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Teaching Adolesence

The Other “S-Word”: Spirituality and Religion – Overlooked Resources for Youth Development

Religious and spiritual beliefs have a broad range of positive aspects on adolescent development, including meaning making, cultivation of virtue, and better school outcomes.

If you are ever looking to end a conversation quickly—on the plane or at a party–just tell people that you are a psychologist who studies religion. Trust me. I’ve found religion to be like a conversational terminal illness. Broadly speaking, at the social level, religion tends to be one of those topics that is either galvanizing, divisive, or ignored. Similarly, on a personal level, spirituality seems to resonate, rub-the-wrong-way, or is ignored. With such ambivalence, it’s not surprising that these topics have remained in the margins of developmental science.

To date, existing research affirms that religion and spirituality buffers against risk and promotes positive development. Psychological science continues to confirm that youth need emotion regulation, a clarifying sense of identity, character strengths, connection, and purpose for wellbeing and thriving. Although adolescents develop such capacities in a number of contexts, research points to religion and spirituality as potentially potent resources for these developmental essentials. For example, one recent study found that engaging in religion is helpful for youth because it is linked to important personal resources like self-regulation and emotion-regulation which buffers against substance use and other risk factors. In addition, another study found that being religious predicted higher school outcomes. The study demonstrated that especially for lower SES youth having access to social capital and a connection to transcendence (e.g. God) explained how religion promoted positive educational outcomes.

Common religious practices like attending religious services or youth group, family prayer, private prayer and meditation, coming of age rituals, service, and reading scripture all support an inner or personal spiritual life. In the special section of the Journal of Research on Adolescence that we edited, the theoretical and empirical papers explain and demonstrate how personal and shared religiousness and spirituality support enduring inner spirituality that:

  • fosters awareness of transcendence, which can give hope and encourage youth in school,
  • allows for meaning making, one study captured how Muslim girls can make sense of biological changes through religious rituals and community
  • cultivates virtue by providing a clear set of beliefs, a community that exemplifies and supports them, and practices that promote the psychological processes necessary for developing character strengths and virutes
  • and promotes prosocial behavior.

Although the complexities of religion and spirituality have not been popular topics of psychological study or conversation, they are central to being human. Religion is still an important resource for many young people across the globe—including within Europe and the US. In addition, spirituality—whether found within a religious context or not—is increasingly important for many young people. However, we found in our systematic review that there are some contexts and applications in which religion isn’t always helpful. For example, one study found that when religious beliefs are not aligned between a young person and their parents and the parent-child relationship suffers, youth may have higher rates of internalizing problems like anxiety and depression and externalizing issues like acting out. It is important to note, that this finding was not only caused by different beliefs (all teens and parents disagree on important issues!), but both internalizing and externalizing issues increase when the quality of the parent-child relationship decreases.

Ultimately, the special section provides empirical evidence for understanding how intentional, other-focused spirituality fosters positive development in young people, and how such spirituality can be a powerful developmental resource for adolescents. We hope to entice you to dive into the special section and to equip you to sustain a conversation on the topic on your next flight should you choose!

Pamela Ebstyne King, PhD, is the Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she also works with the Thrive Center for Human Development. Her research focuses on understanding the role of faith, spirituality, and religion in youth development.

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