As parents you spend years trying to teach your children and prepare them to be strong, independent, and successful adults. It's a labor-intensive process full of joy, reward, turmoil and sometimes tears. But eventually all children reach adulthood and all you can do is hope you have done your job.
But what do you do when, as you are protecting, teaching and loving them, they make a choice to reject your faith or God in general? Or if, as adults, they determine that there isn't a place for religion in their lives? It can be a very difficult thing for a parent to understand and accept, and potentially affect your relationship with your child in painful ways.
That doesn't have to be the case, however. As challenging as it can be to come to terms with your child's decision to reject what you feel is a fundamental part of life and humanity, there are ways to handle their choice that will preserve your relationship.
A Teenager's Rejection of Religion
Teenagers are naturally rebellious. This is a time of life for exploring and asserting themselves as individuals. Trying to break away from you by displaying their differences and making their own choices is not only normal, but also what you want them to do. It's how they start learning to make decisions for themselves, experience consequences, and determine who they want to be. They should be able to do this during these years while enjoying the safety and support of their family if things go wrong.
The things they do during this time aren't necessarily indicative of the adult they will become. That being said, it can be far too easy for parents to inadvertently cause pain and push children the wrong direction during the rebellious teenage years.
Because teenagers are trying to separate and assert themselves and their ability to make their own choices, when they decide to do something like reject religion we as parents need to respond thoughtfully and carefully. Telling them they're wrong, demeaning their position, or forcing your beliefs on them too strongly can have negative effects. It may even cause them to act out in more extreme ways simply to reinforce their position and the differences between you and them.
Instead of an overly strong reaction to their position on religion or God, try taking a softer and more curious approach. One thing teenagers want more than anything is to be heard and respected by their parents and the other adults in their lives. Asking them to explain their thinking and theories allows them to have a voice and your attention- two things they crave at this age.
Your son or daughter has likely been pondering the ideas your faith has instilled in them and they may have questions. They may feel that they have also found what they believe to be plausible answers to those questions and want to share them. Communication at this age is often done through proclamations and assertions. (After all, if we adults knew as much as teenagers do all would be right with the world.) The answers or theories they have may be contrary to your beliefs, but it's important to allow them the space to work through their thoughts and help those thoughts evolve.
This doesn't mean that you need to agree, tell them their right, or stop teaching them. And they don't get a free pass to break from the family schedules and boundaries simply because their thoughts are different. For instance, if your family routine is to go to church on Sundays and that's an important part of your family time, they should still be required to attend. You can explain that they don't have to believe or agree, but the exposure to the teachings can provide new perspectives for them to consider, as well as help them develop their beliefs, and that being together as a family is the larger point.
Teenagers will likely go through many stages of belief and understanding as they mature. This is completely normal and desirable as it shows they are thinking independently, and in complex and contemplative ways. As parents we need allow them this space and remain solid in our beliefs while providing stability and a home-base of sorts.
Rejection of Religion by Your Adult Child
Adult children who make a choice to turn away from their parent's faith or God overall are a different story, and more difficult to know how to respond to for many. Whereas teens go through a naturally explorative phase, adults generally make a choice that they are prepared to live with as a permanent state. This can leave parents and adult children at odds with one another.
One of the hardest things for parents to do is to let go of the control they had over their children as they raised them. People who struggle with control issues may never do this effectively and this can cause huge problems later on as their grown children get married and have families of their own. But as adults our children make their own choices and there really isn't anything that we can do about it. That includes their choices about faith, religion and the presence of God in their lives.
As the parent of an adult child you will likely go through several stages your own growing pains.Giving your son or daughter the respect and space they need can be a challenge, but it's necessary for the health of your relationship. If they have chosen a path for themselves that's different than the one you would have chosen for them you need to remember that the choice is theirs and it shouldn't affect the love you have for them or they have for you. Choosing a different religion, or none at all, isn't a statement about their feelings for you or judgement of your success as a parent. So, you'll need to be careful to not allow your opinion of their choices to taint your interactions with them.
Once again, your child's choices shouldn't dictate your behaviors or beliefs. In fact, if you hope that they will eventually come back around, continuing to honor your faith without imposing on theirs is the best way to influence bringing that about.
Seeing your child as an autonomous individual with the capability and right to make their own choices can feel very foreign to parents. It may mean that parents must do some self-evaluation and soul-searching of their own in order to come to terms with that. But practicing love and understanding are the best routes toward maintaining a good and healthy relationship with your child. And that should be the first priority for all parents.