“Does death mean that everything is just black?”
“I think about what death is like sometimes time before I go to sleep.”
“What is heaven actually like?”
I teach girls. After four years in the classroom, I’ve learned that teenage girls love to talk about death. I can have a wonderfully planned and structured lesson prepared for my religious studies class, but as soon as the topic of death and the afterlife comes up, they are gone: The conversation is a rocket launched to outer space with too much velocity to recapture.
There are several topics I encounter in my courses that reveal a deep well of reflection and worry for teenage girls. It is as if I opened a pressure valve, and they release the pressure through conversation and questions.
For many parents, the desires, fears, and motivations of their teenage daughters are shrouded in mystery. What adolescent girls present to parents, teachers, and friends is not necessarily an accurate depiction of what’s really going on inside. They may not show it (or in many cases, actively resist showing it!), but for girls raised in religious households, matters of faith are on their minds.
Although I cannot fully penetrate the Great Mystery of the teenage girl, here are four things she needs and thinks.
1. She thinks about death and the afterlife.
I am always surprised by how eager my students are to talk about questions of death and dying. They often ask me, “but WHAT is heaven and WHERE is it?!” When the conversation opens, it can become very difficult to get them to stop. They want to know what heaven is like, and what “it takes” to get there.
At first, it might just seem like she wants a clear-cut answer, but in reality, simply having the conversation helps her feel less alone about the biggest reality of life. I believe that girls are ready for serious, candid conversations about death at about age 13. If your priest delivers a homily on death and resurrection, that is the perfect opportunity for you to open a conversation with your daughter.
It is very likely you’ll be surprised by her thoughtfulness and depth of reflection.
2. She is not boy-crazy.
It is a shame that our culture depicts teenage girls as being “boy-crazy.” Adolescent girls are often too busy with school, sports, activities, their peer groups, and family to be concerned with getting and having a boyfriend.
Of course, it depends on the context of your daughter: both her social setting and her personality. But generally speaking, there is a good chance that your daughter is not as preoccupied by romantic relationships as you might be led to believe by American television and movies.
However, your daughter does need conversation about her emergent sexuality, and an opportunity to ask questions. But the pretext of this conversation should not be that she is a caged rabbit, waiting to leap out and have sex. She also seeks moral guidance from the adults in her life — even if this guidance is something she ultimately rejects.
As much as there is an impulse to rebel and experiment in the adolescent years, there is also a deep desire to make the responsible choice.
3. She wants information about her faith.
I ask my students to tell me what they want to learn about Christianity at the beginning of the year. One told me: “I want to know where all our beliefs come from.” Starting at about age 14, girls need serious theological explanations for the religious ideas they have been exposed to.
She wants to understand the Trinity, how Jesus is God, and why the Church rejects gay marriage. The answer cannot be, “it’s just what the Church teaches and we are called to have faith.” That style of religious formation is an invitation for her to dismiss faith as nonsense.
If she questions Christian beliefs, it is important not to become defensive, emotional, or angry toward her. Rather, keep the conversation warm, open, and nonjudgmental. That way, she knows that faith is something she is always welcome to ask about and explore with you.
4. She knows she’s obsessed with technology.
A student wrote in an essay once, “I am so addicted to my phone …. I know it’s bad, but I feel like I have to be.”
Teenage girls are acutely aware of their dependence on technology. They joke about the anxiety produced by being phoneless for a few moments; they know that sleeping with their phone interrupts their sleep. Girls need, and desire, parental help in moderating their use of technology.
What they are less aware of, though, is that they are missing out on a deep interior world of reflection and contemplation as they fill their mind with screen time. My students have been consistently blown away by the pleasure they take in prayer and meditation when they spend one day living a monastic lifestyle as an assignment in my class. They realize that their interiority is a precious, untapped gift; they need guidance in fostering it.
Your teenage daughter is an iceberg: there’s much more under the surface than what you observe above the water. I see this in my students’ writing:
“I want to be a better person for God.”
“I don’t really know what I believe, but I want there to be something to believe in.”
“I think prayer is really important, and I want to make it part of my routine …. I thought it would be embarrassing to pray, but it isn’t.”
She probably complains about attending Sunday Mass, and is slow to get in the car, but she is listening — and contemplating how Catholic beliefs might shape her life as a woman.
Rebecca Krier is a Catholic school educator. She is working on her masters degree in educational research at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.