3 ways teens can live out Lent—without the guilt trip

Teens can embrace the Lenten pillars of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer without guilt and self-punishment.
In the Pews

One year ago, at the start of Lent 2021, I put my foot down. There would be no fasting, no penance, and no “giving up” this year, I decided. Like many other Catholics, I felt as if Lent 2020 had never really ended, like it had stretched from Ash Wednesday just weeks before the world shut down to the present moment. After 12 months characterized by sacrifice—a whole year devoid of gatherings with friends, celebrations with extended family, and travel of any sort—I didn’t have the stamina for more.

So, with a soul exhausted by personal and global losses, I ignored the season of Lent. I didn’t set personal intentions. I didn’t give alms. I didn’t participate in virtual or in-person stations of the cross. I didn’t go to confession. I didn’t even refrain from eating meat on Fridays. I just acted as if this season that had shaped every previous spring in my living memory didn’t exist.

And do you know what happened? Nothing.

God certainly didn’t smite me. My Catholic friends and family members didn’t disown me. No substantial changes were made to my work as a parish director of faith formation. My life carried on as usual. And that’s how I knew I was missing out.

I realized last Lent—through not honoring the season in any meaningful way—that I rely on the 40-day period leading up to Easter to do for my spirit what an annual vehicle inspection does for my Toyota Prius: ensure that parts are in working order, refresh what might have gone stale in the past calendar year, and reestablish a positive baseline.


I gave up Lent last year to avoid sacrifice, but what I ended up missing out on was renewal.

Maybe something in my story of Lent 2021 resonates with you. Maybe you’re feeling unsure how to live liturgically this Lenten season. Maybe your mental health is in a precarious spot, or you’re struggling with issues of identity and purpose. Maybe celebrating Lent the “way you always used to” feels untenable at the moment, but you still long for the spiritual nourishment that the season could bring. Maybe you know someone for whom all or some of this might be true.

Maybe that person is a teenager.

According to the Pew Research Center, anxiety and depression are on the rise among America’s youth, with 7 out of 10 teens seeing them as major problems among their peers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and research out of Harvard University reports that young adults were the group hit hardest by loneliness during the pandemic. Teenagers, in other words, are a group of people who could use the spiritual strengthening that Lent provides, but they could do without the guilt and self-punishment that often go hand in hand with traditional Lenten practices.

That’s why I’m recommending a different approach for teens to take during Lent this year, one that embraces the time-honored Lenten pillars of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer but also approaches them with a sensitivity to the struggles that
living as a teen in the 21st century presents.


Here are three practices to make Lent 2022 better for teens.

Fasting: Discern desolation, then act on it

One way of understanding Lent is as a season of discernment. It’s a time to take stock of our lives, to reflect on the ways in which we have separated ourselves from God and our fellow humans, and to seek reconnection. Or, in the words of John the Baptist, “Repent!” (Matt. 3:2).

The Ignatian principles of consolation and desolation, which ask us to consider whether our lives and the individual moments within them are oriented toward or away from God, are particularly useful discernment tools during Lent. As Margaret Silf describes in The Inner Compass (Loyola Press), moments of consolation are those that direct our focus outside and beyond ourselves, bond us more closely to our human community, restore balance to and refresh our inner vision, and release new energy in us. Instances of desolation, on the other hand, are those that turn us in on ourselves, cut us off from community, make us want to give up on things that used to be important to us, and drive us downward in a spiral of negative feelings.

Lent is an excellent time to pay attention to the experiences of consolation and desolation in our lives and then to fast from experiences that we’ve identified as continually drawing us away from God and others. Maybe you become aware that scrolling social media brings up feelings of jealousy day after day. Maybe you notice that staying up all night feels good in the moment but leaves you in a zombie-like trance the next day and unable to sustain conversations with friends and family members. Whatever the case, noticing the sources of desolation in our lives gives us an opportunity to fast from a behavior, object, or habit that distances us from God and neighbor. The point isn’t to “give up” for the sake of “giving up” but instead to orient yourself away from actions and thoughts that separate you from the love of your Creator.

Almsgiving: Take stock of your privileges, and act accordingly

Almsgiving is traditionally thought of as giving money or food to the poor. As a teen, I always felt exempt from the suggestion to give alms because, unlike my employed parents, my income was nearly nonexistent. That’s why I’m encouraging teens to develop an expanded idea of what it means to give alms.

At its heart, almsgiving isn’t about giving money. It’s about giving of yourself in a way that makes life better for others, often at some sort of personal sacrifice. To give of yourself, you have to have a sense of what you have and what you have to give. In other words, it involves taking account of your privileges, be they financial, educational, social, environmental, or otherwise. I suggest that teens make a list of their blessings and privileges. Who are the people who keep you going? What are the ways that your racial, sexual, economic, ethnic, and other identities benefit you? Life is not always easy, but what circumstances contribute to the moments of comfort and ease that you do have? Who and what keep you healthy, safe, clothed, and fed?

After making your list, take a moment to prayerfully reflect on it. Give thanks for the manifold gifts within your life (with the added benefit that science shows us that a gratitude practice benefits our physical and psychological health), and then take a moment to think about how you might pay forward some of your blessings. That’s almsgiving.

Prayer: Nourish your soul as an act of self-care

If you want my opinion, prayer—which is nothing other than communication and connection with the wellspring of all being—should bear no resemblance to the words often associated with Lent: penance, withholding, abstinence, and suffering. Indeed, as we lighten our load of desolation and let go of some of our privileges with open hands, we might consider filling the freed-up time, energy, and heart space with a joyful relationship with our loving God.


The key to making prayer life-giving instead of another to-do list item is to find a style of prayer that feels like self-care: perhaps listening to worship music, taking a walk in God’s creation, burning a candle and watching the light flicker, journaling a letter to God, or sitting in silence and paying attention to your breath.

As Christian writer C. S. Lewis writes in his book Mere Christianity, “If we really want . . . to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.” I’d say something similar about prayer. Prayer is not always going to feel good. But if you’re struggling to feel connected to God or to maintain a regular spiritual practice, it’s OK to start with a form of prayer that feels restorative and fun. 

This article also appears in the March 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 3, pages 22-23). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Annika Gordon

About the author

Teresa Coda

Teresa Coda works in parish faith formation. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young daughters.

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