When Mormon teens doubt

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Mette Ivie Harrison

(courtesy of Mette Ivie Harrison)

Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

My youngest son found a chance recently to have a private conversation with me about my views on same-sex marriage. Like many in his generation, he cannot understand why the Mormon church sees same-sex marriage differently than heterosexual marriage. But he didn’t know how to talk about this question to any of his current church leaders and he feared that if he did, he would be talked down to or worse—seen as a less devout member.

I loved the chance to talk to him honestly about doubts, as I have with all of my older children. It seems unreasonable to expect children growing up in the Internet age to have no doubts about Mormonism, and as a parent, I feel like one of my main jobs is to make sure they are comfortable talking to me about those doubts rather than trying to hide them and pretend they don’t have any.

I don’t want to have children who accept everything that comes from the leadership of the church with unquestioning obedience. But then again, I don’t think of parenting as an outcome-based project. I think of it as an ongoing relationship that needs to be renegotiated at times. I also don’t think of my children’s activity in the church as a commentary on my parenting or my own personal devotion. It is their own choice and reflects only their own personality and character.

Figuring out how to manage my own doubts was only one part of the process of learning how to talk to my children about their owns. I have also had to realize that there are plenty of other paths to follow when it comes to dealing with religious doubt, and I can be helpful to my children by offering them some varieties to choose from in the future. I may point to various family members or ward friends who have different stances when it comes to doubt, to show that there are ways to remain active and engaged with the church on a variety of levels, and to talk about what happens if they should choose to exit the church.

Talking calmly and lovingly through this can help children feel less frightened about having doubts and the consequences of dealing with them. I want to make sure that there is never any emotional threat in my manner, no mocking at the choices others make, and no sense of superiority about myself. And of course, always a sense of overwhelming love and respect for them. It is a gift as a parent when a child confides to you about doubts. It means they trust you implicitly, though it is also a request for some guidance.

So, after talking honestly about why it is good to raise thoughtful questions, I lay out the following possibilities for dealing with doubt on a long-term basis and give some examples of those I think represent these categories:

  1. The devout doubter who asks incisive, thoughtful questions, expressing doubts occasionally, but only on particulars, never doubting the church as a whole.
  2. The beginning doubter, who has begun to see holes in the fabric of the church, but isn’t sure what to make of it and is still gathering information in faith.
  3. The full doubter, who doubts everything, but with a sense of compassion and understanding, accepting that church leaders are as likely to make mistakes as anyone else.
  4. The stunned and angry doubter, who for a long period was oblivious to any doubts or questions, and then suddenly seemed to fall into them to the point of drowning—but is angry at anyone trying to help.
  5. The stand-up comic doubter who may seem more interested in poking fun or making trouble than in real questions, but ultimately is truly at a crossroads and needs understanding (and it’s not only teens who fall into this category).
  6. The depressive doubter, who feels as if every doubt is a sign of sin and is not sure there is a place for them in the church.
  7. The agnostic doubter, who questions even the existence of God.
  8. The atheist, who has given up even doubting God and moved to full disbelief.

Any one of these patterns of doubt is an honest reaction and we can move from one path to another without being accused of falseness. If we can allow our children to see the choices without prejudging them, we will safeguard our relationships with them in the future. .

Sometimes parents panic if our children express doubts about the church. We worry that this means that they are rejecting us and our way of life. We horribilize the future, imagining all the things we will have to give up if our child doesn’t follow the same path that we do with regard to doubts.

But the relationship you share with your child will not be over if they choose to deal with doubt differently than you have. Most of parenting is about throwing out your ideas about what is supposed to happen and embracing what is happening instead. This isn’t any different.


Other guest posts by Mette Harrison:


Mette Harrison is the author of the acclaimed mystery novels The Bishop’s Wife and His Right Hand, as well as many other books. She is a nationally ranked triathlete who lives in Utah.

  • Mike

    When my two oldest children left the church, I wondered what had happened. It took a few years, but I came to have a better relationship with them when we dealt with each other as people, not members of a church with all its unrealistic expectations. Today, my children are happy and successful and have found life fulfilling without the church. It has been quite a road traveled.

  • Elder Anderson

    I don’t much like the word “doubter” in this context. I suppose it comes from the Gospel account of “doubting Thomas” where Jesus says belief without proof is best, but *still* allows Thomas the physical proof he seeks.

    My take is that peoples’ level of religiosity or spirituality varies over their lifetime, and I think that’s perfectly natural. I also think that religiosity is independent of historical fact and the pronouncements of religious leaders. Both of the latter are *always* subject to wide interpretation.

    At a young age, children question. It’s what children do. Shutting down this natural urge is destructive. As children mature into adulthood and as grow intellectually they’ll discover things aren’t always black and white. We see “as through a glass darkly.” They will find their own spiritual path… or perhaps not. It is what it is.

  • A Happy Hubby

    Great advice – and your categorization is a helpful construct (and they are not all mutually exclusive – you can have combinations of these).

    It is equally hard when you are the parent with many doubts and your children (and spouse) are still fully believing. I have to be sure not to overload them and just confuse them (and tick off my spouse). I have to realize that I need to parent them and prepare them for life and not push them to my way of thinking. I need to train them to be able to figure this out as best they can.

  • Drron

    Thanks Mette for your thoughtful insights. I especially like your comment about needing to renegotiate relationships.Trust is essential and you obviously have learned howtomaintainthat. As a parent and now a grandparent I have seen that.

  • Elder OldDog

    It’s probably always going to be a shock when your kids figure out that you were Santa Claus. But who doesn’t allow them that growth?

    There are reasons aplenty to reach and sustain a belief in something other than mormonism, given that it’s become such a pastiche of cobbled together theories and practices. Take “the second anointing” for instance… Go ahead, try to look it up on LDS(dot)org. When you tire of that, ask Google, which unlike LDS(dot)org, giveth liberally and upbraideth not.

    It’s my view that religion might have at one time served a good purpose, but now it only serves to bind human beings’ minds from experiencing growth through knowledge.

    Not doubting is a much more serious failing, because Truth could care less about your doubts. But those fleecing you via Untruths are always suggesting that you not look behind the curtain.

    Seriously, go look up “the second anointing” and then go ask your bishop how and when you can get yourself one.

  • Richard Pecjak

    Just ask him if he really believes in Lamanites or Nephites?

  • Bob

    Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble.
    Psalms 119:165

  • My kids had the same issue, that’s one of the reasons we stopped going. When a 9 year old asks why God love more people that the Church does, that’s a hard question to answer. We can’t teach the same hate filled messages to our kids we hear coming from Utah, as we will be held accountable. What do you do when your kids ask why we belong to a hate group? My 8 year old was happy to be baptized, but didn’t see himself as a member of the Church he was baptized into. He just couldn’t buy into the idea that God makes people just to give his followers someone to exclude. Our children can be the best teachers.

  • Maren

    When I came to my parents with some questions and concerns about the church (at the age of 19), they responded by getting angry. After a couple of heated conversations, I remember specifically thinking to myself “Well, so much for that. Obviously I can’t bring this stuff up with Mom and Dad, it’s not worth it.” It took nearly 20 years for me to be able to talk to them about my doubts again, and they responded somewhat better that time. Of course by then I was a full-fledged “Adult,” so that definitely makes a difference.

  • “…to talk about what happens if they should choose to exit the church.”

    It depends on what a person chooses to do with what they have discovered.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2014/06/deceived.html