“I Don’t Believe in God Anymore” – When Your Kids Reject the Faith

shutterstock_142637245-2I’ve been hearing from a lot of parents whose teens are rejecting their faith. The stories are all terrifically painful but they tend to represent different variations on the following theme.

The other day my son/daughter was refusing to go to Church. S/he told me that s/he doesn’t believe ‘all that stuff’ anymore. We had a huge fight about it. I don’t understand. I never had any problems before. When s/he was little, s/he loved to go to Church. S/he was an altar server (lector, choir member)! Why is s/he being so stubborn all of a sudden?

When teens fight you about Church, it usually has little to do with their actual beliefs about God or church. Usually, a teen’s apparent rejection of his or her faith has to do with one of two things; a personal encounter with suffering he or she can’t make sense of or the breakdown of their relationship with you.

Teens and the Problem of Pain:

One of the most common reasons teens become resistant to the faith is because of a personal encounter with suffering that they can’t make sense of.

“I have a friend who says he’s gay. The Church says homosexuality is a sin. I don’t believe all that stuff anymore.”

“My friend died of leukemia. If there was a God, he would have saved him.”

“My parents are getting divorced. They always went to Church. They’re such hypocrites.”

Generally speaking, teens who are struggling with their faith for this reason tend to couch it in more philosophical terms. “There’s so much suffering in the world. How could God let all (those people) in (that far off place) suffer like that. I can’t believe in a God who would allow all that.”

Even though their teens’ statements tend to be phrased as philosophical dilemmas, parents should resist the temptation to address the problem as a mere intellectual struggle. For all their intellectual pretensions, teens–even teens in middle to late adolescence–tend to be more emotional thinkers than abstract thinkers. Adolescents are in the early stages ”formal operations” (i.e., philosophical, abstract thinking). They are certainly capable of asking hard questions and thinking deep thoughts, but they aren’t all that good at thinking all the way through them. An adolescent’s attempts at deep thinking tend to result in more brooding than brilliance.

Parents of kids who are struggling with their faith for these reasons would do well to remember that their children’s attempt to make this an abstract issue is a red herring. There is always, always, always some personal experience of suffering or pain that is making the teen question the existence or relevance of a loving God. The best response to this is to build you relationship with your teen, help him or her identify the specific, painful experience underlying the intellectual pretense of disbelief and–sensitively–work through that pain. Sometimes this might require professional assistance. The good news is that, in most cases, if the suffering teen encounters a loving, sensitive, effective parental response to their pain, their faith will come back online.

Loss of Faith as Loss of Rapport

The other most common reason that teens lose their faith is that they are angry with their parents and are looking for a way to hit back. In my experience, this accounts for about 85% of teens who adopt an anti-God/anti-church posture (with the other 10% being a personal encounter with suffering and 5% being other factors).

In this scenario, teens often feel that God and faith are the reason their parents are overly strict or controlling. They’re angry at their parents rules and, for whatever reason, they believe that those rules are a direct result of their parents religious devotion. That said, the teen isn’t so much angry about the rules per se, as they are about the needs/wants they feel those rules jeopardize. In other words, the teen feels he has certain needs that his parents don’t respect, and won’t listen to; needs that his parent’s rules forbid him from wanting much less getting. As a result, he experiences his parents, his parents’ rules and, by extension, his parent’s faith, as obstacles to his growth, independence, and well-being. This teen comes to believe that the only way he can be his own person is to reject–and even rage against–his parents faith–the source of the rules that are threatening his ability to grow up and be an independent person.

Again, in this case, the teen’s rejection of the faith isn’t really about the faith. It’s a symptom of a deeper and very serious relationship problem between the parent and child or, perhaps, within the family itself.

Healing the Wound: Two Steps

Two things need to happen to heal this wound.

First, parents need to invest in the relationship. They need to make a commitment to regular one on one time with the teen–especially if the teen resists it. They need to make this one-on-one time as pleasant as possible, No lectures. No lessons. Better yet, do something that the teen is good at that you’re not. Let them teach you something for a change. Focus on being compassionate. Sincerely convey that you are more interested in them than your agenda.

Likewise, parents need to make family life more enjoyable and more intimate and they need to reduce the conflict between them and their son or daughter by whatever reasonable means they can. They also need to do a much better job picking their battles. Scale back rules to cover the most important issues (e.g., basic respect, safety and order) and intentionally let almost everything else go–for now. You can go back to working on the other, less serious but still important, behavioral and attitudinal issues once rapport has been re-established.

