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Can your child be too religious?

Time: Religion can be a source of comfort that improves well-being. But some kinds of religiosity could be a sign of deeper mental health issues.
Seeing their kids more eager to pray than play video games, most parents  would shout, “Hallelujah” or whatever their expression of joy. And they should.  Research shows that religion can be a positive force in the lives of children, just as can be for adults. “Religion,” says Bill Hathaway, a clinical  psychologist of religion and Dean of the School of Psychology and Counseling at  Regent University, “is related to the child having a higher sense of self esteem, better academic adjustment and lower rates of substance abuse and delinquent or criminal behavior.”
So if your child is immersed in scripture after school and prays regularly  throughout the day, you may breathe a sigh of relief.  She’s such a good girl. My boy is okay.
Or maybe not. Your child’s devotion may be a great thing, but there are some  kids whose religious observances require a deeper look. For these children, an overzealous practice of their family faith — or even another faith  — may  be a sign of an underlying mental health issue or a coping mechanism for dealing with unaddressed trauma or stress.
Therapists in private practice report that they are seeing children and teens  across a range of faiths whose religious practice can be problematic. The amount  of time they spend praying, or in other acts of spiritual practice, is not as  important, they say, as the quality of this devotion, and whether it helps the  children or instead isolates them and undermines their schoolwork and  relationships. Children with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, may rigidly repeat holy verses, say Hail Mary’s or focus on other rituals less out of a deeper sense of faith but more as an expression of their disorder. “It  looks positive but could be negative,” says Stephanie Mihalas, a UCLA professor  and licensed clinical psychologist.
Such ritualistic behavior, she says, may also reflect a child’s way of coping  with anxiety, and in reality could be no more spiritual than fanatical hand washing or dreading to walk on cracks. “These kids fear that if they don’t obey their religious rules perfectly,” explains Carole Lierberman, MD, a psychiatrist  in Beverly Hills, “God will punish them.”
Some children suffer from scrupulosity, a form of OCD that involves a  feeling of guilt and shame. Sufferers obsessively worry that they have committed  blasphemy, been impure or otherwise sinned. They tend to focus on certain rules or rituals rather than the whole of their faith. They worry that God will never forgive them. And this can signal the onset of depression or anxiety, says John  Duffy, a Chicago area clinical psychologist specializing in adolescents. “Kids who have made ‘mistakes’ with sex or drug use,” he says, “may have trouble forgiving themselves.”
Such fastidiousness to religious practices may not seem so harmful, but extreme behavior such as delusions or hallucinations may be a sign of serious mental illness. Seeing and hearing things that are not there can be symptoms of  manic-depressive, bipolar disorder, or early onset schizophrenia. But parents may be less attuned to such unhealthy behavior when it occurs under the guise of faith.
It’s not unusual that children in families where marital discord, harsh  discipline, abuse, or addiction are present, perform rituals for protection. If  they know their parents approve of religion, says Lieberman, “they try to be  good little children and stay below the radar of the family chaos or parents’  rage.” Or, as Mihalas has seen, some children push their already observant parents to be even stricter, fearing that catastrophe will strike otherwise.
When does religiosity raise these red flags? The crucial test focuses on how  the kids are functioning in the rest of their lives. Are they doing well at school, playing sports or music, socializing with friends? If so, then their  faith is probably a source of strength and resilience.  If, however, the  religious practices and rituals seem to be overtaking their daily lives, and  displacing their normal activities, experts suggest taking steps to understand  what’s triggering the focus on faith. To guide the discussion, here’s what they  recommend:

  • Show them in your own behavior, suggests Mihalas, how religion can co-exist  with enjoying life.
  • If your children are doing well in other areas of their life, don’t panic,  says Hathaway. Unless you feel strongly that they are morally wrong, take this  shift in stride.
  • Talk to your child about it. Ask her what her religion means to her. Ask him what he is getting out of it, how it makes him feel.
  • Before engaging a therapist, ask about his or her comfort level with devout  religious practice.

Religious families need not worry that therapy will draw their child away  from their faith, Hathaway says. He recalls one girl struggling with anorexia who felt that she could never be “good enough” to satisfy the harsh, judgmental God of her imagination. After psychological treatment that included a spiritual element, she not only recovered from her anorexia, she developed a more positive view of God, of other people and herself. Instead of being weighed down by guilt and anxiety, her spiritual life became a comfort and joy. And that’s the role that religion should have for people of faith.
h/t Anon

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7 years ago

Ohoh, here we go! I’m so grateful no one decided this when I was a child being beaten up daily by a drunken mother, with my Angel nun waiting to pick up the pieces with her advice about a Father God Who cared for me; that He had big plans for my life in spite of my mother.
OK, time out to find the article on too much liquor being a detriment to our mental health!

7 years ago

Uh-oh, those bitter clingers… too much of that stuff will leave you with integrity, you know. Of course, with this golden calf here, you can have all the hedonism, lying and fun you want with no bad feelings…

Rick Prokopchuk
7 years ago

Luke 18:16 would appear to provide the insight to the truth on this one.