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Most parents raise their children with the assumption that they will follow the same religion. Muslims expect to raise Muslims. Christians expect to raise Christians. Atheists expect to raise atheists. A shared faith will give parents and children a similar foundation for morals, ethics and good behavior. It will give them some shared context for the difficult discussions that inevitably come with raising a child. Most parents assume that they will birth their children into their faith, raise their children in it, watch their children marry in its traditions and, eventually, their children will bury them according to that religion’s last rites. Most parents are correct in making these assumptions. Most but not all.

In today’s diverse world, children are increasingly coming into contact with religions different than their own. Most of the time, this results in an expanded worldview and an increased understanding of other cultures. Sometimes, however, children are deeply moved by another faith. An atheist may be awed by the humble devotion of a Catholic, or a Muslim might be called to the joy and color of Hinduism. In some of these cases, a teen weaves what they loved about another religion into their own. A Christian might take up meditation after learning about it from a Buddhist. A solitary Witch might decide to join a coven after attending a Christian service and seeing how people enjoyed worshipping together. In other cases, however, a teen feels more drawn to the new faith than they are to their own. So, what does a parent do when their teen declares that they want to change faiths?

Stay Calm

It can hurt when a teen declares that they are planning to change faiths. A parent might wonder what was missing from their faith or how they went so wrong as to drive their child away from their faith. Do not blame yourself for your teen’s choice. If they are called to a different faith, there is little you can do about it. Faith changes are also not a teen’s reaction to a parent. A faith change is rather unlikely to be a rebellion. A rebellion against faith is more likely to involve only the trappings of another faith. For example, a Christian who is pretending to convert to Wicca to rebel against their parents is not actually going to have delved into the faith. A rebel will declare that they are a Witch to everyone in earshot and draw pentagrams on their walls. A true convert is more likely to quietly light some candles on Imbolc or make it a point to get up at dawn on Litha to greet the sun. 

If your teen is telling you that they want to change faiths, they are trusting you to react rationally if not happily. Some Muslim teens refuse to tell their parents that they have converted to Christianity out of fear of a negative reaction. Former atheists are mocked by family members for falling prey to fairy tales. Many teen Neopagans have stayed “in the broom closet” to avoid conflict with family members. None of this is healthy. It means that all further family and parental encounters with their child are based on lies, that a teen cannot truly explore or grow in their new faith since they must hide it and that the teen feels, on some level, unsafe at home. Hard as it may be, you need to stay calm. Admitting to a conversion takes a lot of courage and a lot of trust. Reward your teen for their trust by not freaking out or lashing out because you are hurt. <

Lost and Found

Take some time to talk to your teen about their decision, and make it a deliberate point to do more listening than talking. Ask your teen about the faith they are thinking of joining. What drew them to that faith? Why do they feel this faith is a better choice for them? Why do they identify more with this faith’s beliefs? Make sure you ask these questions in a nonjudgmental way. Your job is to listen and come to an understanding not to interrogate and bully your teen. Your teen is likely feeling somewhat uncomfortable telling you this at all. Don’t do anything to make them shut down. 

Don’t shy away from learning about what your teen felt was missing in your faith either. Ask why they felt disconnected from their old faith. What was missing? What did they disagree with? Why did they feel conversion was the best option? What other options did they explore? You may not like the answers you get, but if you ask your questions calmly, you can learn a lot about your teen and their own spiritual needs from how they answer your questions.

The answers you get can also tell you how serious your teen is about converting. If they keep throwing the new faith’s differences in your face, they might just be rebelling. If they can’t answer questions about the new faith’s beliefs in any serious detail, they might only be thinking about converting and not have actually decided to go through with it. If their answers are rock solid, well informed and at least reasonably confident, however, they are probably completely serious about changing faiths. 

Potential Pitfalls

Changing faiths effects much more than what religious services a teen attends. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, religion influences every bit of our thought process and shows in every action we take. If your teen is truly leaving behind the faith of their childhood, they are leaving all that context and unconscious understanding behind. Make sure they understand that. Also make sure that your teen understands that it isn’t always easy being a new convert. Many religions lack a support system to help new converts adjust and, as much as you love them, you will be of limited help supporting them in their new faith. You won’t be able to answer questions about beliefs or practices because you are not a member of this new faith. Don’t use this as a way to throw down the gauntlet or intimidate your teen, but do help them understand that conversion is a difficult road to walk especially in adolescence. 

Education

If your teen is determined to change faiths, you need to educate yourself about their new faith. Read books about their new faith written by religious insiders, and talk to people who actually practice your teen’s new faith. If your teen is thinking of converting to Hinduism, read books about Hinduism that are written by Hindus. Visit a Hindu temple and talk to the worshippers. Look for support groups for parents whose children are changing faiths and avail yourself of your resources. Other parents might well be able to help you avoid common pitfalls and mistakes. Help your teen understand that you do not know much about their new faith, and ask that they be patient with you as you learn about it.

As you educate yourself, you also might find that your teen’s new faith is not as different as you originally imagined. Many faiths have common themes and morals that can act as common ground for two seemingly unrelated religions. Hinduism and Christianity seem to be complete opposites, but passages from some Shaiva texts read as if they were pulled straight from the Bible or vice versa. 

Take the time to educate your teen as well. Don’t be overbearing, but see if you can help them find what they were missing without changing faiths. Explain alternate interpretations of the texts or find other religious authorities to answer their questions. Accept that you might also need to make a change as a family. If your rabbi has been unconsciously driving your teen away from Judaism, you might need to change synagogues to help your teen see a new and better side of their religion. If your teen can’t stand your congregation, you may have to change churches. Do what you can to work with your teen, but do understand that it still may not be enough.

Hearing that your teen wants to change faiths is hard, but it does not have to tear your family apart. Interfaith families are becoming increasingly common, and most have little problem functioning as a happy, loving unit. Holidays might get a little more complicated if you are celebrating Yule, Christmas, Hanukah and Diwali in one house, but look on the bright side. You’ll have weeks of joy instead of days, and you might just find your eyes opened to a whole new world because of your teen’s brave spirituality.