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How to cope when children seek a new faith

Experts say being supportive key to healthy relationship

Published: April 1, 2017, 6:05am

When Aida Vazin was 15, she decided her mother’s Baha’i faith was not right for her.

She spent time studying Islam, her grandparents’ religion, but ultimately decided organized religion wasn’t for her. When it comes to spirituality and faith, she feels more comfortable with Eastern philosophies on how to live a healthy lifestyle.

What made Vazin’s decision a little smoother for her is that 15-year-olds in the Baha’i faith make the choice to remain or seek another religion — but it still wasn’t easy, she said.

“My mom paved the path for me to make my own choice but she was saddened by it, definitely,” Vazin said. “After she did her mourning, she was supportive.”

Vazin said her experience with her mother was vastly different from the reception Vazin’s mother received from her own parents when she converted to Baha’i from Islam as a young adult after the family fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Vazin’s grandparents viewed her mother’s conversion as blasphemous.

“My grandfather stopped talking to her for a while,” she said. “My grandfather told her she got involved with a cult.”

Vazin, who is now a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Newport Beach, Calif., said she’s experienced firsthand how these decisions can tear apart families, and she now works, in part, with families struggling with faith questions. And she said that while her grandfather was disappointed that she didn’t follow Islam, she said he was happier that she didn’t stay Baha’i.

For families with children who are questioning their faith, especially adolescents, it’s an extremely difficult time, and there’s no right way for parents to react, say several experts, but there are ways parents can communicate with their child during the process.

Rebellion is a normal part of adolescence, and in some religions, the idea of straying is understood, said Rachel Weingarten, author of “Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days a Year.” She pointed to the Amish tradition of Rumspringa, which gives teens the chance to explore the outside world before deciding whether to return to the faith and community.

Harold “Bud” Horell, assistant professor of religious education at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University, in New York, said distrust of institutions in general is part of U.S. culture. That’s been amplified by recent reports of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and financial and sex scandals in some Protestant churches, he added.

This may lead some adolescents to talk about being spiritual but not wanting anything to do with organized religion, Horell said. If parents start to see their children pulling away from the family’s faith, they should try to remain calm about it, which he admitted is easier said than done.

“Parents (should) approach it with the idea that ‘OK, you’re raising important issues. Let’s talk about them.’ De-escalating the anxiety is one of the most important things,” Horell said.

Take the child’s age into consideration, Horell said. Preteens may just be reflecting what’s going on around them.

Teenagers may be exploring their identity, said Wendy O’Connor, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist in private practice who works with interfaith couples. It’s important to acknowledge this interest.

Parents can offer to explore this new curiosity with their child, and they can all learn about the new religion, the experts said. O’Connor said some parents fear educating themselves about a new faith may lead to separation from the family’s established religion.

“A family will be much stronger if they explore together. Rather than coming from fear, it comes from an open discussion about what (the child) is looking for or what they’re not getting in their current religion,” O’Connor said.

Education also offers a chance for the parents to find some common ground. “Don’t try to change their mind, but try to show them why you’re similar instead of so different,” Weingarten said.

Vazin agreed. “Putting religion and faith aside, get down to your core values. What do you want to teach your child? Can you find mutual values in the system of the religion your child is interested in with the one you have?”

Part of asking questions helps get to the root of the behavior, O’Connor and Weingarten said, as the interest in religion may mask deeper issues. Sometimes the change can be a red flag, revealing other social, academic or psychological problems.

Some teens may use their interest in another religion to provoke their parents, the experts said, but don’t argue with them. Instead, parents should remember they are their child’s best role model, O’Connor and Horell said.

“You need to stay in conversation with them, but if you’re consistently and quietly modeling your religious commitments and values, (it) can have a tremendous impact on your kids,” Horell said.