You want your teenager to go to church, but they have announced they don’t want to. What do you do?
As a licensed marriage and family therapist associate, I’ve worked with teens in their homes, schools, and in my office. I’ve worked to address behaviors from aggression to theft to food fights. The principles I’ve used professionally can be used by parents to address teens who don’t want to attend church.
1. Understand How Their Mind Works
Three developmental patterns in teenagers work together when teens announce they do not want to attend church:
- A desire to assert independence
- Ability to engage in abstract thinking
- Undeveloped long-term thinking
This combination creates a situation where many teens want to explore what rejecting church attendance may look like.
For the first time, teens can contemplate what kinds of beliefs they want and how those will affect their lives. Combined with an inability to see long-term consequences and a desire to differentiate themselves from their parents, teenagers from faithful LDS homes are very likely to say they don’t want to attend church at one point.
Understanding these underlying factors will make you more able to address the issue. Teenagers saying they don’t want to go to church is not a crisis by itself, but one type of normal expression of adolescent development. How we respond to this moment and address the underlying concerns will determine whether or not this develops into a longer-term problem.
2. Determine Family Standards Ahead of Time
You will be in a much stronger position to deal with your teenager, if you’ve already thought through how you will respond.
Take the time to think through your family’s rules and priorities. What reasons are acceptable for not attending church for your family? Sickness, busyness with school work, bullying at church, and lack of testimony are all possibilities to consider.
How do your rules change as the child ages? What compromises are acceptable?
This article is focused on teens, but children younger than twelve or thirteen likely have a clear-cut reason for not wanting to attend that you can address.
Having a family rule in place such as “everyone goes to church except for sickness” will help parents respond when their teenagers first announce they don’t want to attend church, and will give you a better starting place for the ensuing conversation.
3. Find out Why
Your teen definitely has a reason for not wanting to go to church. So ask.
With so much focus on faith crises, we may assume that’s our teen’s reason. But that very well may not be the case.
The goal in this conversation is to listen and understand. At this point, you are not trying to change your teen’s opinion or behavior. We often listen trying to formulate a response. But you need to find out the reason for your teen’s behavior, and trying to interject makes that much more difficult.
There will be time for sharing your perspective later in this conversation or during another conversation. Be patient.
Your goal is to find out if there are concerns to be resolved, and see if your teen is willing to resolve them. Don’t feel pressure to make a permanent decision in the moment. You can readdress this later.
Some parent-teen relationships can be rocky. There may be a lot of past baggage. Learning why your teen won’t go to church is important enough that you may consider asking another adult figure to have the conversation with them.
4. Use Solution-Oriented Questions
One approach that has proven successful with teens in my own work is solution-oriented questions.
A solution-oriented question asks teens to explain a behavior you want to promote. Usually, you do this by asking about a past time they did the behavior.
Remember, you’re not challenging your teen, you’re trying to understand them. Solution-oriented questions work because as parents earnestly try to understand, their teens persuade themselves.
Consider questions such as:
- What reasons did you have for going to church last week?
- How did you motivate yourself to attend sunday school?
- What needs to happen so you can attend church this week?
Avoid why questions. Why asks someone to analyze the situation through their current perspective. And if your teen doesn’t want to go to church today, the answer to why is likely to be negative. We want the teen to recall the specifics of a previous situation. What, how, and when questions accomplish this better.
The goal is for teenagers to vocalize why they go to church. This is much more powerful than if you tell them why they go to church.
Don’t be discouraged if the first answer is “because you make me.” That probably is one honest answer. Continue to press forward asking for more reasons or additional specifics.
5. Frame the Problem
Teens are finally capable of abstract thinking. Their conception of the world is one of the first they’ve ever figured out. Their world view is unchallenged, underdeveloped, and ultimately lacking.
As a parent, you can help them begin to build a more mature world view. Explain why you attend church. At this point avoid answers that could be summarized as “just because.”
Frame church as a positive experience. Explain what you gain from attending church. If belief is the issue, be clear that belief is not necessary for church attendance.
For Latter-day Saints, church helps us become good people. By explaining how that process works for you, you help your teen reconsider their own views. You also may start to understand what type of experiences you would consider comparable to church, and begin to work towards a compromise.
For example, if you attend church to partake of the sacrament and then consider how to better yourself, then you would be willing to allow your older teen to attend sacrament meeting, then go home and spend an hour reading scriptures, or writing some weekly goals.
6. Be Patient
As a parent, your abstract thinking and decision making skills are incredibly more advanced than your teen’s.
It can be frustrating to have a conversation with a teen who seems to not be able to recognize the wisdom of what you’re saying. It may take a teen a week or longer for them to entirely process and understand what you’ve said.
Don’t exacerbate a problem by forcing a decision immediately.
For long-term success, your teen needs to develop their own reasons to attend church. That can take time.
7. Don’t Overreact
Patient problem solving may be a great long-term solution, but it doesn’t help when your fourteen-year-old has barricaded themselves in their room at 8:40 AM, while you’re trying to get three other kids clothed and out the door.
Thinking about how to respond ahead of time, will help in that initial moment of conflict. Earlier, I mentioned how important a family rule can be for starting the discussion. In the moment, a family rule can be a great way to solve the conflict with a promise to discuss later.
If you haven’t thought of a specific church plan, consider what you would do if your teen said he or she wouldn’t go to school. It’s not the exact same situation, but it might work as backup solution in the moment.
A willingness to discuss the topic later will go a long way to solving the immediate problem. But also remember that this is a crucial conversation. Being a few minutes late to church may be worth it to address the problem well at first.
Above all, keep your cool. Your child is challenging your most deeply held beliefs, perhaps for the first time. It would be easy and understandable to get mad. Resist that temptation and you will make resolving the problem easier.
8. Make Adjustments
Many parents reading this article may have already had this initial conflict. You may be thinking that the first interaction wasn’t ideal. That’s okay.
You can always adjust your approach. You may need to adjust your approach because your initial interaction blew up. Or you may have developed a compromise that is no longer working.
No matter the reason, you can always go back and have another conversation. Feel free to admit that what you did didn’t work. This ultimately helps build a relationship of trust and can be the easiest way to make adjustments.
In some cases, a teen not wanting to go to church is part of a larger power struggle. Do everything you can to avoid an authoritarian parenting style. You know your child best, so you know if a compromise will work.
Ultimately in these situations, the answer is improving the larger relationship.
9. Follow the Spirit
It may not feel this way, but you’ve been blessed to parent this teen. The Lord will help you. Pray for the spiritual gifts of discernment and wisdom. (Maybe some extra patience too.)
The suggestions above are based on generalities, but your child isn’t a generality.
There are many other factors to consider in how to approach a teen who doesn’t want to attend church: your child’s past behavior, your overall discipline structure, how many other children you have, other stressors.
No article could address how every single variable should affect your decision making. Hopefully, the principles in this article will give you a starting point that combined with prayer will allow you to make the best decision for your teen.