The pandemic has all of us reassessing what is meaningful in our lives. This is especially true for teens, which are experiencing upheaval during one of the most developmentally sensitive periods in their lives. As parents, we are asking how we can support our kids’ mental and emotional health, but spiritual well-being is part of the equation, too. What exactly is spiritual well-being?
Brene Brown defines spirituality as, “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” So spiritual well-being is about nurturing our kids’ connection to others, a higher power, and a sense of purpose.
Spirituality is often equated with religion, but being spiritual is not synonymous with being religious. How can we support our teen’s spiritual life if the family is not religious, or different members have different religious backgrounds, or their teen does not identify with the same religious tradition? Our advice is to consider religion as one of the many ways that spirituality can be expressed, but by no means is it the only way. Reimaging how we approach spirituality by thinking of it as whatever brings meaning and purpose to kids’ lives, we can nurture spirituality through many paths, regardless of religious affiliation, and that spiritual foundation will support kids throughout their lives.
Above all, teens’ spirituality is about feeling a sense of connection. Teens are also heavily invested in the work of individuation – creating a unique, separate identity – and that means they will often pull away from their parents’ and family’s identity to define themselves. So what’s a parent to do?
First, we know we are still our teen’s north star when it comes to defining their values and sense of self. They’re watching and listening all the time, even if it seems they’re tuning us out. They’re also beginning to understand that we’re a complex person – not just Mom or Dad. Lisa Miller, Ph.D., refers to the parent’s role as being a “spiritual ambassador” for their child, supporting them by modeling healthy relationships and leading by example in crafting a life of meaning and purpose. Connecting to our kids by sharing our own thoughts and feelings in a vulnerable, honest way and asking open-ended, genuinely curious questions. Respect their choice if they don’t feel like sharing. We created Quest Cards especially to help families explore deeper questions with each other. By asking and answering questions as part of a game, kids can share in a way that’s fun and no-pressure. According to one mom, “These cards are genius.”
Our own higher power might be called God, Allah, the Creator, the Universe, or Love. Our teen might share that definition or have a completely different take. Whatever you call it, having a sense of a power greater than us, which is loving and compassionate, profoundly supports teens, especially in times of uncertainty. Teens often experience the Divine through emotions like awe, transcendence, belonging, gratitude, and love, and parents can both nurture those states and help kids express their feelings through thoughtful conversation. Rituals create a sense of the sacred – for example, making a commitment to sit down to dinner together and say a prayer or express gratitude before the meal, or going for a hike and finding three things in nature that make us feel a sense of awe. Telling family stories helps kids connect to their ancestors and ancestral traditions, giving them a strong sense of rootedness. And volunteering together is a powerful way for kids to develop awareness of their own blessings and how good it feels to be of service to others.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do as caring adults is give kids the language and encouragement to express these “higher power” experiences. Let them see our own appreciation of rituals, traditions, mysteries, and the beauty of the world. Let them know that they are not alone, and that their higher power is always supporting them in love.
SENSE OF PURPOSE
As they are defining their own identities, teens are also on a quest to find a sense of purpose. This shows up in whatever fascinates them – and it’s sometimes tough for us to understand how those million-and-a-half YouTube videos or hours on Fortnite add up to anything purposeful. But individuation is a journey – and it requires a lot of exploration along the way. Miles Davis’s father wanted him to be a dentist, but eventually bought him a trumpet. Our teens have a particular genius waiting to be discovered. If we trust in them it will help them trust themselves.
Ask genuinely curious questions about what they like, love, and find meaningful. Learn about their passions. When we notice that they’re being especially excited or curious about something, take note – and point it out to them. Let them know that we value their enthusiasm just for the sake of it, not because it will look great on their college application, and that we’re proud of them just for being who they are. Encourage their curiosity by finding new things to explore together and making adventure a family value.
This spiritual exploration and adventure with our teens builds our trust, communication, and relationship. We can find magical spiritual awakenings all around us because spirituality is innately in every person. Viewing our teen’s challenges, triumphs, and life-lessons through a spiritual lens can help us find joy in the journey and develop a deeper connection to each other and to the Divine. By expanding our own definition of what is spiritual, we’ll be able to support our teen in growing into a life of meaning, purpose, and thriving.