Many discouraged parents have asked us this question: How should we respond to our child who doubts the reality of God?
When children suggest “there is no God” it’s natural for parents to immediately try to convince them otherwise. It’s a good intention, but one that often deepens the chasm between kids’ doubts and their movement toward God. If this is your reality, understand that there is probably little you can say, (because they’ve probably heard all the arguments before) but much that you can DO to make it safe for your kids to struggle back toward Jesus when they have doubts.
In the longest study ever done on families and faith, researcher Vern Bengston discovered that when kids walk away from their family’s faith, the most important factor that lead to their return was their perception that their parents kept, “a loving, and open relationship” that remained warm and tolerant through the struggle. It was not logical arguments or religious practices of parents.
As we’ve navigated through doubts about faith with two of our kids, and guided other Connected Families’ staff members’ with their kids, these principles have proved invaluable:
Empathy is often a parent’s most powerful portal to influence. Even if you’ve never fully abandoned faith, almost every parent has had questions and doubts. Many parents still do. Being authentic about your struggles lowers any barriers between parent and child. It can open the door to candid conversations when kids may be accustomed to sermonizing.
2. Ask safe questions.
It can be hard to communicate in ways that feel safe because baggage between you and your kids may make almost any question feel like uncomfortable prying. Look at the following list of questions and say them out loud, listening through your child’s ears. Which questions feel non-judging? How could you rephrase any of these to set the stage for a relaxed discussion?
- What about church bothers you?
- What questions keep you from believing in God?
- When have you felt the closest to God in the past?
- What is your idea of the “perfect” religion?
Once they give their answers it will be very tempting to “set them straight” by giving your perspective. Resist! Your kids likely know your position and correcting their perspective is invalidating. Instead, listen with relaxed curiosity to fully understand and even repeat what you’ve heard. Look for parts of the answers you agree with and can affirm. You may just find that you and your child have a lot in common regarding the answers.
3. Keep the posture of an ally, not an adversary.
“I believe in you,” “I love you no matter what you believe,” and, “I’m for you,” are messages every human longs to experience. Dr. Bengston’s research indicates that when parents give their kids room to spiritually “experiment,” those kids are far more inclined to embrace their parents’ faith someday than those kids whose parents become forceful about religious belief and behavior.
4. Invite them to grade you.
At the end of the day, what matters more than what you do is your kids’ perception of your actions. You can ask them, “On a scale of 0 to 10 where zero is not at all accepting of you and 10 is fully accepting even though we disagree about some things, what number would you give me?” Be prepared for an unexpected answer. Determine to keep your defenses down as you thoughtfully consider your child’s answer. This response builds respect and helps kids feel an open invitation to return to faith.
Prayer holds great power to shape both you and your child. It strengthens parents to remain first and foremost the loving and grace-filled parent kids need to safely navigate their struggle. Some will even add spiritual fasting to their prayer. In the end, your children’s faith is about God’s work in their hearts, not about anyone convincing or controlling them. Pray that God would move powerfully in their lives to make His presence known.