Second, parents need to look hard at how they might be able to help their teen meet the needs that have been inadvertently frustrated by the parent’s rules. Increasing the rapport with the teen by spending more one-on-one time together, making family life more intimate and enjoyable, and picking battles will allow the teen to open up about what they need and why. This will give the parent the opportunity to help the teen find godly and effective ways to meet their needs instead of just saying “no” all the time. The more the teen feels the parent is invested in meeting their needs instead of frustrating those needs, the more willing the teen will be to see the parent as a mentor. The restoration of the parent’s mentor status is what allows the teen to be receptive to the parent’s attempts to form the teens faith, values, and worldview.

The more effective you become at proposing satisfactory, godly, alternative ways to meet your teens needs instead of just shutting them down, the more you should see your teen be more receptive to God and the Church.

The Bottom Line

Just remember, if your teen is fussing about going to church, being faithful to your values, or believing in God, don’t assume it’s “just a phase.” Address the problem behind the anti-religious posturing and you will see your teen’s faith flourish once again.

If you additional help to work through these issues, please check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids or, for more individualized assistance, you can speak with a Catholic therapist by calling the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s tele-counseling appointment line at 740-266-6461. Together, we can help your teen become everything God created him or her to be.


Originally published at: Patheos.com

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • doctormom4

    Now what do you do if these children are not teenagers, but only 3, 5 and 7 years old?

  • Another question

    And do you continue to insist they go to Church? What if they refuse?

  • sorrowing-dad

    and what of those adult children who “lost the faith” / left the Church in college? how do we reach / help them?

  • Lee

    We as parents are truly responsible for our children’s upbringing . Our influence is very important to them. They need us to give them opportunity for growth of critical minds. They don’t have to agree with us, but they need to know where we stand and what we stand up for. Where do you stand and what will you teach your children to stand up for? Give them a solid base to come back to as they start to go out into the world ;and they will be most thankful. If you are unsure of your own beliefs or need support, reach out and learn just as your own children do. God Bless your family.

  • Lee

    Start by being prayerful. Tell your (adult) children that you pray for them everyday and do just that. If our children put their church attendance aside it does not mean that they have left Christ out of their lives. We have found our own way to Him, now let them do the same, but be their example to follow. God Bless our children.

  • doctormom4

    I think that when a child is in college, in many respects, this is a natural phase for many. For many children, Church is just really taking a back seat. Is this good, no. But, the influences are overwhelming. If you have raised them right and continue to pray HARD, their hearts will always pull them and their eyes will slowly start to see over time the truth and what bad choices really mean and how they affect everything and everyone around them.
    Just think of how many children actually do settle down after marrying and having children. If they truly had no faith, this would never happen.

  • chaco

    Plead God’s promise from Acts 16 16: 31 about “Your household” being saved. And this story about a pious sister who prayed for her brother most of her life; She couldn’t be at his death but asked a nurse if he had accepted Jesus before he died; Nurse said a priest came to offer sacraments and he spit at the priest. As the sister cried out in desperation, she was shown how at his moment of death, Jesus appeared to him & asked; “Are you going to spit on me too ?” Her brother replied; “My Lord & my God.” [ The promise of Divine Mercy’s grace of conversion can apply to souls that have already left this life because God is “Outside of time”. He can apply your prayers to any time.]

  • CharlesOConnell

    I don’t have the answers. I’ve lost 3 of 4. But I’ve heard of the top 2 things to help.

    1. The family father needs to be a regular weekly Mass attendee.

    2. is from Brian Clowes oh Human Life International. Years ago on a radio interview, he reported that while he still had kids at home, his parish did a study. They found that, after #1, above, the most important thing was that a family with teenage kids perform a philanthropic service project, together as a family.

  • Voice

    Generally, this is a good article, but what is missing from this article is the NATURAL developmental phase that teens and young adults need to “differentiate” from their parents. They are becoming adults. They NEED to separate and that is natural. If that is not factored into any attempt to re-engage the relationship and on the topic of faith, then “good luck”. Having done youth ministry for over 15 years, the #1 mistake I believe parents make is the suggestion above of trying to “force” the mentor status. It has to be “earned” at this stage. They are no longer “children” (even though they ARE mentally and spiritually and biologically). Parents often can’t accept that their child has grown up and they ARE adults (yes, flawed, grasping for their adulthood, etc). Parents need to treat them more as adults. And parents need to be able to engage them as though they are independent and need to be respected in their views. The parent must be able to dialogue as with another, independent adult rather than as “my child”. Reason, love and witness and pointing them to others they can relate to (faithful teens, youth ministers, etc.) to support them and you is key.

