Spirituality is a protective factor against life’s more destructive stressors.
In a study of spiritual individuation published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, we found that a developed personal relationship with God (expressed in comments such as, “I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty,” or “When I have a decision to make, I ask God what I should do”) was highly protective against slipping from experimenting with to addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Our published findings showed that an adolescent with a strong personal relationship with the higher power, compared to an adolescent without this inner source of spirituality, is 70 to 80 percent less likely to engage in heavy substance use or substance abuse. There was no protectiveness at all related to the intensity of adherence to the family religious tradition. In fact, religion helped only when the adolescent had independently, working within their own faith, developed a personal transcendent relationship.
We know that many adults get into rehabilitation programs only after years of substance abuse. Substance abuse beginning in adolescence can be the onset of decades of suffering; adolescence is the window of risk for a lifetime course of disorder with alcohol and drug abuse, often set in motion by unmet spiritual needs.
The escape and connection described by teens needs to be understood as a spiritual quest, inherently good and important. We as parents need to help the adolescent see that spiritual hunger is not met by alcohol or drugs. The illusory jolt from drugs does not last; it only jump-starts the physiology. There is nothing sustaining in it. Authentic spirituality requires reflection and the development of a road back to transcendence through the cultivation of our inner life, through prayer, meditation, or perhaps good works, intertwined with our general capacities of cognition, morality, and emotion.
Miller, Dr. Lisa. The Spiritual Child (p. 43). St. Martin's Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Helping young people develop a relationship with the transcendent is a protective factor contributing to reliance which buffers the negative impact of various external and internal stressors during childhood and adolescence. What loving parent would not want to encourage the development of this relationship with the transcendent in their child?
The big question is how?
The parent can’t share what they don’t have. Like many things, parents try, sometimes, to contract this out to a church or religious institution, but this alone rarely is enough. It is the relationship with a spiritually attuned other that make the difference in the child’s life. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programs this person is called a “sponsor.” In some traditions this person is called the “god parent” or “confirmation sponsor.” However these roles in religious traditions have atrophied to such an extent that they are usually now only honorary roles.
Big Brother and Big Sister programs as well as mentorship programs and sometimes coaches attempt to fill this role. However, in order to be helpful, these relationships have to endure for 4 or 5 years or longer to make a significant difference according to research.
Unitarian Universalists covenant together to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. However, while their Lifespan religious training programs seem good in theory, they rarely work out in practice because of the inability to retain and sustain relationships over a long enough period to make a difference in child and adolescent development. The same might be said for helping parents nurture the spiritual development of their children.
And yet UUs talk a good game and aspire to help. Lack of resources and competence hamper the efforts, but hopefully they will continue to try and learn.