Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,
I have this problem with my son. He is an achiever. Needless to say, he has spent his childhood life on studies and competitions. Now that he is 16 years old and is about to enter college, I’m worried because seems like he still carries this burden (or something that is unknown to me). Ever since, he was shy, frank, insensitive, hot-headed – others think he’s “bastos”, no manners, “suplado” and egocentric. And now, he doesn’t believe in God! Though I shower him with all the love and courage he needs, I think your words as a person who is specialized in this field would convince him. Because, I know, for a person like him, he’s the one who doesn’t believe in any word that comes just from the heart, he seeks explanation and logic. So, I hope you’ll help me, us, regarding this matter. – Julie
Thank you for your letter though I am not sure you will thank me for my answer. It seems ironic that you should have chosen to write to us. My wife is known for a rigorous insistence on differentiating between proven science, research-based evidence, anecdotal experience and pure conjecture, and so subjects such as religion fall outside her remit. I was brought up by the Benedictines but am now a Born Again agnostic! Thus, the chances of either of us – a psychologist or a lapsed Catholic – teaching a 16-year-old to be God-fearing when he has lost his faith appear abnormally low.
But of course your letter covers more than just your son (let’s call him Aaron)’s loss of his faith. You explain that while the world sees him one way, you see him another. You also bemoan the fact that although you “shower him with all the love and courage he needs” nevertheless he does not respond to this veritable downpour in the manner you anticipated. In summary, there is a mismatch between your expectations and the actual outcome.
This mismatch should perhaps lead you to reconsider your approach to the problem. We frequently quote Albert Einstein’s famous, if probably apocryphal, words: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” and the reason is that people so often fall into this trap. Your shower of love and courage has produced a son who has, in the eyes of third parties, some less than engaging traits. You say that you have given Aaron all that he needs in this respect yet he has not turned out quite as perfectly as you wished.
Your awareness of the problem is however a hopeful start though I trust that you are sufficiently earthbound to realize that the solution will be terrestrial rather than celestial. I am not saying that your faith may not be of inestimable help to you in facing these trials but simply that relying on it alone may be placing rather too much of the burden on your God and rather too little on Aaron and yourself.
However your faith alone is not going to restore your son’s belief in your version of God, nor are explanation and logic alone the path to any religious experience. Faith is neither rational nor logical. It inhabits a different sphere altogether and so appeals to explanation and logic will lead nowhere. Whether and when Aaron will return to his faith is in his hands, not anyone else’s, though if you must try to influence him and believe an intellectual approach is the way, sit him down with a Jesuit.
As for the more mundane issues, perhaps you need to concentrate on those non-religious areas that you have identified as problematic, consider whether your past tactics of showers of love and courage have been as productive as you had hoped and spend some time analysing this ‘burden (or something that is unknown to me)’ that you refer to so tantalizingly vaguely. My wife may have some further light to shine on this area. All the best. – Jeremy
Thank you very much for your letter. Jeremy has answered your concerns about your son’s not believing in God, so allow me to focus on its more psychological underpinnings.
Your son Aaron has always been an academic achiever. But now that he is about to go to college, you’re worried that the way he expresses himself – shy, frank, insensitive, hot-headed – others think he’s “bastos“, no manners, “suplado” and egocentric—may not serve him in good stead.
I have two bits of good news for you. First, how he behaves when you observe him is not necessarily the way he behaves when he is with other people, many of whom may find him the very opposite of the qualities you observe.
Second, this too shall pass. He will not remain a teenager forever. I realize that sounds facetious, but that is really the way it is.
Allow me to share some neuroscience with you, because this is what helps us understand the good news above. We can now map our brains, thanks to research that involves using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In the past, people thought that after we reached 5 years old, our brains didn’t develop much. We now realize that on the contrary, the brain has the capacity to change for many years. BUT next to infancy, adolescence is the time for its greatest changes.
Aaron, right smack in the middle of adolescence, will have both the amygdala and the frontal lobes of his brain changing the most. The amygdala is the part of the brain that generates strong emotions like passion, rage, lust, jealousy.
The frontal lobes put the brakes on all these strong emotions. They are involved in planning, strategizing, organizing and decision making. Dr Jay Giedd, foremost expert in adolescent brain development, says: “the frontal lobe is…(what) most separates man from beast.” The problem, however, is that these lobes are one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully.
So, unless he has developmental problems (which he doesn’t seem to have at all), his seeming clumsiness and angst will “correct” themselves as he grows up to be an adult. In other words, give Aaron time, Julie, and perhaps some more understanding while his frontal lobes have not caught up with his physical and emotional selves.
Julie, your son is capable of a lot and I am sure he will achieve it—the way he has achieved his academic success in the past. However, you must give him time. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will he have developed his frontal lobes in that short a time.
I am honored that you hoped Jeremy and I could be the ones to help him through this tumultuous time.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your faith in us. But Aaron has to find his mentors himself, Julie. All a parent can do is try to steer him in the direction of people you hope he may want him to follow. All the best, Margie
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