Religion is generally a good thing in families. Studies show that religion has an overall positive effect on parents and parenting.
That may not be a popular thing to say in a country that is generally agnostic. But the data are clear: parents who attend church services regularly experience higher levels of family functioning and individual functioning. Their children do too. Religiosity has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and dysfunctional behaviours in both adults and their children. And research has shown that religiosity gives parenting added meaning and purpose, higher levels of satisfaction, and less stress.
It makes sense. Religious institutions usually promote family and family relationships. They typically foster strong social ties and a sense of community. They often have moral codes that promote pro-social behaviours and even physical health. And religious people are more likely than others to offer service and volunteering, show gratitude, give to charity, forgive, and a range of other behaviours linked with individual happiness and/or family functioning.
(Of course you don’t have to be religious to have a happy, functional family. And non-religious folks can also be pro-social, forgiving, generous, grateful people. But the research indicates religiosity increases these practises, and promotes better outcomes on average.)
But sometimes faith divides family, particularly during adolescence as our teenagers begin to question parental values and practises.
Questioning parental authority is one of the central weapons for a teen attempting to assert independence. In their quest for autonomy, many teens question the moral, religious, and even political views of their parents and begin to forge their own paths.
Recent research has shown that parent-child relationships generally suffer under these conditions. Specifically, when religion is more important to a parent than a teen, the adolescent will report their relationship with their parents as unfavourable. The dramatic impact on parent-child relationships ismore problematic in families who share the same religious affiliation than in those who do not (a finding that is particularly pronounced in evangelical families).
In short, when our kids leave the faith – or even question it – it leads to family disruption and discord. Parents don’t like having their values ignored or trodden on. Perhaps more to the point, parents care deeply for their children, and when they see their children rejecting their values – values they believe have eternal significance – it can cause great distress, and lead to some negative, reactive parenting.
It’s interesting that when an adolescent reports greater religiosity than the parent, relationship quality does not appear to suffer at all. And as you might expect, when religious belief is consistent from one generation to the next, parent-child relationships remain stable and positive.
Other research indicates that as religious discord increases, teens are more likely to act out through aggression, delinquency, or alcohol and drug use (externalising), or suffer with stress, anxiety, depression, low feelings of worth, and even anorexia (internalising)
I think things get tough for families for three reasons:
- Parents’ feelings of disappointment and frustration over their teens’ choices might lead to poor communication between teens and their parents. This can create anger, and ultimately estrangement between adolescents and parents. When this happens, teems feel rejected, anxious, or guilty about turning away from beliefs and practices that the parents cherish. Alternatively they become angry that their parents are judging their behaviour based on a religious standard the teens don’t even accept as valid.
- Sometimes the religious friction may be a function of a broader issue – perhaps it relates to parents’ ineffective uses of punishment and discipline. Some research shows that religious people are more likely to use harsh physical discipline than others.
- It may be as simple as a values clash. Research shows we get on best with those whose values are similar to our own. When children (regardless of age) demonstrate a clear opposition to parental values, love may remain but parental approval and feelings of closeness may be affected.
The general portrait painted by studies of religion and intergenerational relations is clear: when parents and their adolescent children agree about religion, they also report better relationships. And when they don’t, relationships are far more challenging.
Regardless of whether our kids are rebelling against our morals, our religion, or our politics, one thing is clear – forcing the issue won’t work. You may win the ‘logic’ war. You may be able to use your power to demand your kids consider your approach. But hearts and minds are not won with force.
In other words, our natural reactions will typically be ineffective. We want them to see our point of view (and agree with it) so badly, but forcing the issue will bring about precisely the opposite result.
Instead, parents can do little but be accepting, listen, empathise, and set an example for their kids to follow. After trying on different values and beliefs, many will return to the values they were raised with. Some may not. In such cases, the data suggest a strong relationship may be a challenge.