I went to a Christian school for most of my teenage years. When I was in seventh grade, I met with two seniors who were to disciple me. I grew very connected to one of them. I looked up to her and valued her thoughts. Because I thought so highly of her I even tried to appear like her. She would frequently wear her hair up in two messy buns on the back sides of her hair. I would do the same thing thinking I was so cool. I accepted what she thought and who she was without question.
As a mental health counselor working with teens, I have witnessed the importance of understanding their development. We need to understand teenage development to help our teens understand themselves and their place in the world. Because teens work to discover a sense of self, it is crucial that we acknowledge spirituality as a factor of identity development.The term “spiritual identity development” may be new to you. Basically it is a fancy way of describing the process of establishing your own set of spiritual beliefs. In “Christianese” the term is “making your faith your own”. We talk about this all the time. We state that our desire is to help our teens “make their faith their own”. What I observe however, is that we try to make our faith their own. This needs to stop if we want our teens to develop a healthy sense of self and spirituality.
Erik Erikson, (Why did his parents choose that name?) studied human development across the lifespan. He developed a system of stages he believes everyone attempts to work through. Teens find themselves in the “identity vs role confusion” stage. During this stage, they attempt to establish a sense of self. They seek answers to the question “Who am I?”. Some important things happen spiritually during this age. James Fowler, a theologian who studied spiritual identity development, also created a set of stages. He believes when a person enters their teen years they enter a stage called, the “Synthetic-Conventional” stage. Basically, they believe all they have been taught without question. They establish their morals based on those around them. They believe what everyone else believes. In order to help our teens move through this stage of spiritual development, we must teach them to question God. Here are three ways we can do that.
1. Avoid Telling Teens Who They Are
This one is hard to do. Our natural inclination is to tell teens what it means for them to be a Christian and give them a list of ways to act. After all, if we don’t do that, we can’t control their behavior. (Pro tip- that was tongue in cheek, it’s impossible to control someone else’s behavior. Don’t bother trying.) We just discussed that teens passively absorb spiritual beliefs from everyone else without questioning them. We also learned they are developing a sense of identity. Therefore, if we simply tell teens who they are, they will internalize our prescriptions for their lives. When this happens, they walk out of their teen years not knowing who they are. This same concept applies to spirituality, if we simply tell them “you are a Christian, this is what you do”, they will develop no sense of their own spiritual identity. They will simply wear the identity we designed for them like a costume. They “look right”, but haven’t achieved internal change. Instead of telling your teens who they are, teach them to explore. Let them explore their beliefs, their goals, and their personality. While they do this, encourage them to try new things. Facilitate opportunities for them to explore their faith as it relates to who they are.
2. Teach Teens to Ask “Why” Questions
Teach teens to question everything so they can learn to think critically. Yes, even teach them to question God. There are healthy ways to question and doubt God. Allow your teens to express questions and doubts, these can motivate them to seek answers. If you don’t help teens think critically, they won’t do it. They are just learning this skill and need help. When your teens are asking questions, don’t give them the answers. Here’s why: when we spoon-feed our teens, they never learn to feed themselves. Don’t give them the answers. When we simply give answers we are enabling them to passively eat whatever people feed them. Instead, teach them to seek out answers, and encourage them on their search. This doesn’t mean you have to leave them wandering aimlessly. Answer their questions with questions. Get them thinking. Please, teach your teens to ask questions and seek answers. This skill is immeasurably important for their lives.
3. Evaluate Your Own Spirituality
Believe it or not, if we don’t model positive behaviors for our teens they probably won’t choose them. Who knew? We have to teach and be a good example. This means that you should be constantly questioning and evaluating your faith, seeking personal growth, and having a strong sense of spiritual identity and beliefs. If you’re worried about questioning God, take a deep breath, he can handle it. He has heard all of the questions before and he will keep hearing them for the foreseeable future. When you are able to ask questions and seek out answers yourself, you will experience a deeper connection with your spiritual beliefs and a greater understanding of their importance in your life. Model this for your teens!
In summary, if your teens beliefs remain unchecked, ultimately your teen will develop a spiritual identity based on the beliefs and expectations of others instead of one born out of conviction. Spiritual beliefs help people to determine meaning and purpose in their lives. Meaning and purpose are essential for a teen to learn who they are and who they want to become. Don’t just tell your teen who they are. Let them ask questions. And remember, take care of your own spiritual life too.