Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 72–84

The Influence of Religiosity and Spirituality on Adolescent Mothers and Their Teenage Children

Authors

Empirical Research

DOI: 10.1007/s10964-010-9506-9

Cite this article as:
Bert, S.C. J Youth Adolescence (2011) 40: 72. doi:10.1007/s10964-010-9506-9

Abstract

This project assessed the influence of religiosity and spirituality on the socioemotional and behavioral adjustment of 110 adolescent mothers and their teenage offspring at age 14. Maternal religiosity, measured prenatally and when children were 3, 5, and 8 years of age, was defined as involvement in church as well as contact with and dependence on church officials and members. Levels of spirituality, defined as religious practices and beliefs, were assessed for both mothers and their children at 14 years postpartum. Hierarchical regression analyses suggested that maternal religiosity was a strong predictor of maternal and child adjustment; children’s own spirituality served as a predictor of their socioemotional adjustment as well. Furthermore, child spirituality mediated the relationship between maternal religiosity and children’s externalizing behavior. Implications for designing intervention programs with high risk families are discussed.

Keywords

Adolescent parentingReligiositySpiritualityAdjustment

Introduction

It has been well documented that adolescence is a time when young people experience rapid growth physiologically and psychologically. During this period of flux, they frequently question the behaviors, values, and traditional beliefs of their parents, extended families, and society at large (Carothers et al. 2006). In addition to the challenges that many adolescents experience—such as identity formation, seeking autonomy, puberty, and the initiation of romantic relationships—adolescent mothers and their children must cope with multiple stressors in their immediate home and neighborhood environments, such as parenting stress, poverty, neighborhood crime, and poor school systems (Whitman et al. 2001). These stressors can have both short- and long-term negative impacts on adolescent mothers and their children. Moreover, these situational constraints have been found to remain present throughout the development of both the adolescent mother and her children unless the adolescent mother is able to obtain higher education, financial security, and/or gain and maintain access to emotional and instrumental support from family members and the larger community (Borkowski et al. 2007). This article examines the protective impact of both religiosity and spirituality on the socioemotional and behavioral adjustment of adolescent mothers and their teenage offspring at 14 years postpartum.

Religiosity, Spirituality, and Adjustment

Despite this period of rapid change in development, Smith and Denton (2005) have pointed out that the role of religion is traditionally excluded from most discussions and analyses of American adolescent adjustment. Most adolescents, however, report that religiosity and spiritual faith are highly valued, and they recognize that religion has a significant impact on their lives (Maton et al. 2004; Smith and Denton 2005). For many, religious practices and beliefs are used as a coping mechanism when an adolescent is exposed to traumatic and/or stressful life events (Peres et al. 2007). For instance, a nationwide survey of the stress reactions of youth and adults in the United States following the September 11th terrorist attacks found that turning to religion (i.e., prayer, religion, or spiritual feelings) was the second most common means of coping (90%), after confiding with others (Schuster et al. 2001). This finding mirrors the work of Pargament (1997) who theorized that life events can be interpreted in religious terms, and that religion offers people of all ages unique religious pathways to cope with stress.

Examinations of the impact of religiosity and spirituality on adjustment have focused on both the protective (i.e., buffering) and coping (i.e., support) functions that each serve in the areas of socioemotional and behavioral adjustment (e.g., depression, self-esteem, and behavior). Pargament (1997) described the influence of religion and spirituality as resources related to coping and healing, whereas Varon and Riley (1999) found that maternal participation in religious services was associated with greater overall life satisfaction, theorizing that maternal participation in religious services provided an organizational routine for social networking that subsequently had a stabilizing impact on the family (Varon and Riley 1999). Similarly, researchers have begun to examine the intergenerational benefits that religiosity and spirituality have as passed on from parent to child. Studies have shown that families who engage in religious activities are more likely to have children that identify themselves as religious and share the same religious beliefs and values as their parents (Cox et al. 2005), especially if there is a warm, nurturing relationship between the parent and child. Contemporary theories of religious socialization (e.g., Kneezel and Ryan 2004) suggest that parents, particularly mothers, who display high levels of religious identification are likely to have discussions with their children about religion which, in turn, leads to children who also have high levels of religious identification.

It has been well documented that religious frameworks and practices have an important influence on how people interpret and cope with stressful events (Ellison et al. 2001; Peres et al. 2007). However, several studies have concluded that religious-based supports can have a negative impact on overall levels of depression and self-esteem (see King and Schafer 1992; Sorenson et al. 1995). Johnson et al. (2001) suggested that the mixed findings regarding religious beliefs and practices may be due to methodological limitations, mainly differences in definitions used to operationalize the concepts under study. For instance, in clinical work with children and adolescents, there is no agreement on how to define religion or spirituality (Mercer 2006). Overall, definitions of religiosity focus on participant’s engagement with an organized faith tradition, whereas spirituality tends to focus more on personal and private feelings and actions in relation to some transcendent entity (King and Boyatzis 2004).

