Parents, begin with yourselves!

Psychologist Irina Kalenova on why children leave the Church and how to avoid it

Alas, a picture known by many: while a child is yet young he goes to church joyfully, but as he gets older this joy fades away and parents have to persuade their child to receive Communion, to fast, and even just to come to the services. Then as a teenager he even begins to bring home anti-religious propaganda, and the excruciating question “how did this happen?” gives the parents no rest.

Why do children, growing up, leave the Church? Who’s to blame? How can we avoid the de-Churchification of teenagers? We spoke with Irina Kalenova, psychologist-counselor at Sts. Cosmas and Damain in Shubine (Moscow), and co-coordinator of a Christian psychology club.


The world in black and white

—Irina Constantinovna, what are the particular psychological characteristics of a teenager?

—That’s a big topic, and to say everything about the psychological characteristics of this age within the bounds of one interview is impossible. The most important feature of teenagers is the reassessment of values and relationships. If for a young child the parents are the unquestionable authority, then a teenager begins to seek his own, seeing that his parents can make mistakes, and authority is shifted to his peers. Bodily hormonal changes make teenagers very excitable and emotional. In their view the world becomes black and white, without shade or compromise. This condition causes what they call the teenage rebellion. Everything they earlier learned must be reevaluated and either kept or tossed out of their lives. I urge parents to be respectful of this process. It’s very hard, but important to not spoil your relationship with your child during this time, and preserve trust.

—Do all teenagers begin to rebel and stop listening to their parents and priests?

—Only a few stage some kind of outright rebellion. A large enough portion of teenagers get through this crisis smoothly, without any clearly expressed signs of protest. Analyzing their values goes off without any scandals, and the teenager himself chooses that which coincides with the opinions of his parents, or he doesn’t. However, it’s not impossible that the rebellion is simply delayed until a later age.

—In general, what’s important to a teenager? What does he aspire to? What does he love and value?

—These questions have no definite answer—everything depends on his character and abilities and interests.

Without faith or without the Church?

—What is unique about the faith of a teenager?

—There isn’t either teenager faith or adult faith. Either faith exists or it doesn’t. We can speak about teenager religiosity, or the teenager’s search for his own truth, ideals and authorities, which become fragile in his black and white world and often replace one another.

—Is it possible to lose your faith? And if so, did it really exist in the first place?

—You can be offended or disappointed by God, leave the Church and go looking for God in other places, and you can forget about Him and lose yourself in the hustle and bustle. It’s impossible to judge whether there was faith. We can’t know this for sure, or what will happen later, even if seems that today there is no faith. Someone’s personal relationship with God is not for us to judge.

—Why do teenagers, who have gone to church since they were kids, leave the Church?

—That’s a complicated and multi-faceted, question, at least because leaving the Church does not always mean a loss of faith. Leaving the Church more often than not boils down to several reasons: unwillingness to fulfill the Church’s precepts, rebellion against an imposed values system (whereas in childhood in the Church they had the fear of God and their parents), or rejection of the unpleasant behavior of Church people and clergy. If priests rigidly and uncompromisingly deal with teenagers and as a whole with their flock, they will drive everyone away. It’s especially terrible when a pastor demeans his flock.

But the main reason, in my opinion, is found in the parents. If at a younger age the child wanted to sleep a little more, or to play during prayer time, it’s normal. If the parents and batiushka relate to the child with love and understanding in such a situation, and find the words and means to come to an agreement, I think there will be fewer subsequent problems. But if they, all the same, try hard to break the child and by force, or manipulation, or through intimidation force him to comply with the rules, then in the teenage years there could arise the reaction of rejection, and he’ll begin to resist. Usually in such situations, an “evil” mama or “evil” papa will with even greater zeal try to force their child to church. It’s a vicious cycle.