  • N

    I live in Catholic Poland, and most of my college students are brought up Catholic and still feel some ‘obligation’ to go to Mass when they arrive at our small college. In the three years they are with us, many fall away from practicing their faith. In one of my classes, I listen to their discussions with each other (on various topics, but they are free to wander from the topic) for 90 minutes each week. Over twenty years, I’ve noticed a pattern that’s not mentioned here: a very common reason for these young people turning their backs on God and faith has nothing to do with being hurt and still less to do with anger at their parents (they usually report very close, warm relationships with their parents). What causes these kids to fall away from their faith is nothing more or less than sin, most often, sexual sin.

    In my own discussions with young people who are especially sarcastic, bitter, angry or hateful toward the church, I’d say 99% of the time it comes down to engaging in sexual sin and having to make a choice: the sinful lifestyle or their faith in God and continuing to go to church. They give me all kinds of specious arguments against the Church (like ‘The Church worships Mary – I know because my grandma does it’ or ‘the Church hates gays,’ etc.) or they pretend to be too ‘sophisicated’ for ‘all that garbage’ or that they don’t ‘need’ religion to be happy or as a crutch, like weak people do. But I listen to them week in and week out, and I see a constant correlation between the ones who have drifted into worldliness finding ‘no real need for God and religion’ and the ones engaged in sexual sin attacking the Church for being – wait for it – hypocritical somehow.

    I’m really surprised that this article completely ignores the main reason why anyone – teen or anyone else – turns away from the practice of their faith: they have separated themselves from God through sin, and need to repent.

    In Poland, Catholic priests teach the Catholic religion in the public schools (it is optional; you can opt to take an ‘ethics’ class if you don’t want religion). In my conversations with some of those priests, they’ve found hostility to the Church even among youngsters (middle and high school) who are enrolled in religion classes. And they, too, see the correlation: the more argumentative and resistant and even nasty the students are about matters of faith, the more often it turns out that they are involved in sexual sin.

    I’ve seen this so often it doesn’t even surprise me anymore: a young person who is still church-going and believes that faith is important in first year; the young person (most of our students are girls) gets a boyfriend in second year; in third year the girl is outspoken about rejecting the faith with some spurious ‘arguments’ about what the Church teaches (totally false, of course) and then it comes out in conversation on some other subject: she’s moved in with her boyfriend. Some of them continue going to Mass but not receiving communion for awhile – trying to have it both ways – but eventually they have to choose, and they simply give up God: the boyfriend has become their idol and/or the sex is too powerful a drive for them to resist.

    I was very surprised at the article suggesting that the PARENTS are somehow the ’cause’ of teens turning away from the practice of their faith because the children are angry at the parent, without at any point suggesting that parents should have a close look at their children’s – especially teen’s – behavior, friends and choices, and ask if their child’s rebellion began with a resistance to going to confession. Look closely at your child’s life and see if he or she has possibly begun to get involved in serious sin, including (as hard as it may be to think about this), sexual sin, either alone or with others or through the use of the Internet.

    Parents need to make confession a weekly or fortnightly or at least monthly event, and they need to go as a family, and they need to talk about the need for confession. They also need to be quite open and frank with their children and repeat the simple message that the more guilty we feel for our sins, the harder it is for us to turn to God, to practice our faith and to continue going to Mass, ESPECIALLY if we’ve separated ourselves from God’s grace by serious sin. They might even mention where the kids can hear, that most people who resist going to Mass do so because they’ve become involved in serious sin. For some young people, knowing that saying, ‘I’m not going to Mass anymore’ is tantamount to admitting to your parents that you are involved in serious sin, and it might be enough to keep them honest or get them to confession.

    Once a kid hits about age twelve, double the family-confession ‘outings’ and be very vigilant for any resistance to going to confession. Be patient and compassionate but firm: We ALL – parents and children – need to go to confession in order to have peaceful family relations; no one can opt out of going to confession. Something I’ve learned over the years of listening to so many, many students’ conversations is that people who don’t confess their sins to a priest always confess them to the rest of the world: they reveal them in their conversations (just listen, and you will hear what their false God is: sex, most of the time with my students; power in the form of ‘being in charge of my life and not needing God’; or money). They also reveal them by their refusal, suddenly, to go to Mass or go to confession.