Regardless of the a lack of agreement concerning definitions, studies conducted on clinical samples often find that traumatized individuals look for a new sense of meaning and purpose in their life, often turning to religiosity and spirituality (Peres et al. 2007). More recent research on religious involvement and faith has been conducted on non-clinical youth minority samples (i.e., African–Americans), and non-clinical youth living in poverty (e.g., Cook 2000; Carothers et al. 2005, 2006). At-risk adolescent samples report that religious involvement and spirituality constitute positive factors that promote resilience and well-being (Carothers et al. 2005, 2006; Cook 2000). In non-clinical samples, religion is seen as a “protective factor” or “buffer” for negative life circumstances.

The Resilience of Adolescent Mothers and Their Children

Adolescent mothers, as a group, have been shown to lack sufficient income, display higher levels of stress, lack adequate knowledge about child development, and tend to use physical punishment as their primary method of discipline (Whitman et al. 2001). As a consequence, their children often display problems in socioemotional and behavioral development. Particularly for teenage mothers, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is especially problematic because they must inevitably cope with multiple developmental tasks, in the face of limited financial resources, lack of sufficient education, and limited emotional support from extended family members (Whitman et al. 2001).

Although adolescent mothers and their children are at increased risk for negative developmental outcomes, some successfully make the transition to adulthood, whereas others do not. These variations in developmental outcomes have fueled research into protective factors and/or social resources which may account for why some teen mothers and their children fare better than others. Research has focused on cognitive readiness to parent (Schellenbach et al. 2004), father involvement (Howard et al. 2006), and maternal grandmother support (Hess et al. 2002) to explain the resilience in at-risk adolescent mothers. It is proposed that both religiosity and spirituality can serve as protection for children born to adolescent mothers as they themselves move through adolescence. This specific population of focus is particularly salient to the study of religious beliefs and practices because it represents the unique voices and views of a specific oppressed group. Since the classic work of Weber (1958), oppressions and poverty have been relevant considerations in the context of a group’s religiousness.

Aims and Objectives

Carothers et al. (2005) assessed the impact of religious participation on the socioemotional and behavioral outcomes of adolescent mother–child dyads over a 10-year period. Mothers who reported more religious involvement had significantly better socioemotional and behavioral adjustment, a finding which remained after multiple factors, such as stress and grandmother support, were removed. Children with more religious mothers had significantly fewer internalizing and externalizing problems at age 10, with maternal adjustment mediating this relationship. In other words, religiosity served as a protective factor for at-risk teenage mothers and their children, especially in counteracting adverse life experiences through increased social support provided by religious institutions (Carothers et al. 2005). However, little is known about the impact of both religiosity and spirituality in children born to teen mothers as they themselves reach adolescence.

Utilizing data from the Notre Dame Adolescent Parenting Project (Whitman et al. 2001), this study extends the preliminary work of Carothers et al. (2005), examining the role of both religiosity and spirituality as protective factors and by examining the impact that children’s own spiritual practices have on their 14-year adjustment. For the current study, religiosity is defined by the participatory features of religious involvement, such as church attendance and contact with church members whereas spirituality is defined by actual religious practices and beliefs. Distinguishing between the concepts of religiosity and spirituality using a “participation” versus “belief” dimension is supported in the extant literature (e.g., Carothers et al. 2005; King and Boyatzis 2004; Peres et al. 2007).

In accord with the work of Mahoney et al. (2006), it is believed that adult literature on religious coping serves as a stepping stone to generate more in-depth research in youth Therefore, the theoretical framework guiding the current study is Pargament (1997) widely utilized model on adult religious copying. This research is also guided by Weber’s (1958) theories from the early 1920’s of oppression and religion that contends that religious beliefs and practices are utilized by oppressed individuals (i.e., those living in poverty and/or of minority status) as a means of achieving a psychological sense of security and adaptive adjustment (e.g., lower levels of depression, higher levels of self-esteem, and prosocial behavior) within an unstable environment.

The following questions were addressed. Does early religiosity (defined by maternal involvement in church as well as contact with church members and staffs from the prenatal period to 8-years postpartum) predict 14-year maternal and child socioemotional and behavioral adjustment? Does spirituality, when children are age 14, predict the adjustment of both mothers and children independent of early maternal religiosity? Does children’s spirituality at age 14 mediate the relationship between early maternal religiosity and their children’s later adjustment? Based on the findings of Carothers et al. (2005), and Cox et al. (2005), it was hypothesized that early maternal religiosity would continue to be a strong predictor of maternal and child socioemotional and behavioral adjustment at 14-years, whereas children’s own spirituality would serve as a stronger predictor of their developmental outcomes than early maternal religiosity as well as current levels of maternal spirituality.

Method

Participants

Data were drawn from an on-going longitudinal study of the effects of adolescent parenting on child development from pregnancy until children reached 14 years of age (Whitman et al. 2001). One hundred and ten primiparous adolescent mothers were recruited during the last trimester of pregnancy in South Bend, Indiana, and Aiken, South Carolina, through medical and educational centers as well as social agencies.

