When Teens Reject Religion

teens rebel1


Rebellion is a normal part of adolescence. As children morph into pre-teens and then teens, they seek greater independence, push boundaries, oppose rules, argue more, reject authority, and detach from the people who love them most. You, mom and dad. The parents.

And everything you believe in, everything you’ve been teaching your darling daughter or son is now subject to argument or outright rejection. Even religion, the family rituals, customs, traditions that have been part of your family lore for generations are under attack. All those family memories engrained in your family’s history are also subject to invalidation. That can be difficult for any parent and you might be wondering why? Why is my darling child attacking the very core or essence of what we believe in?

There’s a good reason and it’s based in cognition and development. According to David Elkind, PhD, author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go, your child’s brain is under “construction.” The area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is developing rapidly, neurons are multiplying wildly and firing it seems all at once or in an illogical order.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for thinking, judgment, self control, and regulation. In adolescence, kids are developing their own ideas. Suddenly, your children see everything more realistically. They’re acutely aware of unfairness, injustice, of rules that shouldn’t apply to them because they’re practically grown up. Kids are also seeing their parents as flawed beings too.To define herself as a separate entity, your daughter must question who she is and that means questioning who she is in relationship to you. The reason why she questions is part of brain anatomy and development.

The result is that your teen is seeing you through a whole new lens. It’s a reality that awakens your child, scares them, can anger them. Don’t worry. They still love you and they certainly need you. But suddenly, you aren’t the ideal, the larger than life parents who brought your children comfort, who could solve every problem, who uttered the absolute truth. You, the parents, when compared to other people’s parents just aren’t that cool. When compared to the television parents, you’re kind of dowdy. And compared to what your child thinks? Well, you mom and dad simply fall flat.

If you’re not who they thought you were, then everything you taught them must be subject to question. Your teen, while moving through adolescence must scrutinize what you’ve taught them.

Your child is suddenly more aware of his surroundings and beginning to ask what’s real and what is truth?

And that can include religion, your religion. Though your child knows no other customs, was raised in the values and ideals since birth, a.nd seemed perfectly content, embraced, and fulfilled by your faith, by function of your child’s development he or she must question.

And that can be very difficult especially because things don’t right themselves for a long time. A very very long time until your child completes passes through development and develops their own sense of identity as an adult, separate and detached from you.

While this development is occurring, your child might argue with you. All. The. Time. According to Elkind, that’s also because of the changes in the prefrontal cortex at work. “As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill — and they tend to practice on their parents. “It may seem that they argue for the sake of arguing. But really, they’re practicing their new abilities.”

It can be trying time for parents. It’s especially trying if what your child is rejecting is so much a part of your family traditions, rituals, and habits. If your adolescent child reject your religion, the practices he or she was raised with since birth, it’s not just difficult. It can create family discord and personal heartache.

But rejection of your religion, opposition of practices, questioning doctrine and whatever else a teen does to disrupt the status quo are really all a part of developmental rebellion. As Dr. Carl Pickhardt explains it, around mid-adolescence (13 to 15 years), your teenager might “declare that religiously believing and participating is no longer for them. He may argue that religious practice is restrictive, that he doesn’t believe in a god, that practicing the religion without believing is hypocritical. Your child might refuse to attend holiday dinner or worship services. He may criticize other family members who choose to remain observant. He may become belligerent. And you, well, you will be the target of his rage, opposition, debate, and defiance. While you might feel under a personal attack, keep in mind. This stage of adolescence is a period when teens question authority—parental, professional, spiritual, etc; and it’s completely age appropriate.

During adolescence, your teen might reject religion and other values you taught them.
During adolescence, your teen might reject religion and other values you taught them.

But even the rejection of religion is part of developmental rebellion common in adolescence. How you handle it depends in large part on your child age and developmental stage.

According to Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, there are four stages of adolescent rebellion. How you address the rebellion is based on your child’s age but also on their emotional maturity. Some kids hit stage later than others.

Between the ages of 9 and 13, “rebellion… is primarily a process through which the young person rejects the old child identity that he or she now wants to shed to clear the way for more grown up redefinition ahead. Rebellion at this early adolescent age proclaims: “I refuse to be defined and treated as a child anymore!” Now he knows how he doesn’t want to be, but he has yet to discover and establish how he does want to be. Pickhardt recommends firm insistence. Set up the guidelines and work your budding teen down through attrition. At the same time, try to help them verbalize objections through dialog rather than action.

  1. Set up some firm family guidelines for your rebellious teen, guidelines that are non-negotiable that clearly defined expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations. While your child is rebelling, some of the acts of aggression might be destructive—self destructive. You want to keep your budding adult safe. Setting up a behavior contract with clear expectations, goals, and consequences for failing to meet expectations should be included. There should also be a reward section of the contract. If your child complies, he can go to that swimming party.
  2. Keep in mind that your teen is really still a child in a developing body. Some behaviors aren’t going to change through discussion, punishment, or head-to-head combat. You have to keep your child safe and relatively compliant until he developmentally works through some of the internal confusion he has with religion or whatever else he’s objecting to. If a young child was threatening to jump out of a moving car, would you discuss it? NO! You implement rules and consequences to keep them safe.
  3. Make yourself available to talk. Make it clear to your child that you want to listen to his objectives and you need your child to help you understand. Listen without commenting. Validate his complaints by mirroring his sentiments. “I can see how you might feel that way.” At the same time, give him constructive ways to verbalize his anger, frustration, and internal struggle.

When a child moves into the next stage in mid-adolescence (ages 13 through 15) Pickhardt describes rebellion as a need for differentiation of identity from the parents. It’s how teens develop identities. In order to do it, they have to develop a resolve and determination to break off and differentiate themselves from the expectations.

