God.
I took a deep breath and spoke calmly in spite of inner panic. “Okay, let’s talk about this”, I said, “What’s going on?” Katie relayed her doubts in a God that allowed her to suffer. She also said didn’t “get anything out of” church and that it was my and my husband’s faith, not hers. She felt like she had been “brain-washed” because we had raised her in church and as a Christian her whole life.
I understood her pain, but I also knew (based on my age and experience) how many prayers for assistance had been answered positively. I wanted to tell Katie just how blessed she was to have her brain washed in God’s truth from childhood, but I bit my tongue on that issue. This was wise because my unruffled demeanor kept the door open to future conversations. While she struggled to decide if God was real and if church was worth her time, my husband and I became Katie's sounding boards--answering questions, buffering anger, and holding her if she cried. After listening to her concerns, we also continually pointed out the good in her life, the prayers that God HAD answered in her favor, and how her pain could be used to help others.
Long story short—a few years later, Katie re-committed her life to God. Praise! I take no credit for this recommitment, knowing that there are no guarantees and that I have no ultimate control over another person's faith. I also acknowledge that there is not one formula for helping your child in this situation. However, for what it's worth, here are some lessons I learned about how to respond during a child's crisis of faith.
- Have courage, don’t panic, but focus on listening and giving support. God requires that our children make personal decisions regarding Christ. This can be a difficult process. You can express concern, but try not to add your intense emotions to the struggle.
- Believe (and tell your child) that doubt is normal—and give biblical examples. Know that questioning helps with intellectual growth and future decision-making. Doubt can even strengthen your child’s faith as positive resolution leads to stronger conviction. If the doubt has a basis in anger as a result of suffering, point your child to biblical characters who lived through pain, how they responded, and how God transformed their circumstances for good. (Job, Elisha, Moses, David, Joseph, Jesus and Paul, came quickly to my mind).
- Don’t take your child’s doubt personally. Unless God convicts you otherwise, a child’s doubt is not automatically a reflection upon you or the quality of your faith or parenting.
- Depending on your child’s functional capacity, accept that you cannot guide your teenager effectively with the same techniques you used when he/she was young. It may be time to shift your parenting style so that you become more like a consultant and less like an authority figure. For us, shifting our style meant that Katie could relate to my husband and me as allies as she worked through her confusion.
- Avoid saying and doing things that could elicit strong rebellion. This takes prayer, discernment, and hinges on the child's personality and emotional state. As much as we wanted our teenager to be in church on Sundays, we chose not to force attendance as we didn't want to incite Katie's strong sense of independence. When Katie was very upset, we also kept our opinions to ourselves sometimes in order to better listen and to express our empathy.
- Practice patience and reason. Punishing, putting pressure or guilt upon your child to make the right decision, or to make it quickly, is counterproductive. Doubt is a reasonable human process which takes time to resolve.
- Impart spiritual truth only after prayer. To ensure I spoke wisdom at the appropriate times and in a helpful way, I learned to pray immediately before responding to my teens about anything spiritual, especially regarding difficult topics.
- Don’t worry about what church members think. Most experienced people sympathize with teens and their parents, and it really doesn’t matter what other people think. My assumption that others were judging me just isolated me from support I might have gained.
- Connnect your child with people who enjoy them, are strong in their faith and serving God. Faith requires works to be fully alive, so this is a powerful combination. Your child may not be in the mood for such interactions (ours wasn’t) but it is well worth the attempt.
- Love and care for your child unconditionally as he doubts. You don’t have to agree with your child’s choices, but love and welcome should be at the center of all your interactions.
Watching your child doubt is painful, and it tests parental faith. Our first inclination might be to panic, but the best option is to pray, wait, trust, and walk alongside our children. 1 Timothy 2:4 reminds us that “God wants all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” Our children were God’s beloved offspring long before we even met them for the first time. He is madly in love with your child and wants the very best for him or her. Even if your son or daughter is not currently choosing faith, remember that God, the ultimate parent, is in control. Good can still happen—don’t doubt it!
Dr. Karen Crum brings hope and practical support to parents through her blog and award-winning book, Persevering Parent: Finding Strength to Raise Your Child with Social, Emotional or Behavioral Challenges. Join Karen on her website or blog at http://www.perseveringparent.com.