The average age of mothers at the time of birth was 17.12 (SD = 1.27), with a range of 14 to 19 years. On average, the adolescent mothers completed 10.56 (SD = 1.27) years of education at the time of birth, with a range from 7 to 13 years. In addition, socioeconomic status was determined during the initial interview through participants’ reports of the education and employment status of the adults with whom they resided. In general, participants were of low socioeconomic status and were living at or near poverty before giving birth, with a mean score of 63.24 (SD = 6.08) on the Hollingshead and Redlich (1958) index. The sample was primarily African–American (66.9%), with smaller percentages of Caucasian-American (26.5%) and Hispanic-American (6.6%) dyads. About one-half of the children were male (54.4%). Infants were generally healthy at birth, with typical Apgar scores (Whitman et al. 2001).

Design

Maternal religiosity was evaluated through a self-report scale that asked about religious contact, dependence, and involvement with church officials and members; this information was gathered prenatally and again when children were ages 3, 5, and 8 years (see Carothers et al. 2005). This information was utilized to create a Religiosity index which was then used to predict both maternal and child outcomes when children were 14 years. Levels of spirituality were assessed for both mothers and their children at 14 years using items from the Idler and Kasl (1992) measure of religiosity and spirituality. A Spirituality index was formed by combining responses to items related to Private Religiosity and used to predict outcomes at 14 years. At 14 years post-partum, mothers were assessed on socioemotional and behavioral outcomes such as self-esteem, depression, and child abuse potential. Measures of children’s socioemotional and behavioral adjustment were collected at 14 years which included measures of self-esteem, depression, and externalizing behaviors. Data were gathered through maternal and children’s self-reports. Trained graduate students or research assistants individually administered tests and interviews. Participants were offered transportation to and from assessment sites and were monetarily compensated for their participation at the conclusion of each assessment phase.

Measures of Religiosity and Spirituality

Religiosity

Religiosity was operationalized as the amount of contact and dependence on the church community reported by adolescent mothers at four time-points: prenatally and when their children were 3, 5, and 8 years. Questions were asked during a prenatal Life History Questionnaire about church attendance, closeness to the church community and physical and emotional support received from the church community. Frequency of church attendance was rated on a 4-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “once a week or more”. Items regarding closeness and support received from the church community were rated on a 5-point scale ranging from “not any” to “considerable”. When children were 3, 5, and 8-years old, mothers were interviewed using the Personal Support Network, developed by Dunst et al. (1988). Mothers were asked to rate the frequency of contact on both church members and church leaders on a 5-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “almost every day”. Responses on the dependence rating scales ranged from “not at all” to “all the time”. These scores were then summed over each time of measurement. Hence, each mother could obtain a Religiosity score ranging from 0 to 16 points (M = 4.76, SD = 4.72), with 0 representing no religiosity and 16 representing higher levels of religiosity. Internal consistency reliability coefficients within each set of questions was calculated as .74, .95, .92, and .98 for prenatal, 3-year, 5-year, and 8-year religiosity questions respectively (see Carothers et al. 2005). Religiosity was dichotomized into Higher versus Lower for the Carothers et al. manuscript; however, Religiosity was maintained as a continuous measure for the current investigation’s primary analyses.

Spirituality

Current religious practices were examined using Idler and Kasl’s (1992) measure of religiosity. At 14 years, mothers and their children were asked to report on their frequency of attendance at religious services (1 = never to 6 = more than once a week), self-assessments of depth of religiousness (1 = not at all religious to 4 = deeply religious), and how much strength and comfort they receive from their religion (1 = none to 3 = a great deal). Utilizing this measure, participants were also asked whether they engage in prayer, listen to devotional tapes or films, meditate, read devotional literature, read sacred writings, and/or engage in sacraments and rituals.

Two item indices can be created: (1) Public Religiosity and (2) Private Religiosity. Private religiosity, renamed Spirituality for the current study, sums self reports of religiousness and receiving strength and comfort from religion (Cronbach’s α = .71). Maternal scores on the index ranged from 3 to 9 (M = 6.91, SD = 1.60); whereas children’s scores ranged from 3 to 9 (M = 6.33, SD = 1.80). Percentage agreement between mothers and their children was 98.7%.

Measures of Maternal Adjustment

Depressive Symptoms

Maternal symptoms of depression were assessed through the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), a 21-item self-report measure used in research and clinical settings with adults. It assesses motivational, cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of depression. Participants chose which statement in each group of four best fit how they had felt in the past week. For example, participants picked one of the following statements: “I don’t feel disappointed in myself; I am disappointed in myself; I am disgusted in myself; I hate myself.” Split-half reliability was good at .86 (Beck 1967).

Self-Esteem

Maternal self-esteem was assessed using the Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI), a paper and pencil measure of self-evaluation in social, academic, family, and personal areas of life (Coopersmith 1981). A short form version containing 25 items was used, and statements were evaluated by the individual as “like me” or “unlike me” following each statement. Items include, “I often wish I were someone else,” and “I’m a lot of fun to be with.” Multiplying the score by four makes the scores comparable to the longer version of the SEI. High scores indicate high self-esteem. It has good internal consistency with a total test coefficient alpha of .86 (Coopersmith 1981).

