When Teens Experiment with Religion

By Ilene Springer


You and your partner thought you had sealed the deal a long time ago. As an interfaith couple, you pondered, discussed and perhaps decided that you would raise your children in one faith–either Jewish or Christian. Your child attended the religious institution you chose, received the religious instruction you selected and celebrated the holiday traditions you wanted. It was going well.

Then came the teen years.

Suddenly your child, raised Jewish, refuses to go to Yom Kippur services. Or your child who loved Midnight Mass on Christmas wants to join a Jewish youth group. What does it all mean?

“The adolescent years–which I believe extend through college–are the time of identity formation for a young person,” says Karen Kushner, MSW, director of interfaith outreach program Project Welcome in San Francisco, California. “And that means there’s going to be experimentation with many things, including your child’s religion.”

Children may begin to question why they were raised in one faith rather than the other; a child raised Christian may start to explore his Jewish roots; a child raised Jewish may want to attend a Christian retreat. If it’s any consolation, this also happens in families in which both parents are the same religion–not just interfaith families, says Kushner. She relates how her own son, raised by two religious Jewish parents (her husband is, in fact, a rabbi), decided not to attend Yom Kippur services after he had his Bar Mitzvah.

How much does the typical teenage rebellion have to do with religious issues? “I think rebellion is a natural part of identity formation,” says Sam Osherson, a psychologist practicing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of several books, including Rekindling the Flame: The Many Paths to a Vibrant Judaism. “And part of the process–whether it involves religion or another aspect of a child’s self image–is the need to do or be something different than their parents,” he says.

Parents should expect some tension at this time. “I tell parents to remember their own struggles at this age,” says Osherson. “Look at religious experimentation for what it is–a process of [identity formation].”

How should you, as a parent, react when your child is trying on a different religion than you intended or questioning your religious values?

First, remember that you married someone of another religion yourself. “Who would I be to insist that my children practice Judaism? After all, I didn’t marry a Jew,” asks Julie Oudin, a preschool principal in Houston, Texas, and mother of two daughters ages eighteen and twenty who were raised Jewish. “Although I hope they endorse Judaism, and I hope I have Jewish grandchildren someday, I won’t be shocked if something else happens.”

If your child starts resisting the religion he was raised in, “don’t respond like it’s a personal insult to you,” says Kushner. “Your child may be resisting your religious style in order to find his own way of being religious. When my son refused to go to Yom Kippur services, I was initially upset, but I controlled myself and asked him what he did intend to do on Yom Kippur. This encouraged him to make a religious choice of his own. He said he would still fast, but would go and think in the park instead of attending services at the temple. Not my choice, but his choice and a legitimate response to the needs of the day.”

Osherson encourages parents to not panic during this stage. “It’s not a life-or-death permanent decision. I tell parents to just wait; breathe deeply. Talk to other parents, and remember that things change. And certainly try to have reasonable discussions with your child about what she is getting out of her new religious beliefs or experiences. Be curious, be interested.”

Julie Oudin recalls that neither of her two daughters was typically rebellious about religion or other issues. “However, I do remember that my younger daughter had a group of Asian friends and wanted to go to their church. I knew other parents who absolutely forbade their kids to go, but I figured there was no harm in it. She went a couple of times, said she just wanted to see what it was about and that was it.”

During these years, parents have to deal with their own feelings. Seeing your child choose to be different in any way can feel like a huge loss. “But then we have to remember that we chose to be different from our parents in many ways,” says Kushner.

“Also remember,” says Osherson, “it’s not your kid’s job to take care of your feelings. Share your feelings with a partner or dear friend. As your child is reviewing his choices, parents often revisit their own questions about their religion, reigniting some of their own conflicts from years ago.”

If you find your feelings about your teen’s behavior overwhelming, you might want to seek counseling for yourself to help you deal with the feelings of loss and get past it, suggests Osherson.

“The whole key to reacting to your teen’s evaluation of life–religious and otherwise–at this time is respect,” says Kushner. “Don’t merely assume what’s going on, but have an honest discussion with your child about his choices.” Then you can make this difficult time of life a positive growth process for both you and your child.


About Ilene Springer

Ilene Springer is a freelance writer based in Dover, New Hampshire.