5 ways faith can help parents of teens raise healthy, compassionate young adults

Justin Bieber. Lindsay Lohan. Charlie Sheen.

There is no shortage of celebrity role models willing to flaunt their self-indulgent lifestyles.

So how can parents help their own children say no to affluenza? Or to become caring young adults, forsaking refuge in addictive behaviors?

One answer may be right down the street: Their local church, temple or mosque.

A new wave of research provides evidence indicating that parents who become involved in cultivating the spiritual lives of their children are more likely to help them develop into well-adjusted young adults.

And adolescents with strong faith are more likely to have better mental health later in life and a lower likelihood of addictions ranging from drugs to online pornography, the studies suggest.

The findings do not mean all religious parenting practices are helpful. Harsh corporal discipline and religious socialization that emphasizes God as angry and judgmental are often associated with poorer mental health.

Research also indicates people who become disillusioned with their faith or have negative experiences in congregations tend to have worse outcomes.

But in general recent research is affirming the findings of earlier studies indicating a strong faith during the emotional transitions occurring in adolescence helps pave the way for a happier, healthier life in their 20s and beyond.

Consider these findings from five studies:

The family that worships together supports one another: Youth who go to church with their parents appear more likely to experience higher psychological well-being throughout adolescence. The study analyzed data on 5,739 young people from the 1992–2006 waves of the Child and Young Adult Sample of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Building social skills and parental trust: Adolescents who converted from no religion to affiliating with a religious group were more likely to have higher social skills than those who left their faith. The study of 209 adolescents and their primary caregivers also found youth who held on to their faith scored higher than those who gave it up on measures of parental communication and trust as well as social competence.

Developing healthy relationships offline: College students who reported high levels of religious belief and practice were more likely to form strong relationships with peers and less likely to search online for porn or watch pornographic movies.

Finding ecstasy in all the right places: Young men who believe in God and practice their faith were less likely to abuse alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs, according to a study analyzing data from a sample of 5,387 Swiss men approximately 20 years old. Being affiliated with a religion also predicted healthier choices in most cases.

Developing compassion amid privilege: Even young people fortunate enough to have all their material needs met can find resources to overcome the psychological malaise often associated with affluent teens, according to a new study.

Well-off adolescents who were highly religious and spiritual at age 18 were likely to hold on to a strong spiritual and religious life at age 24. This in turn was associated with fewer signs of depression, higher life satisfaction and greater compassion for others.

“These findings suggest that in emerging adults raised within a broader culture where affection or recognition is at times based largely upon performance or ability, a spiritual and religious life may play a particularly important role in moral development,” the researchers reported on the study of 160 young men and women participating in the New England Study of Suburban Youth.

The research also may reassure parents who fear their teens are beyond their spiritual reach.

That parents have a major influence on the faith of their children later in life is becoming almost overwhelmingly clear, some scholars say.

The connection is “nearly deterministic,” according to University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion.

College students who felt their parents had a strong faith were both likely to be highly religious themselves and to report they were raised with positive parenting practices such as warmth, communication and a lack of harsh discipline, according to a separate study. That combination also was related to psychological well-being.

“By promoting both religiosity and positive parenting practices, parents and religious organizations may be able to help children,” the researchers said.

There is one caveat: Don’t expect any miracles if you are a stay-at-home dad or mom while your children are dropped off at services.

The research is also clear that practicing what you preach is much more important to teens than preaching what you would like them to practice.

Image by Steve Harwood at Flickr, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2.0 License.

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