Child Abuse Potential

Child abuse potential was assessed through a shortened form of the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (CAPI) consisting primarily of the rigidity and unhappiness subscales. Rigidity is the rigidity of the mother’s expectations for a child’s behavior, whereas Unhappiness refers to the mother’s feelings of being alone in the world, her feeling of worthlessness, and her feeling of not being understood by others. Example items include, “Children should be quiet and listen” and “You cannot depend on others.” The internal consistency, split half reliability, for total abuse scale is .96 for non-referred/no known history of abuse/neglect women, .97 at-risk females; for rigidity it is .82 and .84; and unhappiness is .60 and .85. For test-re-test reliability the abuse (total) scale for females is .92 after 1 day and .91 after 1 week; for rigidity 1 day is .97 and 1 week .87; and lastly unhappiness: 1 day, .84 and 1 week, .89 (Milner 1986).

Measures of Children’s Adjustment

Depressive Symptoms

The Child Depression Inventory (CDI) was used to assess the severity of depression in children. The 27-item paper–pencil inventory, modeled after the Beck Depression Inventory, measures an array of overt symptoms of child depression, such as sadness, suicidal ideation, and sleep and appetite disturbances (Kovaks 1992). The child is read three choices and asked to select the statement that best reflects his/her feeling or ideas in the past two weeks. Internal consistency has been found to be .86 with a clinical sample and .87 in a large sample of school children. This measure has been found to correlate highly with the Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale.

Self-Esteem

Children’s self-esteem was assessed using the Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI, School Form, ages 8–15). This measure examines attitudes toward oneself in general, and in specific contexts: peers, parents, school, and personal interests. A short form version containing 25 items was used, and statements were evaluated by the individual as “like me”, or “unlike me” following each statement. Items include, “I often wish I were someone else,” and “I’m a lot of fun to be with.” Multiplying the score by four makes the scores comparable to the longer version of the SEI. High scores indicate high self-esteem. It has good internal consistency with a total test coefficient alpha of .86 (Blascovich and Tomaka 1991).

Externalizing Behavior

The Youth Self Report Form (YSR; Achenbach 1991) was completed by the children at age 14 to describe their own behavior. The YSR consists of 113 items rated on a three point scale (0 = not true, 1 = somewhat or sometimes true, 2 = very true or often true). Children were instructed to report how true each item was for themselves in the past six months. YSR provides multiple subscales; however, the scale of interest in this study was the Externalizing scale which includes delinquent and aggressive behaviors. Thirty of the 113 items addressed these behaviors. Reliability and validity for the measure is well established, with a mean test–retest reliability of r = .76 for YSR Externalizing scale over a seven day interval for ages 11–14 (Achenbach 1991).

Variables Controlled for in Analyses

Socioeconomic Status

The Hollingshead Two Factor Index of Social Position is an index of social position computed from occupational and educational status. Occupation and level of formal schooling are separately classified into one of seven categories, where scores closer to 1 indicate higher occupational status or more years of formal schooling. The scores (ranging from 1 to 7 for each category) are weighted and summed to create an index of social position. Social position scores range from 11 to 77, where lower scores reflect higher social position. The total score for the index was used to indicate the socioeconomic status of the participants (see Hollingshead and Redlich 1958).

Maternal Intelligence

Intelligence was operationalized by performance on the vocabulary and block design subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAIS-R). In the vocabulary subtest, the mothers were asked to provide oral definitions of a short list of words in order of increasing difficulty. The block design subtest was a timed task in which the mothers were asked to duplicate patterns with red and white cubes. The two subtests were given as a relatively quick assessment of cognitive functioning. The vocabulary and block design subtest scores have been found to have .85 and .74 correlations with the full scale scores respectively (Brooker and Cyr 1986). This measure has been standardized to have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 points in a normal sample. The two subtests were combined as a WAIS-R short form yielding an estimated IQ score which correlates .94 with the full scale score (Sattler 1990).

Child Intelligence

At 14 years of age, an estimated IQ was calculated based on the children’s performance on four subscales of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children III (WISC-III): Picture Completion, Information, Block Design, and Vocabulary. The IQ scores estimated from the subscales have been shown to have a correlation of .94 with the full-scale IQ score (Sattler 1990).

Results

Data analyses were conducted as follows. First, descriptive statistics were used to summarize participants’ covariate scores (maternal IQ, children’s IQ, and socioeconomic status), early maternal religiosity, contemporary spirituality, and 14-year socioemotional and behavioral adjustment. Next, three sets of hierarchical multiple regressions were conducted to examine the unique contributions of maternal religiosity, maternal spirituality, and children’s spirituality on 14-year outcomes. Maternal spirituality was tested separately as a predictor of both maternal and child outcomes whereas children’s spirituality was tested solely as a predictor of their adjustment. Finally, children’s spirituality was tested as a potential mediator between maternal religiosity and children’s later adjustment. Because maternal intelligence (Whitman et al. 2001), socioeconomic status (Benasich and Brooks-Gunn 1996), and children’s intelligence (Whitman et al. 2001) have been identified as factors related to the development of both adolescent mothers and their children, all analyses were conducted with these three variables serving as covariates.