    I remember the advice I got from a somewhat elderly (and altogether wonderful) religious sister who taught me in high school. She told us several times, ‘If you ever think you are losing your faith, make a good confession as soon as possible.’ At the time I didn’t understand that advice, and just tucked it away to understand when I was older (as I was constantly told I would, whenever I didn’t understand something).

    Now that I’ve spent twenty+ years working with young adults and watching them drift from their faith over three years they are in our college, I understand what Sister was getting at: the main reason people ‘lose’ their faith is because they are in a state of sin and have separated themselves from God’s grace.

    I’m so surprised that being in a state of unconfessed sin was not even mentioned in this article about why a young person – or any person – would suddenly decide he or she no longer wants to face God. It’s as old a reason as Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden, and I would have thought would have been the first and most obvious reason given here.

  • francine

    “N”, I agree. As a single mom I tried so hard to teach my two boys about the faith and the only thing that made sense was their emerging struggle with hormones when they were teen boys. A good father in the home would have helped, of course, but after finding pornography in their room it just really made me think this is the real issue like you said – reconciling the sex struggle with trying to live right in the midst of a sex saturated culture.

  • Francine

    Mr. Popcak, you don’t address what to do when children outright refuse. As a sinlge mom, I couldn’t physically drag my tall and muscular teenage boy into our car and into church. So then, do I take away privileges for disobeying? Does that even help? Do I say, “I love you. I wish you’d go to mass, but I can’t force you” and then take the rest of the younger children to church as they watch the older one’s example? I’m sorry, I just feel like your article is sugar-coated and unrealistic. I tried the family meetings, prayer always, family activities, expectations and prayer from a young age, counseling, youth leaders involvement, yet when my boys reached 9th or 10th grade it was basically refusal. Without an involved and God-fearing father in their lives it seems impossible not to “lose” them to the culture. It is heart-breaking.

  • Brett Page

    In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us how to pray and, just as importantly, how NOT to pray. He tells us to eschew public worship ‘as the hypocrites do in the public houses of worship, mouthing their hollow platitudes.’ When we pray, He commands, do it in private. “Go into your room and close the door. And pray to your father in Heaven who is unseen in these words…” which is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. There it is. Straight fom the mouth of God, incarnate as man through Jesus. Pray in private. So don’t sweat it if your kids don’t want to go to the ‘public houses of worship’. Get them to do charitable deeds anonymously, as Jesus also commanded. And maybe support efforts to give the least amongst us (the poor, migrants , prisoners etc) a better slice of the pie. These are the really important things to inculcate your kids with.

  • Riki

    September 22nd 1990 we visited Medjugorje for the 2nd time (1st time in 1984). Ivan Dragicevic one of the seers was answering questions posed by a group of American pilgrims. One of the questions was : “what about the schools nowadays”. He said : “Our Lady says about that : that not a single school is able to educate, teach and rear children as the parents can AT HOME. In Schools, colleges, universities they ruin and break down everything the parents taught them”. And I say Our lady is right. I have been to a Catholic University (which doesn’t deserve the title “Catholic”), I have been to a freemason College, it was a total attack of every Christian principle. But I am a fighter, and it only made me stronger in my faith and my love for the Lord. Mi ca el = Who is as God !!!!!!! Rita Biesemans

  • Brett Page

    And what, exactly, is your objective in forcing your unwilling, muscular teenage son to attend Mass? Worship is meant to be a joyful and meaningful activity, undertaken voluntarily. Forced to be there, he will sit resentfully going through the motions. Enduring a liturgy which he finds boring and completely irrelevant to the issues confronting contemporary society. When was the last time you heard a priest engage in dialogue from the pulpit about the need for health care reform? Or abolishing capital punishment (the right to life doesn’t end at birth). Or welcoming refugees. Or reducing the number of guns int he community? Abortion, contraception and homosexuality is the diet of homilies. No wonder your son would prefer to pray privately as Christ commanded us to do.

  • Jon Foust

    maybe as a teenager they found science as more rational and plausible then fairy tales from a 2000 year old book.

