It is a startling statistic, but perhaps not really surprising to many social observers: research has shown the rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse among teenagers in Fairfield County are higher than among teens in most inner cities. This is true of many affluent, highly competitive communities.
Are there things parents can do to help inoculate their teens against some of the worst pitfalls, to help build resiliency to take them through teen and college pressures, and to develop the skills to deal with the curveballs life throws throughout?
“Absolutely,” says Lisa Miller, Ph.D., of Weston, a professor of psychology and education and director of the clinical psychology program at Columbia University, Teachers College. She is also the director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, co-editor-in-chief of the American Psychological Association journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice and mother of three. “Science shows the Golden Ticket to set up our children for a life of health and thriving: a spiritual life. We can do a great deal as parents to support our own children’s spiritual life, from how we see them, meet them and emotionally engage, to the priorities and values we emphasize.”
Drawing on more than 15 years of her own research and clinical study, combined with the research and study of contemporaries, Miller has written The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. “Using the scientific method, such as brain imaging and epidemiology, we have been able to show that the pathways to mental health, resilience and recovery are extraordinarily strong in people with a strong spiritual core. For example, adolescents with a strong core are up to 60 to 80 percent less likely to engage in risky behaviors and heavy substance use or substance abuse.”
Combining science, psychology, spirituality and anecdotal evidence from her clinical practice and life, the book is especially timely in light of recent surveys showing an increasing number of Americans defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and explains the distinction between the two.
“Spirituality is innate; we are all born with it,” Miller says. Think about how young children are full of joy, love, curiosity, awe, compassion, how they connect with nature and animals, how they can change the feeling in a room or exhibit a wisdom seemingly beyond their years.
“Religion,” she continues, “is what we are taught or choose to embrace, and everyone’s path is his or her own.” Miller adds, “Teens are hungry to know their own heart, they will test limits and question what they’ve been told; they are not being defiant, but rather doing the work to figure out who they are, how they fit in. They are deeply spiritually engaged.”
Whether a youth’s searching is supported or squelched can made a huge difference. “About one third of our spiritual core is inherited; the other two-thirds is how that core is cultivated through how we are raised, our personal experiences and whether they are validated,” she said. She urges parents to “show up and support their children’s growth.”
The Spiritual Child notes the lessening of many of the traditional cultural or religious preparations adolescents used to receive as they approached puberty and adulthood that provided a road map of what to expect and what was expected of them — whether a religious ceremony, tribal initiation, vision quest, coming of age tradition or other rites of passage. It also discusses the impact and importance of transcendence, those moments of awareness, understanding, that there is something beyond self — how they can be experienced in many ways and provide a sense of security and resilience in difficult or painful times in life.
In the book, Miller addresses parents who may have abandoned their own religious upbringing and are therefore hesitant to take on “imposing” their adult belief system on their children, believing their children will find their own way. She encourages such parents to be there, be present and follow their children’s lead. “They don’t expect you to have all the answers,” she notes, adding that in following a child’s lead, families can find themselves on a joyful journey of discovery that strengthens its members individually and as a unit. “The child can spiritually reboot the family.”
“There is this myth that if we raise our children to be gentle, reflective, inward, it makes them less strong. Data, however, points to a different conclusion,” says Miller. “Those children who have a sense of relationship to the greater sacred presence often have a stronger moral compass; they also have character strength, grit and are more optimistic. The inner and outer go hand-in-hand; those who are uniformly or overly outwardly focused on achievement have no compass, little resiliency.
“Unfortunately, most of our ‘measures of success’ are outward and achievement oriented — test scores, GPAs, what schools did you get into or graduate from, what you drive, how big your house or bank account or portfolio is, the number of likes or followers on social media — and if you don’t somehow ‘measure up,’ you are considered a failure, often by yourself. Even so-called ‘friendships’ often weigh in our market value. This is lonely, empty and without real value; it certainly has no staying power.
“In our performance-centric world, many of our children are in pain, hungry for parental regard; the antidote is unconditional love and to be the ambassadors to support our children to develop their spiritual core, to have a life of depth and purpose; to become people of compassion and contribution. This is ground zero of essential,” she believes. “We need to overcome this tsunami of the performance self and find our own natural spirituality. We all are innately spiritual. It is always right there about a quarter-inch under the surface.”
The Spiritual Child is thought-provoking, reassuring and provides guidance for those seeking to make life less competitive and more meaningful for their children, and perhaps themselves. Published by St. Martin’s Press, it is available in print and digital formats from bookstores and online sellers.