Descriptive Findings

The means, standard deviations, and ranges for covariates, early maternal religiosity, 14-year maternal spirituality, children’s spirituality, and socioemotional and behavioral outcomes are presented in Table 1. The following paragraphs highlight the most important results.
Table 1

Descriptive characteristics of predictors and maternal and child 14-year socioemotional and behavioral adjustment (N = 110)

 

Mean

Standard deviation

Minimum

Maximum

Predictor variables

 SES

55.15

12.13

15.00

73.00

 Maternal IQ

88.52

14.34

56.00

122.00

 Child IQ

84.17

15.39

38.00

120.00

 Early maternal religiosity

4.76

4.72

0

16.00

 Maternal 14-year spirituality

6.91

1.60

3.00

9.00

 Child 14-year spirituality

6.33

1.80

3.00

9.00

Maternal outcomes

 Depression

6.62

5.38

0

29.00

 Self-esteem

18.52

4.08

0

25.00

 CAPI

8.21

4.17

0

17.00

Child outcomes

 Depression

7.27

6.45

0

31.00

 Self-esteem

17.86

4.11

7.00

25.00

 Externalizing

52.25

10.02

33.00

83.00

SES hollingshead index, CAPI child abuse potential inventory

Early Maternal Religiosity and Concurrent Spirituality

Maternal religiosity was operationalized as the amount of contact with, and dependence on, church communities reported by adolescent mothers at four time-points: prenatally and when children were 3, 5, and 8 years of age. These scores were then summed over each time of measurement. Thus, each mother could obtain a religiosity score ranging from 0 to 16 points (M = 4.76, SD = 4.72), with 0 representing no religiosity and 16 representing the highest level of religiosity.

Additionally, separate spirituality indices were formed for mothers and their children by summing over responses to two Idler and Kasl’s (1992) religious belief and practice items: (1) depth of religiousness, and (2) how much strength and comfort is received from religion. Maternal scores on the index ranged from 3 to 9 (M = 6.91, SD = 1.60). This measure of spirituality also asks participants whether they engage in religious practices such as prayer, read devotional literature, listen to or watch religious-based tapes or films, meditate, read devotional literature, read sacred writings, and/or engage in sacraments and rituals. The most common religious practices reported by mothers were as follows: 80.9% engage in prayer, 27.3% read devotional literature, and 20.9% listen to or watch religious tapes or films (Table 2).
Table 2

Intercorrelations among religiosity, spirituality, covariates and 14-year maternal and child socioemotional and behavioral adjustment

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Predictor variables

 1. Maternal IQ

           

 2. Child IQ

.68**

          

 3. Hollingshead Index (SES)

−.30**

−.09

         

 4. Early maternal Religiosity

−.18*

−.04

−.04

        

 5. Maternal 14-year spirituality

.01

.02

−.25*

.26**

       

 6. Child 14-year spirituality

−.25*

−.15

.08

.07

.21*

      

Maternal outcomes

 7. Depression

−.14

.10

.19

.01

−.15

.03

     

 8. Self-esteem

.24*

.17

−.30**

.17

.14

−.15

−.53**

    

 9. Child abuse potential (CAPI)

−.46**

−.37**

.36**

−.09

−.04

.21*

.26**

−.53**

   

Child outcomes

 10. Depression

−.02

−.24*

−.28**

−.18

−.04

−.05

.11

−.04

−.08

  

 11. Self-esteem

.13

.29**

.13

.10

.10

.20*

.12

.05

−.07

−.68**

 

 12. Externalizing

−.01

−.11

−.10

−.19

−.07

−.23*

−.18

−.09

−.08

.39**

−.09

** p < .01, * p < .05, +p < .10

Children’s Spirituality

Children’s scores on the spirituality index ranged from 3 to 9 (M = 6.33, SD = 1.80). The most common religious practices reported by children were as follows: 70.9% engage in prayer, 12.7% read devotional literature, and 26.4% listen to or watch religious tapes or films. Furthermore, comparisons were made between maternal and children’s participation and/or endorsement of the specific religious beliefs and practices. Significant χ2’s were found when comparing maternal prayer classifications of Endorsed versus NotEndorsed with children’s prayer classifications, χ2 = 4.32, p < .05, and when comparing maternal and child devotional literature classifications, χ2 = 4.18, p < .05. More specifically, children were significantly more likely than mothers to report that they did not pray (29.1% versus 19.1%) and that they did not read devotional literature (87.3% versus 72.7%).

