Spirituality in adolescence: not what but how

teens rugbyYoung people raised with moral or religious principles and practices typically arrive at adolescence ready to find answers to a questions like “How do I know and experience and be ‘right’ with God? How should that look different for me than it does for my parents?”
After all, the faith they have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10.

Nor will it be their faith when they’re 21 or 48 or 83. Faith is a force that will continue to develop and mature over the course of a lifetime, and sometimes it needs to change in order to continue to invigorate and sustain people as they enter different stages of their own development.

Show them how

teen girl wonderingSo how– now in their teens– can you show the kids in your life how to experience and navigate a relationship with God? Here are some thoughts I have… feel free to adapt them for your own use.

  • Explain “relationship” with God as an internal conversation that includes questions, doubts, heart longings/prayers. God is big enough to handle it all.
  • Ask them questions… and really listen to their answers.
  • Do NOT pretend you have it all together and do NOT pretend you know everything. They will know you are lying.
  • Open up to share appropriately (less is more) when you’re going through something that life throws at you and how you experience God in that situation.
  • Confirm that a relationship with God is a good idea, even when you don’t know all the answers. Open dialogue is good.
  • Invite them to come along with you when you’re doing community service… or just doing something nice for others. Making a meal for someone who just had a baby is a tangible way of showing the love of God. Make that connection.
  • Don’t major on the minors. When kids get sidetracked on minor points of doctrine and belief, try to call their attention back to the main points and general principles.

“But I’m not a religious person.”

if you don’t think of yourself as having spiritual awareness, ask trusted family friends whose spiritual life you respect to stand in for you. Meanwhile, communicate positive intent toward God and faith, much like divorced couples who have learned it is best for the children to speak positively of the other parent, though they personally feel quite differently.

The evidence confirms the value of faith to young people.

Studies of religiousness/spirituality have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

Their questions are deeper than we think.

teen boy 1“A number of years ago I overheard my then teenage son discussing with his friends the origin of AIDS. Not how AIDS developed…. rather they were arguing why — a deep spiritual question. Was this disease a simple development of nature? A cosmic punishment? Or even a divine opportunity for compassion?

The conversation surprised me,” said Dr. Ken Doka. “I was confounded by the intensity of the debate. I should not have been. We often fail to acknowledge the intense spirituality that underlies adolescence. It’s a spiritual time of development, complete with idealism and questions of identity and meaning.

Tweetable: The faith adolescents have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10. Here’s why. Click to Tweet


Look at a child’s self-talk to help unstick anxiety or depression

teen girl-in-thoughtWhen bad things happen, children feel sad, angry or worried.  But what they tell themselves about what happened makes a big difference.

When self-talk contributes to a child’s anxiety

At the core of anxiety is the child’s fear of what is going to happen in the future, compounded by the accompanying self-talk.

  • My parents will get a divorce. (I won’t have a real family anymore.)
  • There’s going to be a shooting at my school. (The world is a scary place to live. More bad things happen than good things.)
  • I have to give a report in front of the whole class. (I can’t do it. It’s too hard for me.)
  • My best friend will move away. (If I lose my best friend, I’ll never have another best friend again!)

12yearold boy2When self-talk contributes to a child’s depression

Depression is about the past. At the core of depression is the loss of something dear, with the accompanying messages the child gives himself.

  • Someone in my family became addicted to alcohol or drugs. (If I’m very good–or careful or funny–I can keep them from drinking too much.)
  • My mother lost her job. (This is the worst thing that could have happened, and it is terrible and awful.)
  • Kids at school made fun of me. (No one cares about me. It’s all my fault.)
  • Someone I love died. (Life will never be good again. I’m incapable of keeping the relationships I really want.)

4 actions we can take toward unsticking their self-talk

Action #1 – Any time the child appears to be overly anxious or depressed, ask the child to tell you what he is thinking about or telling himself. Listen for self-talk lies in their response. Check with the child to see if you understood clearly. Acknowledge the child’s response, BUT……

Action #2 —  Give them new phrases to use. Help the child reject the faulty conclusions they’ve drawn. As soon as you hear them repeating the misbeliefs, stop and help the child argue against them. Hand them phrases to use. Say to the child:

  • “Tell yourself, ‘It’s not true that I can’t do anything right'” or
  • “Tell yourself, ‘Stop! I’m not going to tell myself this lie anymore!'”