  • anononymous

    We have one daughter who has left the faith. First she experienced the problem of pain when God did not heal her. Then she enrolled in the local community college at a young age and was accepted by her “friends” there while her conservative Catholic friends isolated her for the “crime” of attending a state college. Of course that was followed by a loss of rapport because our rules were not popular with the new friends. All of this led to what N described which is immersion in sin. While I agree with what N said about sin, I believe that in order for sin to gain hold there must be a perceived lack of love that precedes it. If we are conscious of our Lord’s love for us to the point of dying on the cross then sin becomes much more difficult. If we experience that painful rupture and do not feel that God loves us than sin is so much easier. Going to Mass should be done as an act of love for our Savior who sacrificed himself on calvary so that He could become one with us in the Eucharist. Try inspiring your children to love and to be conscious of ways that God shows his infinite love and mercy to them even when things don’t go the way they want. Teach them about forgiveness and pray for their faith to increase. If our children have that intimate relationship and are certain of God’s love they will not lose their faith. In my daughter’s case as hard as it is she refuses to believe that God knows best by allowing her illness to continue and she has instead chosen to believe that He doesn’t care for her. We have adopted Dr.Popcak’s recommendations and they do keep the lines of communication open so she at least knows that we love her very much. I pray for her every time I think of her. I hope that I will get to share eternity with her and I weep for the possibility that I may not.

  • NB

    You know reading these comments gave me a lot to think about. I don’t know about the comment about priests not talking about what’s relative because all “Life” issues are relevant to society. I think that you can pick a little bit from everyone’s thoughts to help us parents who are struggling from this situation. As a parent, it’s heart breaking to have your child hand back a gift that you gave to them since before birth, and nurtured all their lives. When they hand it back to you, and say “no thanks” it’s hurtful! Why is it that they can be “open to other thoughts of religion” but be closed off to Jesus and the Church? I’m at a loss because I went through this two times before with older siblings, and so I thought I did better to nurture my child’s faith so that he would love Jesus and his body, the Church. I feel for the mother who is raising her children without a father’s support; but shouldn’t a mother’s love and example be enough? I think so. If a society say’s that a teenager has to follow laws to help him or her from harming his body with underage drinking; doesn’t a parent need to reinforce that their teenager needs to attend Mass with the family? I do believe that when a teenager turns away from the Church it is because they are hiding from something or are engaging in sinful activities that the Church teaches as being immoral. And I do believe that it can also be because they are hurting and feel as though God has rejected them or others in society. But, I guess I have no real answers to add, because I’m searching for reasons too. I’ll pray for you, and please pray for me.

  • Joe Bigliogo

    This article is totally missing the boat. Observe the steadfast refusal by Christians to accept that many people (teens included) actually find the Christian belief system irrational and untenable and regard much of it’s morality twisted and offensive… for genuine, legitimate reasons… like we actually thought about it carefully.

    Christians instead conjure up naive rationalizations why young people lose their faith like a relationship problems or personal crisis… anything but the actual reason… that some of us just don’t buy into bronze age ignorance anymore. Don’t look at nonbelievers like we are the problem, instead consider what you are asking us to believe.

    If you can’t see your way to be okay our lack of belief, then leave us alone. And this is not a request, it’s something we claim by right. The very same right you enjoy to hold your beliefs. You need to respect the rights of others to hold contrary beliefs if you want the right to your own beliefs to be respected in return. It really is that simple.

  • Joe Bigliogo

    I’ve heard this same thoughtless line of defective reasoning from fundamentalist Christians… “Y’all don’t believe in god because you just want to sin all the time”. This is truly a face palm moment for atheists like myself.

    What you and the fundie protestants are doing is getting your cause and effect in reverse. We don’t start with a “sin wish” we start by thinking skeptically about the claims of religion and come to the cognitive realization that Christian claims are delusional nonsense and the stories just bronze age myths and fables.

    Logically the Christian concept of “sin” is as much human fabrication as is the Christian god. As the Christian god does not exist, neither does “sin”. Accusations of sin by Christians are in reality demands we live by the moral codes of their holy book as practiced by tribes of ignorant primitives and who brashly justified their often cruel codes as divine revelations. We’ve come a long way in the evolution of human morality since those days. The REAL choice we face is between this bronze age, tribal morality or a secular morality derived from centuries of thoughtful inquiry into how to best achieve human survival and peaceful co-existence.

    For a thinking atheist the choice of morality is easy, just as it was when we chose reason over bronze age ignorance.