Religiosity, Maternal Spirituality, and 14-Year Maternal and Child Adjustment

Our next research objective was to determine whether early maternal spirituality and concurrent spirituality predicted 14 year maternal and child outcomes. Table 3 presents the results of hierarchically regressing early maternal religiosity and contemporary maternal spirituality on 14-year maternal and child socioemotional and behavioral outcomes. As shown in the first two columns of the table, after controlling for the effects of SES and maternal IQ, regression analyses found that early maternal religiosity explained a significant portion of unique variance in maternal self-esteem, 17% (β = .22, p < .05) and child abuse potential, 32% (β = −19, p < .05). As maternal religiosity increased, maternal self-esteem increased whereas maternal propensities to engage in abusive behavior decreased. Similarly, after controlling for the effects of SES and child IQ, maternal religiosity explained a significant portion of unique variance in children’s externalizing behavior, 7% (β = −21, p < .05); mothers with higher levels of religiosity were more likely to have children who showed fewer signs of externalizing problems. In contrast, maternal spirituality did not account for significant variance in outcomes for either mothers or their children after accounting for the effects of covariates and early maternal religiosity.
Table 3

Effects of hierarchically regressing early maternal religiosity and 14-year maternal spirituality on 14-year maternal outcomes

 

Depression

Self-esteem

Child abuse potential

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

Step 1

.05

 

.12

 

.29

 

 Covariatesa

  

.18

  

−.25*

  

.26**

Step 2

.05

.00

 

.17

.04*

 

.32

.04*

 

 Covariates

  

.19

  

−.21*

  

.22*

 Religiosityb

  

.05

  

.22*

  

−.19*

Step 3

.05

.00

 

.17

.00

 

.34

.02

 

 Covariates

  

.17

  

−.21+

  

.25*

 Religiosity

  

.07

  

.21+

  

−.23*

 Spiritualityc

  

−.07

  

.03

  

.14

aCovariates included 14-year maternal IQ and the hollingshead score

bEarly maternal religiosity

c14-year maternal spirituality

+p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01

Religiosity, Child Spirituality, and 14-Year Child Adjustment

A major goal of the present study was to examine whether children’s spirituality predicted their 14 year adjustment above and beyond early maternal religiosity. Table 4 displays the results of hierarchically regressing early maternal religiosity and children’s contemporary spirituality on the socioemotional and behavioral outcomes of children at age 14. After controlling for SES and child IQ, maternal religiosity explained a significant portion of unique variance in children’s depression, 19% (β = −.21, p < .05), and externalizing behavior 7% (β = −.21, p < .05): As maternal religiosity increased, children’s 14-year depressive symptomatology and externalizing behaviors decreased. Additionally, the model testing the impact of children’s spirituality and maternal religiosity after controlling for covariates explained a significant portion of unique variance in children’s self-esteem, 17% (β = .21, p < .05), and externalizing behavior, 10% (β = −.20, p < .05): Children with higher levels of spirituality had higher levels of self-esteem and fewer externalizing behaviors (Table 5).
Table 4

Effects of hierarchically regressing early maternal religiosity and 14-year maternal spirituality on 14-year child outcomes

 

Depression

Self-Esteem

Externalizing

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

Step 1

.07

 

.08

 

.02

 

 Covariatesa

  

−.21*

  

.14

  

−.10

Step 2

.10

.03

 

.09

.01

 

.07

.04*

 

 Covariates

  

−.24*

  

.15

  

−.13

 Religiosityb

  

−.17+

  

.12

  

−.21*

Step 3

.10

.00

 

.10

.00

 

.07

.00

 

 Covariates

  

−.25*

  

.18+

  

−.13

 Religiosity

  

−.16

  

.09

  

−.21+

 Spiritualityc

  

−.04

  

.10

  

−.03

aCovariates included 14-year child IQ and the hollingshead score

bEarly maternal religiosity

c14-year maternal spirituality

+p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01

Table 5

Effects of hierarchically regressing early maternal religiosity and 14-year child spirituality on 14-year child outcomes

 

Depression

Self-esteem

Externalizing

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

R2

R2

β

Step 1

.15

 

.11

 

.02

 

 Covariatesa

  

−.29**

  

.16+

  

−.10

Step 2

.19

.04*

 

.13

.02

 

.07

.04*

 

 Covariates

  

−.30**

  

.17+

  

−.11

 Religiosityb

  

−.21*

  

.12

  

−.21*

Step 3

.19

.00

 

.17

.04*

 

.10

.04*

 

 Covariates

  

−.29**

  

.15

  

−.10

 Religiosity

  

−.20*

  

.11

  

−.19+

 Spiritualityc

  

−.04

  

.21*

  

−.20*

aCovariates included 14-year child IQ and the hollingshead score

bEarly maternal religiosity

c14-year child spirituality

+p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01

Children’s Spirituality as a Mediator Between Maternal Religiosity and Adjustment

To further explain the relationship between maternal religiosity and children’s 14-year adjustment, children’s spirituality was tested as a potential mediator. As stated earlier, regression analyses revealed that maternal religiosity was significantly related to children’s externalizing behaviors, R2 = .07, p < .05. Additionally, when children’s 14-year externalization was regressed on both early maternal religiosity and the mediator, child spirituality was significantly related to externalization, R2 = .10, p < .05. Evidence of mediation was found when the original significant relationship between early maternal religiosity and externalizing behaviors was reduced to nonsignificance (β = −.19, p = n.s.) after children’s spirituality was entered into the model. In short, children’s spirituality mediated the relationship between early maternal religiosity and children’s 14-year externalizing behaviors, suggesting that maternal religiosity has an impact on children’s behavior through child spirituality.