Then comes the teenage years. The child’s mind is already made up in this period, that he should check everything by himself. Impositions in the given situation will not help, fear will not work, and manipulations will only make him angry. The stronger parents insist that their teenager adhere to all the rituals and rules, the stronger the resistance. Sometimes his peers in school even laugh at him.

A little bit about “black sheep”

—You mean, the problem is often that the child finds no understanding amongst his peers?

—Yes, it can happen that teenagers don’t understand one another, having different interests, and it’s also quite serious. For a teenager the opinion of his peers is very important and he really doesn’t want to stand out and invite mockery. The need to belong to a community of peers becomes very important.

—How would you advise such a teenager who feels like a black sheep amongst his classmates?

—Yes, what to advise here… I can only wish for him resilience and faith in himself. Well, maybe, also flexibility and not to vex the “white sheep.” I’ll tell you a secret: at this age everyone feels like a black sheep, so, look for those who are like you.

—How can a teenager harmonize his secular interest and his faith? Because so often he feels that the Church is one world while society, school, and extracurricular groups are another; and this difference can bother him.

—For those who have gone to church regularly since their childhood, it seems to me, there is no such problem. They already adjusted to these differences long ago. Many don’t even see any fundamental difference between Sunday School and other extracurricular groups—it’s just that their interests lie in the realm of faith, in the Church and the Bible. It’s wonderful when churches have clubs for teenagers and youth service, where the important need to communicate with peers can be met, a place where they can talk over tea about God, about music, about film, about their travels, relationships, and other exciting teenager topics. It’s good when they have someone to celebrate feasts with, to sing with, dance with at the ball, go camping with. In such a situation they learn to combine their secular interests with their faith without any problems.

Anxiety arises when parents and clergy themselves fear everything secular, when the Church sharply opposes the rest of the world: “In the Church everything is good and in the world everything is bad.” In such a case a teenager sees anyways that it’s not so clear, and he might not choose in favor of the Church.

Apple from the tree

Psychologist Irina Kalenova Psychologist Irina Kalenova

—How can we properly raise a child so that he doesn’t later leave the Church?

—It’s not perfectly clear what kind of upbringing is proper here. For this it’s necessary not only to educate, but to demonstrate by your own example. The issue is how parents themselves behave.

For example, parents begin to demand thorough compliance with all the rules but without explaining their deeper significance. Teenagers don’t understand why it’s necessary, and they interpret rigid requirements as coercion. So the child will not say or explain anything, but simply leave the Church.

—Is it possible to prevent the child’s exit from the Church beforehand?

—Again I’ll say: parents, begin with yourselves! After all, the main issue is what is faith, service and obedience to the Commandments for you, and Who is Jesus Christ for you. You can strictly keep all the fasts but without thereby showing any love to your child and to God. The meaning of Church life is not for your child to grow up a Pharisee and fulfill everything just for show, not understanding the essence of Christianity. What’s important is that a meeting takes place between your child and God. Can this be taught? If the parent himself managed to meet Christ and by it not become a Pharisee, then he, most likely, will find a way to pass this onto his children. It’s bad if the observances are more important to the parents than the depth of the faith and the child himself with all his needs.

You need to talk with your child about God, about how He is active in his life, and to read the Bible together. You need to find the necessary words that will suit precisely your child. If the parent himself understands all of this and speaks sincerely, from the heart, then he’ll manage to explain everything and his child will hear him. But if for an adult the spiritual life of his child is simply a list of requirements, then, of course, the child won’t be interested in Church life, for sometimes it’s unclear to him for the sake of what he must sacrifice so many enjoyable things.

Not with strictness, but with love

—How can we recognize when something is wrong with our child’s faith?

—There’s parents, there’s Sunday School, teachers, psychologists, priests. Who exactly should realize in advance that something is amiss? Who can notice it?

