June 23, 2015

Giving Advice to Teens Wanting to Tell Their Parents of Their Atheism

AdviceSpend any time on the atheism subreddit at Reddit, and you will see countless pleas for help from teenage atheists seeking advice for how to "come out" to their parents. In nearly all of them, the teen describes how desperately he or she wants to tell his or her family. The issue of authenticity almost always comes up in that the teen says he or she can no longer stand to hide an important part of his or her identity. It is heartbreaking to see all these requests for help, in part because many of us can relate to the struggle being described and in part because we recognize how powerless we are to provide the desired sort of advice.

What the teen almost always wants to know is how to tell his or her parents, how they will react, and how to handle their reaction. This is exactly the sort of advice we can rarely offer. We have never met the parents, and we have no idea how they will react. We also know that how the teen's family reacts may only be a small part of the consequences associated with a disclosure of atheism, especially for those who are embedded in a faith community. Some teens stand to lose even more than their families.

The teen seeking advice online rarely specifies his or her age, the nature and quality of his or her support network, or tells us much about his or her living situation that might help us assess the degree of risk from a disclosure of atheism. And frankly, even if we had this information, we'd still be guessing for the most part. There are too many unknowns.

It is important to acknowledge that the teen's question is rarely whether to tell his or her parents; that decision has almost always been made. And so the standard sort of advice many on Reddit give about not telling one's parents until one is 18 and out of the home is almost never what the teen wants to hear. We can certainly urge caution, but this sort of advice is generally not considered helpful by the teen. Typically, the teen is telling us that he or she "must" make the disclosure.

I can relate. I wasn't sure how my parents were going to react when I told them I no longer believed in gods. Had someone told me to wait until I was 18, I would have ignored them. At the time, it did not feel like this was an option. I had held it in long enough, and I was unwilling to do so a moment longer. While it might have been helpful to have someone there to help me think through the possible consequences (e.g., making sure I considered the range of possible reactions I might face) and weigh the pros and cons, it would not have changed my decision to tell them when I did. It is hard to explain why this was the case, but I know exactly what the teens on Reddit mean when they say that they have to get it out.

We want to support atheist youth, and we recognize how important it is to do so. At the same time, we often realize that there may be no good way to offer useful advice to someone we don't know and that trying to do so might even cause more harm than good. While there are many things we can do to help atheist teens that do not necessarily involve attempting to give them advice about how to disclose their atheism to their parents, it is tough to know how to respond to the many requests for such advice.

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