ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Is religion creating an awkward tension between teens and parents? Free will is an essential aspect of many religions but try explaining that to mom and dad this holiday season. In a poll conducted by University of Michigan researchers, close to half (48%) of parents who plan to attend religious services this holiday season say they would insist their teen join — even if they would rather not.
Whether it’s midnight mass, synagogue, or another type of service, religious rituals are an integral part of the holidays for countless families. Interestingly, however, the new survey suggests many of the younger attendees at these events probably won’t be there by choice. While half of surveyed parents say they’re comfortable with children and teens having a say in whether or not they attend religious events, 44 percent add that, ultimately, kids shouldn’t get to pick until they turn 18.
Another 38 percent would discuss the importance of the event with their skeptical teen but allow the adolescent to choose. Smaller percentages would support their teen’s choice not to attend (8%) or try bargaining (6%) with their teen to get them to attend.
This data comes from the latest report from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health. It included responses from 1,090 parents with at least one child between 13 and 18 years-old living at home, collected between August and September 2022.
“Adolescence is a time when youth gain more independence in their beliefs and lifestyle choices, including whether to embrace their family’s faith traditions,” says Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Susan Woolford, M.D, in a university release. “This may trigger tension and conflict in some families when opinions about spirituality clash, especially during the holidays.”
Parents think religion helps bring families together
While the poll reveals most parents are generally content with the level of their teen’s involvement in religious activities, over a third admitted they wish their teen would participate in more religious services and activities. Three in four (75%) also agree that participation in religious services helps adolescents connect with their family history and traditions.
“Parents may connect religion with their family traditions, which might be why they may wish to share these experiences with their kids,” Dr. Woolford adds. “When teens don’t show interest or even express disdain for attending religious services, parents may feel like it’s a rejection of their cherished traditions.”
All in all, the poll indicates instilling religion in their kids is important for most parents, with the majority of respondents saying they believe that a relationship with a higher power helps teens feel a sense of safety and security, and promotes positive overall well-being. This gels nicely with prior research indicating that participation in spiritual practices during adolescence is indeed linked to health benefits come adulthood.
Still, only one in three parents report that their teen regularly attends religious services with the family.
“Parents should be cautious about how hard they push teens who protest participating in spiritual activities. If adherence is achieved by force, that could diminish any positive effects of participation,” Dr. Woolford comments. “Parents who would like their children to share their religious beliefs should try to find a balance between conveying their values and pressuring teens to conform.”
Can teens find spirituality without organized religion?
Most surveyed parents also believe teens don’t necessarily need to be involved with organized religion to find spirituality. If parents and teens can’t agree when it comes to religion, Dr. Woolford suggests exploring alternative ways to cultivate spirituality. More specifically, parents can try the following tips:
- Encourage dialogue and questions: Parents should always try to keep an open mind. Listening and understanding why a teen has different views about attending religious services is key. Adolescents often have questions about religion and spirituality. It’s always a better to allow them some space to question ideas. Adults don’t have all the answers, after all. By listening to their teen’s perspectives, parents may be able to find common ground. “This may help teens to find an authentic spiritual relationship that is best for them,” Dr. Woolford says.
- Find middle ground: Parents may want to consider giving their teen a choice about certain religious traditions that are most important to the family. For instance, perhaps a teen can skip weekly services but must follow other tenets of the family religion more closely.
- Consider expressing spirituality outside of church or formal settings: Many faiths place particular importance on community service, social justice initiatives, and conservation efforts. The holidays are a perfect time to practice spirituality via different avenues like volunteering at a nursing home, serving food at a homeless shelter, or working in a community garden. “Focusing on the spirit of the season and allowing teens some flexibility with how they engage with family traditions and religious services may decrease conflict over the holidays,” Dr. Woolford notes.