Discussion

The current study sought to examine the impact of religiosity and spirituality on the adjustment of both adolescent mothers and their teenage children. This research was based on the premise of recent religious socialization theories that connect parental religiousness to children’s religious beliefs and practices through the attachment relationship. Previous research has in fact shown a strong attachment relationship between adolescent mothers and their offspring (see Carothers et al. 2006). Thus, the statement can be made that maternal religiosity and spirituality has a high probability of influencing children’s levels of religiousness and adjustment among this specific population. Results from the present study’s analyses suggested that maternal religiosity was a strong predictor of maternal and child adjustment; however, children’s own spirituality served as a predictor of their socioemotional adjustment. Furthermore, children’s spirituality mediated the relationship between maternal religiosity and children’s externalizing behavior.

Religiosity, Spirituality, and Adjustment of Adolescent Mothers

Many studies have investigated the relationship between religious involvement and mental health (Peres et al. 2007). Most cases have found, as the current study has, that higher levels of religious involvement are associated with greater well being and mental health (Moreira-Almeida et al. 2006). Furthermore, religious resources and practices have been found to serve as sources of strength and as buffers of race and ethnic-related stresses among disadvantaged populations. In particular, scholars studying minority communities have conceptualized religion as an adaptive coping mechanism maintained and reinforced by cultural traditions and worldviews (Cook 2000; Harrison-Hale et al. 2004). This point is particularly salient given that approximately 67% of participants in the current study were African American and 7% were Hispanic-American; religious beliefs and practices may help to account for the comparable levels of adjustment documented for this at-risk sample with that of the larger population (see Table 1). It has been proposed that religious beliefs and practices enable people of color to transcend the limitations of their social realities, to adjust to their environments, and to give meaning and direction to their individual and collective existence (Harrison-Hale et al. 2004).

Additionally, the social support aspects of religiosity and spirituality are often highlighted in explaining their positive impact, specifically among populations who have and/or are currently experiencing heightened levels of stress such as minorities and those living in poverty. The current investigation found that, for adolescent mothers, the participatory aspects of religiosity was positively associated with maternal self-esteem and negatively associated with abuse propensities; however, spirituality did not predict adjustment above and beyond the effects of early religiosity for adolescent mothers. Therefore, early religious participation may play an important role in explaining the resilience documented among this particular population in these particular domains (e.g., Carothers et al. 2005; Howard et al. 2007). In reference to religiosity, extended support networks comprised of church members and leaders are made more available through religious participation, which has been shown to strengthen individual and group-level functioning in non-clinical samples (Maton et al. 2004). In the case of adolescent mothers, church attendance may initiate protective processes by providing tangible and immediate benefits, such as job opportunities, daycare services, or other supports for mothers, thereby allowing them to maintain steady employment or continue their education (Carothers et al. 2005) and setting them on a course for more positive developmental trajectories.

The Social Influence of Parents on Their Teenage Children’s Spirituality and Adjustment

Despite the high prevalence of religious practices and beliefs among American youth, little research has evaluated the impact of religiousness on youths’ coping with life stressors (Mahoney et al. 2006), particularly among children born to adolescent mothers. The lives of adolescents are significantly impacted by religious and social identities, practices, cultures, and relational ties, often in ways that they may not recognize or be able to describe (Smith and Denton 2005). Boyatzis et al. (2006) mention that the family may serve as the most important influence on children’s spiritual and religious development. In this same vein, the current investigation found that children’s engagement in religious practices closely mirrored the frequencies in which mothers reported engagement in specific religious practices. Mercer (2006) suggests that the spirituality of children becomes primarily a reflection of the beliefs of adults, though she notes children actively participate in constructing their spiritual lives. Furthermore, children’s adjustment may be fostered not only by their religious involvement but also by that of their mothers (Howard et al. 2007). The current study found that maternal religiosity explained a significant portion of unique variance in children’s externalizing behavior, such that mothers with higher levels of religiosity were more likely to have children displaying fewer externalizing behaviors. Smith and Denton (2005) note that there are significant differences between teenagers demonstrating more or less religiosity which are consistent across several outcomes examined: risk behaviors, quality of family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, media consumption, sexual activity, and emotional well-being. For the children of adolescent mothers, religious involvement and spiritual beliefs can assist them in developing socioemotional regulation, helping them refrain from negative behaviors and increase their engagement in positive social activities (Carothers et al. 2005).