Action #3 – This is perhaps the hardest part, but we cannot help children get rid of the lies in their self-talk until they replace the lies with the truth. Again, give them the words to use, maybe something like this:

  • Lie: I’m too fat (short, ugly). Truth: Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Mine is my own and I will make it the best it can be by caring for it properly.
  • Lie:  I’ll never fit in at this new school. Truth: It’s hard to say good-bye to my old school and friends, but I will make new friends and have good times here, too.
  • Lie: I’ll just die if my mom starts dating again. Truth: It’s okay to feel sad and worried, but it’s not okay to get stuck there.

Action #4 – What says CELEBRATION! to the child? Stop and do it with her she when she succeeds in establishing positive self-talk:

  • “The truth is everyone has things they are good at and things that are hard for them. Reading is hard for me, so I will just have to work harder at reading. Plus, it’s true that it always okay to ask for help when I need it, so if I need extra help, I’ll ask my teacher or parents”.
  • ”With the help of the people who love me (and God’s help) I can get through anything.”

(I learned these actions from Linda Sibley.)


  • Focus on a child’s self-talk for clues about how to lessen anxiety and depression. Click to Tweet
  • When bad things happen, children feel upset, but what they tell themselves about what happened makes the difference. Click to Tweet

3 ways to cheer up a child: self-talk

child with rabbitsJayaram V. observes, “[Self-talk] is your inseparable twin with which you have to live the rest of your life.” (writing on Hinduwebsite.com) We cheer up the children in our life when we show them how to ensure that their inseparable twin is affirming and truthful.

grandmother1st way to cheer up a child: We are in this together

For one week, speak freely about your self-talk. Say out loud what you’re telling yourself in your head, especially if it’s negative (keeping it age appropriate, obviously). Invite them to tell you when you either are not taking responsibility for your own behavior by blaming someone else, OR assuming responsibility for something that is not your fault.

Simultaneously call your kids’ attention to times they are doing the same thing. There is huge relief for children in shared experience.

2nd way to cheer up a child: You have the power to reject your lies

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” (Dr. Seuss)

In other words, the child gets to choose not to believe the myths anymore. Rejecting their lies is a conscious choice they make. They are the boss of their thoughts. This is great news!

3rd way to cheer up a child: Replace the lies with affirmations

teen girl01To reject certain statements as lies without replacing them with truth can send children into chaos: “If this is not true, what is?”

With pieces of their belief system missing, they don’t know who they are, what they’re supposed to do, or how things are supposed to work.

Ask questions that lead the child to reality: “Was it even your fault you weren’t at soccer practice? …. What was true?” Saying things out loud lets you listen to what you’re saying. Taking responsibility for failures comes easier when we’re open about it.

Spiritual affirmations

These affirmations can be adapted for your family’s values and beliefs.

  • I am important to God. God gives me the power to make a difference.
  • Some things are my fault and some are not. God helps me know the difference.
  • With the help of God and the people who love me, I can get through anything.
  • I can tell myself the truth. God can help me handle my anger in safe and healthy ways.
  • I cannot lose God’s love.
  • I am God’s child.
  • I am secure in God’s hand. Nothing I could ever do will ever make God let go of me.
  • I have a purposeful future. God has a good plan for my life.
  • I can trust God to guide me, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time.

Games and conversation starters

For games and conversation starters to change negative self-talk and have fun doing it, go here.


  • These suggested spiritual affirmations can give children a foundation for positive self-talk. Click to Tweet
  • Practical actions we can take to challenge a child’s misinterpretations in their self-talk. Go here. Click to Tweet

Big self-talk stumble: mis-attributing success or failure

boy older divingHow do you explain why something good or bad happens in your life? To what do you attribute your successes and/or failures? Our self-talk generally gravitates toward holding ourselves responsible or charging others. But sometimes it is jumbled up.

Listen for how children attribute the good and the bad in life.

Certain children tend to put the responsibility for all failures on their own flaws and weaknesses: “I failed the test because I’m so dumb.”

On the other hand, they attribute all successes to fate, a bizarre circumstance, or someone else’s charity. “I got an A on the test because the teacher made the test too easy.”