If a child has warm relationships with his parents, his teachers from Sunday School, and with batiushka, then questions will be dealt with as they arise but before any serious problems come. The “somethings amiss” won’t accumulate into catastrophic proportions. If his relationships are based on rigid requirements without explanations, without trying to understand the child’s feelings and desires, to take his needs into account, without love and understanding, then problems will accrue, and at some point he’ll just leave without explanation, and no one will know anything in advance. For a teenager in such an environment it’s dangerous to express his dissatisfaction: he fears scandal, punishment and an increase in repressive demands. And if even suspicion arises in the priests or Sunday School teachers, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to do anything. It happens, of course, that batiushka can compensate for what the parents didn’t give, but it’s rare.

—Is it possible to avoid these mistakes?

—Again: these are all questions to the parents. Of course a child can’t be separate from his parents, and his whole psychology grows up from the psychology of his parents. If parents build their relationship with their child on oppression—they start yelling and demanding that he go to batiushka to confess, and instead of comforting they start humiliating him, then the child’s natural reaction is to protest. Instead of answering this natural revolt with love and peace—Churchly, Christian peace!—they answer with hatred and cruelty.

—So the problem is that the child can’t find any understanding?

—Even more than no understanding—no love. Not everyone is able to say “I love you;” not everyone can show their love. If the parents don’t love one another they won’t be able to show their child what is love. How can the children then believe that God is love? Teenagers don’t believe in words, although words are also necessary. You must show your love through your actions. If his parents and confessor can’t give him this love, then it will be hard for him to believe in God’s love. But without love the rules lose their meaning. Fear won’t sustain him. If you try with fear to break his will… Then he won’t know what joy is.

The main thing—that the door is not closed

—Can those fallen away come back? What’s the likelihood?

—In fact they do return, and very many return. The main thing is that the door is not closed. When they shut the door that’s the worst thing. Do you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son?

Sometimes even in the teenage years it’s worth it to wait out another year (I know from personal experience), to give your child the opportunity to not go to church for some time, to think, to make decisions on his own, and then on his own he’ll go to church, and with great pleasure. It’s important that parents show and children see how people go to God and what, besides restrictions, we get on this path. I am certain: if the child isn’t “overloaded” with pharisaism in childhood, and with fear and the feeling of guilt, then he’ll find God and be able to return to Him. And even if he’s “overloaded,” everyone always has the possibility to figure everything out for himself and again find the path to God and to the Church.

Translated by Jesse Dominick


See also
A Pastor’s Adult View on Children’s Confession A Pastor’s Adult View on Children’s Confession
Fr. Artemy Vladimirov
A Pastor’s Adult View on Children’s Confession A Pastor’s Adult View on Children’s Confession
Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov, Nikita Filatov
Confession is the most important component of the spiritual life of every Christian, both adults and children. At what age should children begin to go to Confession? How to explain to them the essence of this Mystery? How to prepare for Confession? What can help to overcome the hesitation or even fear in our young people?
 Should Orthodox Christians Let Their Children Associate with Unbelievers? Should Orthodox Christians Let Their Children Associate with Unbelievers?
Priest Vasily Kutsenko
 Should Orthodox Christians Let Their Children Associate with Unbelievers? Should Orthodox Christians Let Their Children Associate with Unbelievers?
Priest Vasily Kutsenko
“We have a problem: our son is friends with a boy next door. His parents are totally worldly people—they don’t go to church, they watch television constantly, and their son plays computer games….” “But that’s the way most of us live in just such neighborhoods. What’s the problem?”
Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov on modern childhood education and instruction Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov on modern childhood education and instruction
Interview with Nun Cornelia (Rees)
Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov on modern childhood education and instruction Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov on modern childhood education and instruction
Interview with Nun Cornelia (Rees)
When you enter a school auditorium for the first time, you must first of all be clear about the following: children are joyful, knowledge-loving creatures who look at the world (provided they have not been captivated by computer games—more on this later) with wide-open eyes. Therefore, every educator—and especially, every instructor of God’s Law—must have a fresh and sharp perception of the world, the ability to approach a subject from an entirely unexpected side.
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