Parents who want to protect their teenagers from some of the toughest pitfalls and temptations they'll face as they mature should consider their child's spiritual side, according to one of the leading experts on the intersection of spirituality and well-being.
"It is not a matter of opinion, it is scientific fact that there is nothing as profoundly protective against the most common forms of suffering in adolescence as a strong personal spiritual life," Lisa Miller, professor and director of clinical psychology at Columbia University, told a packed auditorium at Brigham Young University Thursday night during a Wheatley Forum in Faith & Intellect presentation.
Starting with biological puberty, youths experience a "surge" in both spiritual capacity and curiosity, said Miller, director of the Spirituality & Mind Body Institute at Columbia and author of "The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving." When that surge is nurtured and encouraged, adolescents are 80 percent less likely to abuse substances, 60 percent less likely to battle depression and girls are 70 percent less likely to engage in "sexual risk taking."
Even before scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals provided clear evidence of the impact, Miller said she saw daily in her clinical practice that children who had a spiritual relationship with a higher power — whether they saw that as God or Allah or nature or some other interactive spiritual force — "had an entirely different course of recovery than a child who had no connection to a higher power."
Cultivating a spiritual nature is not adding something that's foreign to children, either. "Spirituality is part of our core human endowment. This is from science," she said, noting that two-thirds of Americans embrace a faith tradition, while about 30 percent say they "feel spiritually connected" but have no faith tradition. For a small number, religion is about heritage but not religion.
Children come with a spiritual compass. "Every child knows right from wrong. It may be irresistible," Miller joked, "but they know." They like prayer and ceremony. They relate to all living creatures, see family as a "spiritual event" and accept life and death as a continuum. That all shows spirituality is native — about 30 percent heritable — then life choices determine its future.
Researchers see a hunger for meaning and spiritual questions that begin to surge from middle adolescence to emerging adulthood across cultures, Miller said. Teens who see their daily experience in a spiritual way walk a different life than those who do not; it's a healthier life that's less likely to derail.
Those who by their senior year of high school have established a personal relationship with a higher power have a spiritual home to which they can return throughout the course of their lives. Studies found at age 26 they still had that strong personal relationship that was not only protective, but that they also had become people who contributed to their communities, perhaps through religious organizations or groups like Habitat for Humanity, Miller said.
Changes are physical, too.
MRI images show that a sustained spiritual life over time increases cortical thickness in the brain. Cortical thickness is associated with high IQ, while depression and Alzheimer's disease are associated with cortical thinness, she said.
Studies in India, China and the United States found that people who are spiritual feel interconnected and see love "as a force and not just an emotion," she said. They are altruistic, serving others and sharing, among other things.
But there were some startling cultural differences. In India and China, spirituality increased as one became more educated. In the United States, more education left people "less spiritually attuned," she said.
Adults who want to nurture spirituality in the young can do so with simple practices, according to Miller. Children should be included in direct connections to adult spiritual practice. "Would you like to finish my prayer?" she said as an example. "Would you like to sit by my side while I finish my meditation?"
Children need to see adult spiritual life, including the good and bad. Miller has let her three children witness her apologies if she's been short-tempered with a clerk. She's apologized to them directly for bad days and irritability: "Mother was really aggravated today and grumpy. I apologize to you and also to God. Today was a gift and I feel like I somewhat squandered it," Miller said she might say.
Her own mother prayed out loud and was explicit, which her children could see. Her dad was quieter, but shared spiritual moments and thoughts, like describing a dream he had after his mother died when Miller was a child. He told her he thought his mom was telling him she would always be his mother.
His description, said Miller, "was full and generous and I remember it to this day. I think those are the jewels we give our children."
Sharing spirituality passes on treasure. Spirituality passed from one generation to the next is 80 percent protective against depression, she said. Children who see their grandparents' and parents' spirituality — two generations — see an even greater hedge against depression.
In a world she describes as divided and at war, Miller said that the spiritual is "the greatest educational opportunity of our time."
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