Research suggests that youth who participate in religious institutions, family religious rituals, and individual spiritual practices have lower rates of alcohol and drug use than do young people who have little or no connection to religion or spiritually based groups. In fact, religion and spritiutality appear to be among the most powerful immunizations against substance abuse. The reasons why remain unclear.
Social scientists find that the social support provided and values modeled by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques create positive "moral communities" where internalized values, future orientation, a connection to ultimate meaning and positive selfconcept, all can provide support and motivation to say no to drugs and alcohol.
Developmental psychologists bring a slightly different perspective when explaining how spirituality and religion immunize young people against substance abuse. From the point of view of developmental psychology, at each stage in life we are challenged with new tasks specific to that stage. For example, infants are challenged to use their attachments to caregivers to make themselves secure enough to explore their physical surroundings. Two-year-olds are challenged to become independent enough to occasionally want to "do it all by myself." Here we describe the normal developmental tasks of adolescence that place adolescents at risk for substance use and abuse. We then describe how these very same tasks can be addressed more positively when adolescents have involved themselves in faith traditions and taken on spiritual issues. Spirituality and religion can, therefore, provide the same developmental opportunities that substance use may seem to offer.
THREE DEVELOPMENTAL QUESTIONS: WHO AM I? WHERE DO I BELONG? WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Establishing autonomy from one's family, finding a place where one belongs, and addressing questions of ultimate meaning are three central developmental tasks in adolescence. Furthermore, autonomy, belonging and meaning-making create vulnerability for substance use.
AUTONOMY: A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Seemingly overnight, competent, communicative, self-confident children can turn into hip-hopping, moody, sloppy, secretive adolescents with purple hair, strange friends, and ever-present headphones. Who are these bigger-than-me young persons? Where did they come from? How can we protect and guide them when they are hardly ever around, and when present, don't listen?
Eric Erikson described the adolescent task of identity formation as one in which young adolescents begin to emotionally separate from their families of origin and establish a personal identity for themselves. The period of identity formation is a long period of "trying on" identities, styles, personalities, behaviors, and activities, a period when parents may experience their children as sullen and uncooperative. Young people, in turn, may experience their parents as being old-fashioned, intrusive, and controlling.
Children who formerly accompanied their families to religious services now may refuse to do so and instead may be found sleeping late on weekends, scheduling alternate activities, and arguing endlessly about the hypocrisy of religious attendance in the absence of sincere belief. Family obligations such as attending religious services and eating supper at seven now may take a backseat to freely chosen peer and individual activities. What's wrong with doing homework from 2 to 4 a.m., lighting candles and incense in the bathroom, shaving one's head, and smoking marijuana and drinking at parties?
Experimental alcohol and drug use, then, can be a way of establishing an adolescent's identity and the right to choose. "I have a right to pierce my belly button, to eat nothing but mustard greens and French fries, and to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana, so long, of course, as nobody gets hurt and I get my schoolwork done."
In Fritz Oser's model of religious development, adolescents leave behind a conception of G-d as one who answers prayers, who rewards and punishes, and who negotiates with individuals in ways that allow individuals to get a better deal. For many adolescents, G-d has G-d's own domain and they have their own, separate domain where they are solely responsible for the actions. Furthermore, adolescents often start to question G-d, or, at least, their old childish conceptions of G-d. Adolescents question what is true and how they know what is true. The natural developmental questioning of old truths, that include truths about rules and norms for appropriate behavior, creates both a risk for substance abuse and an opportunity to build a deeper religious or spiritual core.