Some parents asked me how they can talk with their teens who claim to be atheist. Here are a few pointers that may help. Remember: don’t react by directing your teen somewhere to find answers. That says you don’t care. You don’t take him seriously. Parenting means participation.
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1. I know it is scary; you are freaking out, but all is not lost. Look at it this way: your teen is starting to take faithseriously and think constructively about Islam, religion, and life. That is not a bad thing.
2. Your teen came to talk to you about religion. Again, a good thing because it shows that there is still a connection, and he may be hurting, seeking. Disbelief still bothers him, and he’s coming to you to figure it out.
3. Your teen talking about his feelings is crucial because it shows that he trusts you so don’t lose that trust by lashing out or taking things personally. Stay calm and parent.
Here are some things you can do to keep that trust and help your teen:
1. Be an honest, curious listener, repeating what your teen says back to him, making sure that you’ve understood what he is saying, showing him you are listening, and that you are keen to hear from him.
2. Empathize with his critique of the state of religious people, if that’s his angle, noting that that is different than religion. An example would be how young people are treated, girls are sidelined, bigotry, that religious information may not be contextually sound, or things like terrorism and ISIS have affected him: “is that Islam?” For each of those, you could validate your teen’s feelings, noting that Islam agrees with his concerns and that those things are wrong. Thus, you both share interests and form a partnership to address them. He sees faith and you as a supporter.
3. Focus on the Qur’an and the Prophet (sa) because both took on social and religious norms that were harmful to people and they both encouraged inquiry. The Prophet probed, asked questions and sought remedies for the ailments of his society. That places the Qur’an, the Prophet and yourself on the side of your teen: We are all concerned about the things you are worried about, yet we are believers.
4. Diagnose the exact cause of your teen’s doubt: is it faith, or something else? In my experience with teens over the last twenty years, religion and theology are very rarely the cause of disbelief; whereas abuse, irresponsible pseudo-scholars, emotional issues or even relationship troubles tend to be the external causes that impact faith. Once you understand the reason, you can begin to address it.
5. Don’t rush and don’t make it about you. Teens are smart, and they will pick up on any effort to speed up the process, reaffirming in their minds that faith is not something serious, that religious people are not honest and that you do not take them seriously. Added, when you make it about you: “What will my friends say” you may position your teen to take it personally: a battle between you and him will exist, and that will bring out the ego in both of you. The issue is the teen’s faith, the cause of doubts and God, not you or your ego. Your job is to facilitate, to parent!
6. If your teen resists, then make sure you are listening. Parents fail to understand this: resistance may not be rooted in rebellion, but a sense of frustration that the teen is not heard. Listen! Listen! Listen!
7. Do not drag him to the local sheikh, imam, uncle or auntie until he is ready. Instead, understand his concerns, if they are religious, go to the Imam and learn how to answer them. Then go to your teen prepared. That will show the teen that you care; you are not “outsourcing” his/her problems, but you are performing as a parent should. That will give your teen a sense of value and appreciation for you, inshallah.
8. Get him involved in faith-based groups that are doing “real” “on the ground” work. Islamic Relief, MLFA, CAIR, IMAN and food pantries are a great way to show him the practical, material benefits of Islam in today’s world. Islam is not just theory. It brings value to society.
9. Live the good you want to see from your teen. If you are not practicing faith and living a life of purpose, how can you expect it from your teen? Allah promises blessings for the righteous parents that touch the lives of their children in significant ways.
10. Pray and never give up. Keep praying and trying, don’t force things, but take your concerns to Allah consistently, especially during tahajud and after the five prayers.