Doubt and Wonder – How Adolescents Develop Their Spiritual Lives

DoubtSomething striking fear into most religiously inclined parents is the idea their child will have  doubts about their religious faith. The idea that their child may leave the religious tradition they’ve been raised in is terrifying. Before you get upset about adolescent doubts, remember  religious doubt is not something tragic but rather for adolescents, it’s actually more like “religious wonder.”  This religious wonder is a natural result of further cognitive and social development.

When young people reach adolescents they’re starting to experience the world differently in two primary ways.  They’re now cognitively able to understand abstract ideas more profoundly than before and they’re broadening their social experiences encountering people from many different walks of life.  Because of these cognitive and social developments the religion of their childhood needs to respond to the new cognitive and social demands.  If it doesn’t and remains a “childhood” religion the adolescent will generally fall into three categories. Let me describe these categories below:

The first category consists of adolescents who begin to wonder about their faith but find the faith of their childhood doesn’t meet the new cognitive challenges they’re experiencing.  The childish faith they’ve held onto up to this point can’t provide meaning for new experiences they’re having and therefore they conclude it must be mere fantasy.  This group simply gives up on any further spiritual exploration because they’re not encouraged to look deeper into what they’ve been taught.  They’re never encouraged to explore other possibilities their faith may provide.  Sadly, these young people start off like everyone else having a desire to know and develop a strong faith but because their religious and spiritual formation didn’t provide avenues for further investigation it failed them and they walked away from it.

The second category of adolescents includes young people who never question their faith and compartmentalize it so it doesn’t have to engage their new cognitive development and life experiences.  Often these adolescents don’t feel safe exploring new questions because they’ve been led to believe doubt and wonder are evil acts used for questioning legitimate authority.  By simply swallowing their beliefs without question they never let them grow, flourish, or deepen thus never providing the individual with answers to new life questions.  The result is this simple faith becomes a facet of their lives but never consumes it wholly providing meaning in some of the most important life events human beings experience (i.e. death, marriage, childbirth, etc.).  To find deeper meaning these young people may seek other sources to meet intellectual needs.  Faith is relegated to an almost insignificant part of their lives.

The third group represents the healthiest response to a faith crisis.  This group challenges their childhood religion finding new ways to respond to questions emerging from their new life experiences.  Their concepts of God, spirit, eternity, death, life, etc. can be explored from a more mature and cognitively developed perspective.  They want to know in what ways spiritual truths help them answer questions they have about life, sex, friendship, marriage, etc.  Their sense of wonder doesn’t leave them empty causing them to leave their childhood religion nor does it cause feelings of guilt keeping them from exploring deeper faith issues.  This group embraces a sense of spiritual creativity empowering their faith and ultimately causing it to develop with them over a lifetime.

So how can a parent facilitate an adolescent’s healthy sense of wonder to experience a deeper empowering spiritual life? First, you must look long and hard at your own faith life.  Have you given yourself permission to explore difficult life questions from a faith perspective?  Have you merely kept your spiritual life in the “safe zone” refusing to allow yourself to think creatively about spiritual issues?  If you haven’t struggled with your faith over the course of changing life situations you may not be able to give that gift to your child.  Perhaps you need to spend some time working on your spiritual development, asking questions about tough topics, and not merely buy into the canned answers about life, love, eternity, or God you absorbed over time.  Know the core spiritual truths of your faith tradition so you can guide your children appropriately in what is true while still giving them room for exploration.

Secondly, you have to foster a safe environment for your adolescent to explore, wonder, and question the precepts of their faith. Parents often feel threatened believing their adolescent’s questioning of the faith will lead him or her to leave the family’s religious faith.  On the contrary, when someone doesn’t ask questions about their religion, seek deeper meaning from their faith, or is afraid to explore doubt, that’s when they struggle to maintain a spiritual life.  Doubt and wonder are the mechanisms allowing for cognitive development and faith to engage one another, not the means for an over intellectualism that denies it.  

If we have matured in our faith and have provided a safe place for adolescents to express wonder and healthy doubt, what’s next?  The answer is simple.  Talk with your teenager.

As a therapist, spiritual director, and professor, I’ve found there are two subjects parents seldom discuss with their children. Religious families in particular avoid these topics because they fear the first and assume the other is learned automatically. The first topic is sex. Parents assume their children will just somehow understand human sexuality because the Holy Spirit will fall out of the sky and provide the answers their child needs. Any parent thinking seriously about the wellbeing of their child should be comfortable answering questions about sex when their children begin to ask questions about it. Sex will be a part of their lives and if you don’t help them understand it other less invested sources will. Additionally, instead of waiting for your child to ask questions, parents should initiate that conversation when their children’s bodies mature showing physiological signs of sexual development. Likewise, when children develop cognitively and are thinking more deeply about abstract topics it’s time to talk about spiritual things with them in a more mature way. It’s time to allow your child to explore, wonder, and think about God in new and different ways. We can’t be afraid of young people’s new sense of wonder and doubt, we must allow it to happen and guide them in developing a spiritual life that’s  helpful, meaningful, and healthy.

So let me simply say if you want children to grow and mature in their spiritual life be willing to grow and mature in yours. Then, provide an environment where you’re willing to allow your child to explore, question, and wonder about God as well as the faith they’ve inherited.  Don’t be threatened, rather assume the posture of a guide willing to walk with them through their questions.  Lastly, be willing to talk to your child about their questions. Invest yourself in their spiritual walk and guide them in what’s true, right, good, and beautiful. A child develops an understanding of God by how well you interact with them. Psychologists recognize all human beings develop a “God image”, an emotional experience of God, and the primary source of this psychological experience of God is how parents treat and interact with their children. Your child will come to appreciate God as loving and encouraging intellectual pursuits because you’ve done that for them their whole life. So I encourage you to be a source of love, light, comfort, and wisdom for your child and they’ll grow a deep spiritual maturity serving them until the day they close their eyes only to open them in the next life gazing upon the face of God.


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