The Life-Cycle of an Interfaith Relationship: Raising Teenagers

By S. Courtney Nathan


Ah, the glory of teenagers. Their bodies are changing right along with their sunny dispositions. This is a fertile time for kids, full of angst and intrigue and emotional roller-coaster rides. They are developing their identities and challenging everything and everyone as a means to getting the answers to the all-consuming question: Who am I?

For parents, this can be an exhausting and trying time. Keeping up with a teenager is tough and keeping your head on straight is even tougher. The healthiest of parents will wonder what they did to create such an evasive and defiant child and will pray for the day their old, loving, peaceful child returns to them. But through it all, try to remember that all this acting out and withdrawal and secrecy is normal and healthy and part of the process of becoming a young adult.

For children of intermarriage, religion is one more issue for them to challenge and rebel against. The question, “Who am I religiously?” fits right in there with, “Who am I sexually,” “Who am I politically,” and “Who am I relationship-wise?” Children at this age will often ask why their parents made the religious choices they made. They will expect a more comprehensive answer than would have satisfied them as young children, and parents should be honest.

For example, parents raising a Catholic child while the mother is Jewish may say, “You are Catholic. We decided before you were born that we wanted you to be Catholic and we have raised you as Catholic. Because your mom is Jewish, you have Jewish family and Jewish heritage and that will always be a part of you and who you are even though it isn’t what you are. We want you to explore that part of yourself in whatever way you wish.” Then ask what their questions are and encourage open discussion about their feelings.

If children have not been given a solid sense of religious identity up to this point, they may be angry with their parents for (among other things) not having made that decision. They may resent that they now have to choose for themselves. One child of intermarriage who was raised with no faith expressed regret as an adult because she never felt she fit in. When she was with her Jewish father, she was Jewish. With her Baptist mother, she was Baptist. She celebrates all holidays but truly connects with none.

If they were raised in the religion of one parent, they may wonder why and begin to question and explore the religion of the other parent. In such cases, many parents feel rejected and worried, but really, it is healthy and normal to explore religion in the process of identity development.

This is also a time when children may be identifying strongly with their same-sex parent. If they have been raised in the religion of the opposite-sex parent, they may feel conflicted over how to be more connected with the same-sex parent. Parents should be sensitive to this issue and talk openly with their children if this is a concern.

Mothers raising daughters in a different faith may say, “We’re both girls and we have so many things in common and I made the decision to raise you in one religion and I love you just the way you are.” This is just a suggestion because parents must develop their own language and consider the issues that are specific to their child.

For teenagers, life is all about friendships. They will want to spend most of their time with their friends, and want to look and act like them. For children raised in a minority religion, this may be a period when being different in any way is difficult for them. They may make great efforts towards being more like their peers, even if it means rejecting all that they have known thus far. Or they may revel in their difference. Every teen is unique.

Some teens may begin asking to attend services with friends or may refuse to attend their religious school programs. Parents must remember that their job is to be a parent and to set limits. Children will test the limits and they need their parents to help them feel secure while letting them explore and find their own answers.

The first tangible challenge for interfaith families with teenagers is that of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. If the child has been raised in neither or both religions, the question for Bar and Bat Mitzvah is one of “should we?” Has your child been attending religious school? Does he or she want to go through this process? What are each parent’s feelings about this? Do you belong to a synagogue? If yes, have you discussed this with your rabbi? These are all important considerations.

If a child has been raised as a Jew, this decision may not be a question of should we, but how should we. What will be the role of the non-Jewish parent? How will the non-Jewish relatives be involved? Discuss these issues together and with your rabbi to determine what the rules of your synagogue are and how you should proceed. For non-Jewish parents, strong feelings about this life-cycle event may emerge. If the non-Jewish mother is not allowed to participate in this important ceremony, she may feel hurt and rejected, particularly if she has been active in the child’s religious education. One interfaith family whose Catholic father had been very involved in the temple and in raising his Jewish children expressed great disappointment and anger when he could not hold the Torah with the family during the Bar Mitzvah.

This may also be a difficult time for non-Jewish grandparents who may not understand the significance and meaning of the service. They may feel left out and worry about where they fit in. Parents should discuss the service with them so that they know what to expect and be sure that they have a role to play.

In addition to identity exploration and life-cycle ceremonies, teens face new issues about dating. Teenagers in general are beginning to develop sexual feelings and interests and may begin having romantic relationships and dating experiences. In addition to talking to children about sexuality and relationships, this is also an important time for parents to address issues of interfaith dating.

Parents should discuss together how they feel about their child dating outside their faith. Interfaith couples often struggle with whether or not to express their opinions about interdating since obviously they did it themselves. One intermarried parent tells how his teenage daughter replied, “You didn’t,” when he said he would like her to marry someone Jewish.

It is absolutely okay to let your children know your feelings about interdating — even if those feelings resulted from your learning through your own experience that interfaith relationships are challenging. Sharing your feelings is not the same as putting up roadblocks, which I do not advise. When parents are too stringent with rules, kids may feel they have no choices and may then rebel.

Honesty and open lines of communication are the keys to successful parent-child relationships during the teenage years.


About S. Courtney Nathan

S. Courtney Nathan LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.