Very few things seem more daunting to parents than the challenge today to raise teens who are physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. Most parents I speak with feel overwhelmed by and under-prepared for the challenge of raising Catholic teens in an anti-Catholic world. They look around at the culture that is influencing their teens and see very little, if anything, that reinforces their desire to develop teens who are faith-filled and active believers with lives marked by strong character and love. This is no doubt a tremendous challenge, but the good news is that it is possible. Here are five simple things that you can do to help your children grow in faith during their teen years.
- Make their spiritual development a priority.
As parents, we want our children to be all that God created them to be. We want them to be successful in life. We cannot, however, limit our focus to this life only. When our children are young we want them to be good students, so they can get good grades, so they can get into a good college, so they can make money, so they can enjoy life, so they can save for retirement, so they can… what? Compared to eternity, this life is fleeting. Their spiritual development is vital in preparing them for heaven – our true home. A full resume in this life will not make us or our children worthy of heaven. Living in union with Jesus as Lord and Savior will. We need to raise their spiritual development to the level at which it needs to be. As a parent, you are the number-one influencer on your child’s future. If you make it a priority, your teens will pay attention. We must never forget the words of Jesus: “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36)
Ok, so if it is a priority, how do you make it a reality?
- Make your family a school of love.
God is love. Love is not just a quality that God possesses. He exists as Trinity – three distinct Persons intimately bound by self-giving love. Through baptism we are invited, as God’s adopted sons and daughters, to enter into this communion of love. As parents, our main goal for our families should be to create a place where our children can learn what love is. That is why family is referred to as the domestic Church. Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s beautiful letter on the family, states:
All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family “a school of deeper humanity”: this happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.
This school of love or “deeper humanity” is vital to the spiritual development of our children. So how can we make our families “schools of love”?
- Teach love as communication.
God is a great communicator. The problem lies in the fact that our lives are so often so driven by distraction, busyness, and activity that we don’t have time to hear Him. We become human doings instead of human beings, so we begin to believe that real communication with God is not possible. Our children can start to believe that real communication with us isn’t possible, either, if we don’t make time to be together. The best advice I have ever heard on building family and passing on faith is to slow down and listen to your children. If they seem closed off to you, ask yourself, “How have I tried to pursue and discover the heart of my teen?” Believe me, they have deep hearts. Often times their hearts are full of fears, doubts, and insecurities (ours too!), but they want to be known and to know. As you deepen intimacy with your children, you will be teaching them how to be intimate with God whether they realize it or not.
Even if you have failed miserably up to this point, don’t lose hope. God can heal, restore, and strengthen your bond with your children. You may need a lot of patience and time – especially if you are trying to build trust. But the return on this investment will be amazing and worth every awkward moment or rejection that you may experience along the way. Love and communication takes time. You need to invest if you want the return.
- Shared faith moments.
Like many parents, you may feel too weak in your own faith to feel like you’re in a position to lead your teens in their faith development. You are definitely not alone. I think every parish should have a support group for parents who feel like failures. Leading teens in faith is not an authoritative push, but a pastoral “walking with” your teens. You are on a faith journey and every journey of faith is marked by highs and lows, successes and failures. Show your teens how to follow Jesus by letting them into your own faith journey.
Creating opportunities to grow and struggle together are key. Think beyond Sunday Mass. Some ideas could include studying the Sunday gospel during the week to prepare for Mass, praying a family Rosary, doing a Bible study, going to a parish mission or retreat together, making a pilgrimage to a shrine, studying the life of a saint (teens like a good story), or praying with them one-on-one. Your example of following Christ, even though it will not be perfect, can inspire and instruct without ever needing to be preachy.
- Serve as a family.
Young people want to change the world. They want to see that they can make a difference. By leaving your comfort zone and taking your children to places where they can serve the poor or marginalized, they will see that our faith fulfills that deep need in their hearts. Too often, families neglect the transformational impact these experiences can have in the lives of young Catholics.
This too, is affirmed by Familiaris Consortio:
The social contribution of the family has an original character of its own, one that should be given greater recognition and more decisive encouragement, especially as the children grow up, and actually involving all its members as much as possible.
The bottom line is that this work is often hard and demanding. The good news is that God lavishes grace upon the parents who answer the call to raise their children Catholic. We are not alone. God is on our side. He wants us to be great parents. With His grace and our effort, we can raise happy, healthy, and holy children. Do not give up. May God bless you abundantly.