When Faith Divides Families
Some parents might think themselves lucky to have a teenager who is more interested in praying than dating. They might feel fortunate their teenagers are out late attending a worship service rather than a rock concert. But what if your teenager wants to join a religious sect that is different than your own? What if your teenager becomes judgmental toward you? What if he or she is going door-to-door proselytizing new converts? Worse, yet, what if your teen never comes home?
It might sound hard to believe that a love of God could cause such turmoil, but experts know differently, and through their experiences and the wisdom of others, you can keep your teen safe and your family intact.
Testing the Waters
As a father of four children and pastor of Water's Edge, a nondenominational Christian church, The Rev. Tracy Bannister of Tampa, Fla., expects his children will flirt with other religious ideas. Ultimately, he anticipates his children, including his 13-year-old daughter, the oldest, will stay with the Christian faith.
"She has grown up in the church, been involved in church – and because of that – I think she has a good understanding and foundation in Christianity and Christian beliefs," Bannister says. "I would expect at some point in the next few years that she may start having additional questions. I've seen over and over with students I've worked with in youth ministry that when students reach their sophomore or junior year of high school, it's a time of really transitioning from childhood to young adulthood. Even if they have grown up in a particular faith, they start questioning it."
Bannister says most teenagers do a lot of soul searching before adopting the same beliefs as their parents. But what if your teenager's soul searching leads to not agreeing with the family religion? "If the parents are strongly rooted in a particular faith, it can become a real battleground that can divide the family," he says.
Teenagers are more likely to rebel if parents don't communicate about the issue. "The times when I've seen the relationship blow up in a family over a child going to a place of a different faith are the times when the parents say, 'You will do this because I said so,'" Bannister says. He recommends parents keep the lines of communication open. Ask the teenager what intrigues him or her about the other faith. Discuss why your faith is important to you and the family. "As parents, you need to be aware of what is going on in that particular system of beliefs," he says. "You need to explore and research beyond what the child is telling you, so you have a good understanding of the belief system they are exploring."
Against the Grain
Robin R. Meyers, Ph.D., author of The Virtue in the Vice (Health Communications, September 2004) and father of three children, also believes it is important for parents to discuss religious beliefs and family values. "I think it's almost in the DNA of teenagers to want to rebel and stake out some territory that is distinctively different than their parents," he says. "That's almost part of the growing up process. One of the ways they can do that, that's really most effective, is to explore other religious traditions that are not their parents' religious traditions."
Meyers believes that by bucking the familial religious traditions, teenagers may be trying to form their own identity. He suggests parents remind their teenagers that there are many different kinds of good people in the world, as well as different religious faiths and traditions. "Only in the most extreme cases would I try to do something dramatic like an intervention or therapy or treatment," he says. "I think what parents do is get freaked out and overreact, and then they only drive the child further away. There is that saying you have to hold your children with open arms. I really think that is true, especially when they are trying on new ideas. They are often after a reaction from a parent, and if you don't give them the reaction they expect, sometimes this new venture loses its appeal."
More than simply carving out a belief system of their own, Meyers says teenagers oftentimes become zealous about a religion because they are looking for very simple answers in a confusing world. "It's much easier mentally to just think in terms of right and wrong, black and white, saved and lost," he says.
Heed the Warning Signs
You might think it would be easy to know if your teenager is involved in a religious sect, but Rick A. Ross, an intervention specialist and founder of The Rick A. Ross Institute in New Jersey, says some groups warn minors not to tell their parents because they know they don't have the right to recruit minor children without parental notification and consent. Some groups actually use thought reform techniques and coercive persuasion techniques to lure teenagers. Other groups recruit teenagers through religious clubs that meet in schools.
Ross, who often serves as a court expert witness and lectures at colleges, says parents should be concerned if they notice their children have dropped their old friends or are hanging out with a new group of friends all affiliated with the same religious organization. "Their behavior may change," he says. "They may become very harsh and judgmental toward the parents, secretive. They may eventually start preaching to the parents. With some of the groups I deal with, that's not the case because they recognize when they are working with minor children, they are on thin ice."
Ross' bottom line is that parents should not let anyone, even in the name of religion, pull the wool over their eyes. Keep the lines of communication open, and teach teenagers about their unique family values, religious beliefs and traditions.