Like you, I’ve been appalled, shocked, dismayed, disillusioned and a whole host of other emotions I have yet to identify due to the recent and past scandals in the Church. Many adults are asking “How do I talk to young people about all of this?” Whether you’re a parent, educator, or minister you’ve no doubt been asked about the recent news in the Church about sexual abuse of minors and young adults and the nauseating cover up and lack of transparency by clergymen and other church officials.
Figure out what makes sense to you
Before talking to young people about the scandals and challenges in the Church, you first need to figure out what your thoughts and feelings are. Be honest with yourself and consider talking with another safe, non judgmental adult who can help you process your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Find out what they already know
You might ask “Have you heard anything about the Church recently? What have you heard?” Then listen and ask if they heard anything else.
Listen to Understand, Not to Fix
Ask “How do you feel about that?” or “What do you think about that?” and then listen very carefully. Listening to young people eases their anxiety and can even bring come clarity to their confusion. The best thing adults can do right now is listen, listen and listen even more. For many youth and adults alike, these scandals have severely damaged the Church’s moral authority and credibility. It will be tempting to become defensive and overly catechetical when that happens. This is where we must be wise and patient. There is a time to address that but now is not the time. Too many people feel powerless and are demanding change in the Church. Defensiveness, evasiveness, being cross critical and over intellectualizing matters only drives people further away. They feel invalidated and more powerless and their resentment deepens.
Validate their thoughts and feelings
You can say “It makes perfect sense to me that you’re angry, scared and confused about all of this.” It is OK to feel this way. If you share some of those feelings, you can tell your child, but make sure you contain your emotions. Telling your child you’re angry in a calm but serious tone is helpful. Screaming, stomping and slamming things while you’re angry will only frighten and confuse your child even more.
Don’t Make the Teen Your Therapist
Like you I have a wide assortment of feelings and thoughts about the atrocities that have been committed to young people and feel equally strongly about how poorly it has been handled. As adults however, we should not process our own strong, raw feelings with young people because it compounds their own anxiety and confusion.
Consider the age of the child.
The younger the child, the less they need to know. The older they are, the more they may want and deserve to know. Most middle schoolers aren’t fully aware of the crises and therefore don’t need to know the details, while many high school students know at some of what’s going on, though not all. It’s always a judgment call on how much you share, but consider the child’s age, maturity and the nature of your relationship with the child.
How much does the young person want to know?
Especially for younger children and teens, they may not want to know that much information, and therefore don’t need to know as much.
Not everything that can be said, should be said
Just because it’s happened or happening doesn’t mean we need to know about it or talk about it. In today’s age of around the clock media and social media which often chronicles the moment by moment thoughts, feelings and actions, it can be tempting to be a conduit of information to children. Our job is not to be a conduit of information but rather a filter and is truthful but selective while framing the information within an appropriate context and offer hope. As parents our role is to allow our kids access to age appropriate information.
Vulnerability and Transparency
With older teens and young adults you may likely need to share more about how you feel about the situation. In my experience, a higher level of vulnerability and transparency is the price of admission to being heard by older teens and young adults. If you’re angry, say you’re angry. If you’re disillusioned, say it to them. Allow them to see some of your own emotional struggle and frustration. The key here is share only enough to be helpful for the teen. You’re not sharing to process, you’re sharing to help. That is an important distinction, albeit an important one.
Provide Group discussions
For teachers middle school and up it may be appropriate to host a group discussion and allow young people to hear similar and contrasting viewpoints. It lets them know they are not alone, but also reminds them there is more than one perspective even in situations like these.
Remember, religious practice is important for young people.
Tell young people: “God doesn’t need religion. He’s a big, very emotionally secure God who does not pout and get angry if we stop going to church. God gave us religion because healthy religion is like a great cell phone that keeps us connected to God. Religion is a tool, and a good tool. But like any other tool, it needs maintenance. The guy who trims the two Live Oak trees in my front yard doesn’t throw away his saw when it gets dull or needs repair. He fixes it or sharpens it. I believe it is fair to say to young people, especially older teens and young adults that there are aspects of our religion (not theology) that need sharpening and repair. . But, it is important to encourage young people to find meaningful ways that they can, with integrity practice their faith and enter into worship. They may need you to help them find safe ways, people and places to do that.
Avoid Condescending, Patronizing or Judgmental Remarks
Some I have already heard are: “The weak will leave.”, “Those with one foot already out the door will certainly abandon ship now.”, “The strong will stay” or “The Remnant will stay.” The Weak will be pruned away” or “Peter didn’t leave Jesus because of Judas.” These don’t land well. They invalidate people’s anger and other emotions and drives them further away.