Parenting teens is scary.
I know...I have two!
It gets even scarier those of us parents interested in keeping our teens Catholic.
You've seen the apathetic look of most teens at Mass. You've heard the alarming statistics that 80% of cradle Catholic leave the Church between ages 18-23. You probably have friends with older teens or young adult children who don't practice anymore.
So what can parents do with teens to make sure they don't lose their faith?
In my new book, Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making it Stick, I discuss effective strategies for becoming an active part of your children's faith formation.
Here are five parenting strategies, drawn from the book, to help you nurture your teen's faith.
1. Engage them in dialogue
The teenage years are a critical time.
Teens are beginning to exert their independence and form their identities. They want to understand their place in the world and figure out what they believe.
To nurture your teen's faith, you need to be involved in this exploration.
Before they believed what they were taught. Now they need the reasons why they should believe. You need to transition from lectures to dialogue.
I've seen parents panic when their teen questions the faith they grew up with. Questioning is not all bad. In my RCIA program I urged questions. I used to say, if they weren't questioning, they weren't listening. Questioning means they're taking the teaching to heart, wrestling with it, and trying to integrate it. That's very different from rejecting it, but may lead to rejection if not handled well.
Everyone has doubts at some point. Engage those doubts in discussion. Why are they doubting? What are they feeling? What prompted them to think this way? If you can enter into their doubt and understand what's going on inside their heads, then you can work with it.
Now, by discussion I don't mean “don’t do this because it’s wrong” or “thou shalt not because the Church says so.” I mean honestly considering cultural and personal issues, then talking about what the Church says and how this relates to their life.
If you want your teens to develop real faith, they have to internalize it. They have to own their faith and make it a part of them. The only way to get there is through dialogue.
2. Be transparent
Transparency goes along with dialogue.
As your kids get older, you must treat them more like adults.
Openness, honesty, and transparency about who you are and what you believe goes a long way toward establishing trust with your teen. Trust is a huge factor in handing on faith. Without it, they'll doubt your motivation and wonder what’s in it for them.
Transparency literally means letting someone see right through you, letting them know who you are and what’s going on inside. Openness about your life experience builds a kind of authority...a "been there" street cred.
Sharing your journey, your struggles, and how Catholicism changed you will motivate change in your teen. If they see it in your face, they’ll know it’s real.
3. Develop their spiritual muscles
Faith-filled teens practice devotions like Bible reading and prayer. Devotions are like spiritual training. They strengthen spiritual muscles and make teens more receptive to God's will.
If you did devotions with your teen when they were younger, give them more responsibility now. Set a goal for them to accomplish on their own. If your haven't done devotions with your teens before, start small. Do it with them at first as a special bonding time. Then set micro goals.
The best way to do something big is to start small. Adopt tiny habits that don’t require serious effort. By doing a little every day, you gradually and incrementally improve.
For instance, have them read the Bible five minutes every night before bed. It doesn't sound like much, but five minutes every day adds up.
Try going to adoration for 10 minutes after Mass each week. During Advent and Lent, set goals like being kind to one person a day or being generous when asked to help.
These small efforts will pay big dividends over time to nurture your teen's faith.
4. Get them involved
The teen years are a great time to get kids involved with service and/or helping in ministry.
Ministry and service makes faith bigger. That’s just the way it is. And, often teens who shy away from religious activities will get into service. It's more concrete and less "church-y."
I'm convinced that no one reaches their full faith potential unless they’re involved in some kind of ministry or service. You have to give back in some way. God loves us, and we return that love through service to others. As his love moves through us, some of it sticks.
Often teens make time for church activities by combining their social and religious lives. They weave together school, friendships, social time, volunteer work, and worship into a tightly-knit package.
5. Make sure they have Catholic friends
That brings me to the last strategy--friends.
Acceptance is a driving factor in kid's lives, especially teens. A lot of times friends aren’t chosen; kids just fall into a group that accepts them. That can be dangerous if that group is traveling the wrong path.
Middle school and high school youth programs are a must. Your teens need relationships with other Catholic kids who share the same values and make the same choices.
I’m not saying you should make them go to youth group, but I am...sort of.
This is the time to solidify your teen's Catholic worldview.
The important thing is to be involved! Some find this time scary, but it's actually more fun. You can engage them on a more adult level and start discussing real issues, concerns, and Church teachings.
Remember, you are your teen's biggest influencer, whether it feels that way or not.
Use these five strategies to nurture your teen's faith and help them stay Catholic.
Are you nervous about keeping your teen Catholic? Have your faith discussions changed now that your child is a teen? What volunteer opportunities does your teen do to stay active in the Church?
Copyright 2016 Marc Cardonarella
Photo by TawnyNina (2011) via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
About the Author
Marc Cardaronella is the author of Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick from Ave Maria Press. Marc directs catechist and discipleship leader formation for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, MO. He is married, has two teen boys, and writes about Catholic spirituality and how to share the Faith on his personal blog.