Here at Rooted Parent we often hear the question: how do I have a spiritual conversation with my teenager? It was so easy when they were little, when they were always asking questions. Opening the door to meaningful conversation about the things of God can be a lot harder when your teens are stiff-arming you about nearly everything. Sometimes we parents have to get creative (dare I say, a little sneaky, sometimes?) to find ways to talk to our kids about God. We can trust the Holy Spirit to make a way, but it helps to know what opportunity might look like. We asked our Rooted Parent writers for some practical tips and we think you’ll find their answers varied, rich, and wise.
Clarissa Moll, mother of four
When my children were little, our spiritual conversations carried a decidedly didactic tone. Cast in the role of teacher, I read them Bible stories and answered their questions. I taught them to pray and helped them form words when they weren’t sure how to talk to God. But along with the lessons on the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, in early parenthood I learned a phrase that has made all the difference as my children have grown into their teenage years: “Tell me more.”
Though sometimes close-lipped or a little obtuse, my teenagers nonetheless crave connection these days. As emerging adults, they are finding their voices and discovering they have things they want to say. When it comes to spiritual conversations, I’m learning to simply invite them to “tell me more.” Questioning the existence of God? Tell me more. Wrestling with the problem of evil? Tell me more. I honor their growing wisdom and spiritual curiosity when I hold my tongue and let them do the talking. I discover their depth of wisdom when I invite them to wrestle with big questions in the security of our home where following Christ is welcome and encouraged. I know I’m still their teacher these days; it just looks different in the teenage years. To my joy, I discover I’m learning things too when I ask them to “tell me more.”
Hewes Hull, father of three
The second best time to have a theological conversation is when the child is at the end of their rope, at the end of themselves. In my experience they are open to talking when their heart is broken because of a failure or perceived failure of some sort. This usually involves some form of potential loss of their cultivated identity: they aren’t picked for cheerleading when they were known as “the cheerleader,” or they lose the scholarship to the school they’ve been telling everyone they were going to go to and now they are not “the girl who is going to Stanford.” At those times, they have come to the end of themselves and are in need of an external savior, mostly because they tangibly and viscerally understand that they can’t save themselves.
The first best time to have that conversation is before they come to the end of their ropes. So, if not yesterday, then today. Because we all come to the end of our ropes, not just once but repeatedly throughout our lives.
Carolyn Lankford, mother of three
One of the deepest and most sustained conversations on faith I had with our 15 year old son occurred spontaneously and by God’s grace during a ride home from church. Something prompted me to share with him that I really struggled with the tension between my belief in God’s sovereignty and the reality of suffering. I think he appreciated me opening up to him about my confusion in this area of my life in Christ. I wasn’t putting his faith up for inspection, I was showing him mine, both the strong and the weak areas of my believing. Together we recalled passages of Scripture, stories of God’s people, and the whole concept of the mind of God, and we got to a place of greater understanding together. This experience taught me that one of the surest means to building up our children’s faith is to constantly show them our own.
April Haberman, mother of two
I’ve found that these conversations can’t come out of the blue for kids/ teens. Timing is everything. As much as we want to rush into a full blown spiritual conversation with our children, waiting for a good opportunity is always best. Normal, everyday conversations can turn into springboard conversations. Once the door is cracked open, walk your child in deeper by asking questions. “Wondering” questions are always great. “I wonder what scripture says about that?” or “I wonder if there is anything in scripture that would help guide us here?”
I’ve also found asking for my teen’s opinions and viewpoints rather than telling them mine or preaching to them has proven to be beneficial. “What do you think about that?” Once they share, validate their opinion and then offer your perspective based on your own faith journey, Scripture, etc.
I’ve often written letters and notes to my children over the years. I’ve left them on their pillows, in their lunchbox, and even texted them. The letters and notes just let them know I’m praying for them. I’m specific about my prayers and what’s on my heart. Oftentimes, they thank me in person and that opens the door for conversation.
I also wrote my prayers for my senior in a journal for an entire year and gave it to him for his graduation present. It’s been amazing to see how much of an impact that has had. He’ll often call me and talk through situations where he used to hold things in. It really opened up the door for us to continue spiritual conversation.
Spiritual conversations aren’t one and done. They are ongoing. If we haven’t formed a habit of having natural conversation with our children, it may seem awkward at first (similar to that puberty talk!). And, just like puberty talks, 100 one-minute conversations are always better than 1 one hundred-minute conversation.
Tracey Rector, mother of three
We’ve had some surprisingly deep conversations via email!
One thing that led to a few great and unexpected spiritual discussions with my older teenage kids was sharing articles via email. One of us would read an article, attach it to an email, and ask for thoughts. Everyone could take an opportunity to read and process their thoughts, and then send them when they had time to respond. What’s great is that the articles don’t necessarily have to be on a “spiritual” topic. A cultural or political topic can quickly turn to questions about what a Christian’s response might be. Writing can give your kids space to say what they think with less pressure, and it can be a great way to engage in a conversation that allows for more thoughtful consideration of the topic.
Joey Turner, father of four
Enjoy what your kid enjoys. Spiritual conversations with your kid are the fruit of a relationship of trust that is free of fear. Focus on your relationship with each kid. Get to know them, study them, find out their likes, have inside jokes. It is the love of my heavenly father that has caused me to run to him with all of my spiritual curiosity and burdens; may it be my love as their earthly father that causes them to discuss spiritual things with me. I want to hear their questions that stump me, make me laugh, frustrate me, and so on.
My wife and I have a scheduling time every Saturday night where she gets out her calendar and I get out mine. We plan to take a walk with one kid each week (which means we each walk with every kid once a month), we schedule fun family game-or-movie nights, and we schedule date nights. After that, we schedule everything else. Additionally, we read the word as a family as we eat. We aren’t legalistic about it, it is just a habit for us, and it causes a lot of great spiritual conversations as a family. Plus, it provides dad and mom to show our ignorance about a lot of things in the Bible, which lowers the pressure for our kids to feel like they have to, or are expected to, “already know everything.”
Becky Paynter, mom of three and foster mom of two
We’ve found that music provides an excellent avenue to begin discussions – about all sorts of issues – with young people. Songwriters, whether labeled “Christian” or not, are writing about the things that matter most in life. Don’t be afraid to ask your teens what they are listening to, and then listen to the songs yourself. Pay attention to the lyrics, and look them up if needed.
Begin the conversation by asking your teen what it is they like about the music, and resist any urge to tell them not to listen to it. Be reminded that the Bible is full of all sorts of “inappropriate” material, which serves ultimately to point to our good and gracious God. Remain curious, and be willing to listen – both to the music and to your teen. Make sure to note what is good, true, and beautiful in a song before offering any other thoughts. Even if the lyrics seem to be devoid of anything good, a song is still probably screaming for the truth of the Gospel – but the only way to even begin that conversation with young people is for them to know you care to listen.