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When Children Reach Adolescence (Part 1)

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

The next two articles appearing in this column will focus on some of the unique challenges that intermarried couples face when their children reach adolescence. The couple that you will meet below is a composite of other couples that participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP). This information is offered as a way to facilitate intermarried couples’ efforts to help their children develop a strong and healthy religious and cultural identity.

Meet John & Jessica

John, age 43, and Jessica, age 38, have been married for eighteen years. John is Greek Orthodox and a successful executive in a large company. Jessica is Southern Baptist and manages a local women’s boutique. The couple has two teenagers, Maria (15) and John (13). Both children have been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. They reside in a mid-sized northwestern city and periodically attend a Greek Orthodox mission parish some fifty miles from their home.

They also admit to having had mixed experiences with the Greek Orthodox Church over the years. For the past several yearsyears, they have contemplated leaving the Greek Orthodox Church, but have yet to arrive at a decision to do so. Our conversation began from this point.

“I suppose I can't pin the fault entirely on the Greek Orthodox Church," stated John. “But I'm beginning to believe my long-time insistence that we attend the Greek Church has made it harder for my family to have much of a religious life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure part of the problem rests in the fact that we’ve moved a great deal.”

“Now that's not true," Jessica interjected. “I’ll admit that moving has frequently made it difficult on the family, but our regular moves aren't really that much a part of the problem we’re talking about. The real problem is that John has always wanted some connection with his Greek heritage, but wasn’t really very religious until recently."

“There’s some truth to what Jessica is saying,” stated John. “Up until recently, I haven't been the most religious person, and what seemed important to me was having some contact with my Greek heritage. But today - for reasons I won't explain here - I feel different. I'm still very proud of my Hellenic background, but I'm equally interested these days in finding a church home that meets my family's needs.”

John paused for a moment to determine if his wife had anything to add. Noting her silence, he continued. “These days I’ve been wondering how the Greek Orthodox Church fits into my family's religious needs, especially our kids needs. What I mean is that my wife'swife is not Greek, and she and the children really don't identify with the ethnic side of the Greek Church. So lately, I’ve been wondering if we need to find another church home."

“I gave in to John when we got married, and agreed to attend the Greek Church, "Jessica remarked, breaking into the conversation abruptly. “John is a strong willed person – I suppose that’s why he’s so successful - and I didn’t have the energy to challenge him regarding our family’s religious needs. "But I guess I've never fully accepted our decision to worship in the Greek Orthodox Church.”

At this juncture in our conversation, Jessica paused, and looked at her husband as if she was asking him to help her explain her next point. John accommodated her silent request by stating, "I suppose what my wife might want to say at this point is that she's never really felt accepted in the Greek Orthodox Church."

“That's part of it, "Jessica stated, and then paused momentarily to collect herself. She appeared visibly upset. “Sometimes I've felt like a second class citizen because I'm not Greek Orthodox… but that's not my real struggle these days. I'm especially concerned with our children's spiritual welfare. Over the past few years, Maria, our oldest, says she hates going to church because she doesn't understand what's going on, and John doesn't have any interest for much the same reasons. I’d do almost anything to reverse this, maybe even become Greek Orthodox.”

Appearing sorrowful, John stated, “Sometimes I feel like it’s my fault. I'm certain that my attitude toward religion hasn't helped…. and at other times, I feel as if we both share some of the blame because maybe we haven’t given the Greek Orthodox Church a fair shake. Whatever the reason, all I know is that, as a family, we’re now at a point where I’m almost willing to do anything to correct this situation including finding a new church home. Incidentally, we just found out that we’ll be moving again in a few months to a bigger city and I've made some preliminary inquiries about this area. I’m told that this city has several Greek Orthodox Churches. Rather than change religions at this point in our kid's lives, we've sort of decided to give it one more try. But if we can’t find a Greek Orthodox Church that feels right this time, I'm sure we'll be making a change.”

Some Observations

It is unclear how this couple and their children will fair. However, the change of heart that both partners have had regarding religion should prove helpful to them and their children’s religious and spiritual development.

Additionally, this conversation illustrates how intermarried couples that are either conflicted or indifferent about religion can negatively effect their children’s religious development. It also serves to remind such parents that when their children reach adolescence they will likely observe them rebelling against church attendance.

Results from the IRP also suggest that in later adolescence couples may watch helplessly as their children reject organized religion altogether. This does not imply that such reactions are permanent, since research indicates that many will end up revisiting this decision as adults and embracing organized religion. However, there is a high probability that these adults will select a faith tradition other than their parent’s faith background.

As such, intermarried couples interested in avoiding this pattern must be especially vigilant regarding the messages they send their maturing children about religion. They must also make some definite decisions regarding their children’s religious affiliation. While it is true that many adolescents will question the value of organized religion, if parents are able to provide them with consistent, meaningful answers and faithful examples, most will likely emerge from adolescence with a stronger commitment to their faith background.