Some children tend to attribute all their successes to their own ingenuity, good looks and great ability. Success is because of ME, even if there were others involved: “The play was a success because I had the lead (never mind the efforts of everyone else in it!)”

On the other side of the coin, they attribute all failures to everyone else’s ineptness and/or circumstances beyond their control. “I failed that test because the teacher made it so hard no one could pass (even though more than half the class did).”

sports team boys“Poor me” or “Lucky me”

Hear the patterns in how children report life events, such as their school day or their recent soccer game. Sometimes these spoken statements become their self-talk and sometimes their self-talk surfaces in their spoken words.

The self-talk of children who blame themselves goes something like this: “Life doesn’t have many good things for me.” Or “If I fail, I will lose my value and I cannot let myself risk it.” Self-talk of kids who blame others can sound like, “I have nothing to apologize for.” Or  “Life owes me happiness and success.” Or “Why am I in trouble for fighting? Joe hit me first so it’s his fault I was fighting.”

Our actions can help them find balance. Conversation Starters —

  • “Whose responsibility is it really?”This week, call attention to times the children are either not taking responsibility for their behavior or assuming responsibility for something that’s not their fault. When this happens, ask them to “say what is true” about whose fault it is.
  • “Brainstorm your evidence.” Guide the children to stop and be mindful about their self-talk, rather than continue on autopilot. Reject the faulty self-talk by brainstorming with the child all the reasons why he or she knows it is not true: “Dad breaks promises to lots of people, not just me; there’s nothing I can do about the fact he goes out with his friend lots of Saturdays,” and so on.

Game: Make-A-Monster Scavenger Hunt

Illustrate that the lies we tell ourselves can add up to a monster voice living in our heads.  Send the kids outside to find junk materials to build a monster: dead sticks and leaves, old cans, stones and other “junk.” This monster is the lies we tell ourselves. Have a variety of miscellaneous materials they can also use, such as yarn, markers, glue sticks, tape, buttons, etc. Let them create the biggest monster they can.  [With younger kids, you could keep it for a week and, each time they correct their self-talk, unattach one monster section and trash it.]

Tweetable: Conversation starters and a scavenger hunt illustrate for children how to overlay new, positive self-talk statements. Click to Tweet

Challenge kids’ misbeliefs about happiness

merry go round children kidsHappiness is a funny thing–Is it even possible to be happy all the time? Where do we find the right people or things to make us happy more often? Are any of the children in your life growing up with the impression that life (or God) owes them happiness?

Children’s statements reflect their beliefs about happiness and become their self-talk.

  • “If __ hadn’t happened, I’d be happy now.”
  • “Other people’s lives are happier than mine.”
  • If I just had __ I’d be happy.”
  • If I don’t have __, I will never be happy.”

mother and son-3Raise awareness

They don’t realize that their focus has turned to the things they don’t have. While it’s obvious to us that loving relationships and basic needs being met will increase enjoyment of life, children may not yet understand that these don’t produce happiness. We can help them see that they set themselves up for disappointment when they depend on external sources for their happiness.

Change self-talk to get unstuck

  • “Happiness is about who I am, not about what I have–or don’t have–in my life.”
  • Other people’s lives have more unhappiness than I know about. We all have stress and troubles. That’s normal.”

The role of spirituality in a child’s happiness

There’s a place in each child’s being, typically referred to as the soul or heart or human spirit. When children become aware of God’s presence in that space, some find inner stability, which helps them hold onto hope…. like this girl in a domestic violence Safe Place (where I taught life skills).

Specifically, notice her self-talk and her spirituality.

blue skyBlue. I used to love the color blue. When I saw the color blue I loved it. But while we were on our journey homeless, I realized that the color blue wasn’t as blue as I thought, because I wasn’t in a feeling of happiness. Every time I looked at the sky it reminded me of the pain we were going through.

I few times when I lay in bed, I would think about–is there any hope that God could give us? I used to feel bad for myself but I told myself to pray more and ask God to give me the strength to get through the day. God heard my prayers. We were moving in a house where my mom could make us food. And where we all could communicate. All the stuff God gives me is like gold to me because he gives me things that are really amazing in my eyes.”

Tweetable: What children tell themselves about happiness may hinder our efforts to show them a good time. Here’s how. Click to Tweet 

Thanks to Linda Sibley for her thoughts here about this.