While the teen might seem oppositional, he still needs to know that he can depend on the parents and that they still love him.

This is a good time to challenge a teen. Instead of confronting them which drives them to do the opposite, empower them with a creative challenge, one that teaches them lessons about personal responsibility and consequences. It also challenges the teen to explore some of his notions about the world and how he thinks it really works. This is a good time to address questions or objections your child. Perhaps take your child to a learning group, one where a moderator can address questions and objections with liturgy and its application to real life. Involve your child in a learning quest where he’s forced to learn more about his religion. Learning frequently brings about internal change and helps a child discover answers independently. Make yourself available during the learning process and show your teen that you respect his or her questions, objections, and decisions.

In later stages of adolescent rebellion, your teen is demanding greater and greater degrees of freedom. It might mean pushing back on expectations you have of your child. Perhaps your child no longer wants to worship with you or no longer wants to join family holiday dinners. The key during the 15 to 18 year period is to set firm guidelines and expectations. You should make it clear what responsibilities are commensurate for privileges of independence. For example, you can make it clear that while you appreciate your child’s decisions and personal opinions, there are standards to adhere to in the family. As long as your teen lives under your roof, you expect him to attend a religious service. And then you give him a choice, two or three choices that are satisfactory to you. You can also solicit suggestions from your teen and include them in the options if they’re reasonable.



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Reader Interactions


  1. Luka Mtero says

    It is the first time I browsed through your web,and the lesson I got here blessed me keep up the good work.

  2. Joe Bigliogo says

    Forcing your teens to “attend a religious service” will accomplish…
    absolutely nothing except maybe to strengthen your teen’s resolve and possibly drive a wedge in your relationship. If I dragged your butt to a mosque and forced you on your knees to pray to Allah… would you reconvert and become a devout Muslim? No you’d feel outraged and deeply put upon that your religious freedom had been violated. It is no different with teenagers, especially thinking ones.
    If your teen is a believer but just unmotivated towards church I can understand parents applying pressure to go. But if they genuinely don’t believe in the existence of God or the claims of Christianity or have strong moral objections then forcing them to listen to and participate in the preaching of ideas they may be diametrically opposed to will only strengthen their atheist position achieving the exact opposite of your intention. I’ll bet you wouldn’t want to feel coerced into your beliefs. Neither does your teen.

  3. Joe Bigliogo says

    Teens rejecting religion is no different than adults rejecting religion. Skepticism of religious or supernatural claims is as old as the claims themselves. Everyone including teens have the right to express skepticism for ideas that make no sense to them. Freedom of belief must include the freedom not to believe; it is the final inch of our human dignity.

    • Varda Epstein says

      It is very different. Teens’ brains are still developing, so their beliefs are also in development. Also, teens are likely to rebel against their parents so their rejection of a parent’s beliefs must be seen in that light: as rebellion, rather than informed decision.

      • Joe Bigliogo says

        Equating natural skepticism with rebellion is rather a cheap shot (bordering on the ad hominem) and designed to trivialize and dismiss a skeptical point of view rather than address the argument.
        The substantial majority of skeptics will tell you the early teen years marked the beginning of their process of independent critical thinking and personal introspection. If it were merely rebellion the bulk of teens would return to their faith later in life. But the stats clearly tell us this is not the case as more often young skeptics stay skeptical and frequently become solid atheists well into adulthood. The largest demographic of declared apostates are actually not teens but folks in their twenties and thirties. The rejection of Christian faith is fast becoming a growing phenomenon with no signs of slowing down. In the UK over 60% of twenty somethings identify themselves as atheist. For you to straw man it as as youthful rebellion demonstrates profound ignorance of the processes actually taking place. I am an atheist in my thirties and can vouch for many others having gone through this process starting in their teen years. You simply don’t know what you are talking about.

      • Brian says

        > Teens’ brains are still developing

        What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? I was 12 or 13 when I started rejecting religion. Twenty-five years later, I am still atheist.

        > as rebellion, rather than informed decision.

        Don’t insult my intelligence by assuming my rejection of religion at that age was just teenage rebellion instead of an informed decision. I have certainly evolved certain opinions in the intervening years, but it did not mean I was completely incapable of making informed decisions as a teen.

        • Varda Epstein says

          The fact that you still reject religion as an adult does not mean you were capable of making an adult decision when you were NOT an adult. This has nothing to do with how much information you managed to absorb at the time.

  4. Monet says

    I’m a 17-year old and I simply don’t know what I believe anymore. There’s many religions and beliefs and its overwhelming.I feel like forcing me to go to church and all that is crazy. When I was younger, I never thought anything of it. Now as I’m older I realize that as long as I’m not killing people and doing bad, bad things, I’ll be fine. Religion helped me distinguish between right and wrong and i honestly don’t feel connection or anything when I do go to church.

  5. Kayla hooper says

    All that being forced into attending religious services and religious school accomplished for me was pushing me away. Away from my parents away from the ability to believe in a god or any higher being. Im now 26 with some severe issues. Ive worked through many of them but the views that many religions (ours was particularly bad seeing as they were southern baptists) have toward woman and sex create major psychological issues when these young girls turn into women. I could go on and on about how these views have affected many women and girls (myself included) but i dont have the time to go into it all at this moment. The key here is when your child tells you that there are serious problems with segregation and hate within their church or religious views listen closely! If you dont theres a very good chance your child will wind up in my shoes and suffer for most if not all of their life from a form of ptsd now being called post traumatic church syndrome. I cant even walk in a church or listen to religious talk without extreme anxiety, hate, and all around negative feelings. Respect your children and their souls or one day they won’t respect you or yours!

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