Despite the positive relationships between religiosity and adjustment previously discussed, religious coping is not always found to be related to better outcomes (Peres et al. 2007). One explanation is given by Kirn (1991) who suggested that the absence of significant relationships may be related to the measures of religiosity used and that they may exclude personal religious beliefs (i.e., spirituality). By addressing this shortcoming, a major strength of this study was the measurement of children’s own religious beliefs and practices and the examination of how they influence children’s adjustment. Data suggested that children’s spirituality was a significant predictor of their self-esteem and externalizing behavior, such that children with higher levels of spirituality displayed more adaptive levels in these socioemotional domains.

Aten and Schenck (2007) note that, although there is much evidence to support the positive impact of religion, there are still many questions regarding how and why it works. Accordingly, the addition of children’s spiritually to the study of adolescent mothers and their children’s adjustment allowed for further clarification on the previously documented relationships (i.e., Carothers et al. 2005) between maternal religiosity and children’s outcomes. In short, children’s spirituality was found to mediate the relationship between early maternal religiosity and children’s 14-year externalizing behaviors, suggesting that maternal religiosity has an impact on children’s behavior through their children’s own faith-based beliefs and practices. The mediating role of children’s own spirituality upholds and sheds light on current theories of religious socialization that argue against transmission models that view children as passive in their religious development. Instead, researchers are beginning to acknowledge the transactional nature of both parents and children in simultaneously influencing each other’s religious beliefs, practices, and adjustment (Boyatzis and Janicki 2003; Mercer 2006).

Strengths and Limitations

The current study serves as an important and timely addition to the extant literature, particularly given the rates of adolescent pregnancy and the potentially negative psychological and physical health outcomes of the children born to teenage mothers (see Borkowski et al. 2007). Religious involvement and spiritual beliefs can assist adolescent mothers and their children in developing socioemotional regulation, helping them refrain from negative behaviors and increase their engagement in positive social activities (Carothers et al. 2005). Aten and Schenck (2007) suggested that one of the shortcomings of research in the area of religious beliefs and practices was researchers’ lack of and/or inability to control for various factors and isolate how religion and spirituality influence mental and physical health. In accord with Carothers et al. (2005), the current study was able to control for a broad array of factors, such as intelligence and socioeconomic status, thought to confound the influence of religiosity and spirituality on developmental outcomes, thus adding confidence to conclusions. Internal validity regarding the protective role of religiosity and spirituality was enhanced in the context of other predictor variables and the addition of covariates that helped clarify the impact of religiosity and spirituality on both maternal and child socioemotional and behavioral adjustment. Lastly, unlike this author’s previous efforts (i.e., Carothers et al. 2005), both the participatory and internal aspects of religion and their combined impact on adjustment was examined.

The present interpretations need to be made in light of three known limitations that should be addressed in future research. First, only two specific items were used to assess maternal and children’s levels of spirituality; a more broad-based assessment would probably produce more stable estimates of spirituality. Second, from the analyses and research findings, particularly for adolescent mothers, it may appear as though spirituality is not related to adjustment. However, this type of conclusion is cautioned against since the opposite finding (religiosity is not related to adjustment) may have been documented if spirituality was hierarchically placed before religiosity in the predictive models. It is suggested that with the significant correlation documented between early religiosity and later spirituality for the current sample, similar findings may have been found if spirituality was given more precedence than religiosity; however, these analyses were not theoretically supported for the current investigation due to the design of this study. Lastly, race, culture, and ethnicity were not controlled for in analyses, leaving open the possibility that findings regarding the relationships between religiosity, spirituality, and adjustment could be confounded by these particular factors. With the limited sample size and majority of the sample classified as African–American (approximately 67%), race and ethnicity factors were not controlled for as a means of maintaining power to detect differences. However, with countless research documenting the cultural implications that religious practices and beliefs have on adjustment, particularly for African–Americans and Hispanics (see Cook 2000; Mattis et al. 2006), it is recommended that future research account for these important dispositional factors in addition to other possibly important factors, such as father involvement and levels of religiousness (Boyatzis et al. 2006), religious faith, and denomination.

Conclusion

The findings of the current examination have implications for intervention and prevention efforts aimed at adolescent mothers and their teenage children. Maternal religiosity was found to be a strong predictor of maternal and child adjustment. In addition, children’s own spirituality served as a predictor of their socioemotional adjustment. Moreover, children’s spirituality mediated the relationship between maternal religiosity and children’s externalizing behavior. Research has consistently documented the profound effects that early childbearing has on the development of both the adolescent mother and her offspring, such as delayed education and a lack of financial security (e.g., Whitman et al. 2001). Each of these factors has been shown to have direct and indirect effects resulting in maladaptive adjustments for adolescent mothers and their children throughout the life course. Social support resulting from the participatory features of religiosity, as well as the belief in a higher power, may reduce the stressors caused by adolescent parenthood, thereby allowing adolescent mothers to reach higher education levels and financial security.

Furthermore, positive social affiliations, such as those resulting from church involvement, serve as sources of support for diverse developmental issues and encourage resistance to negative peer influences (Bridges and Moore 2002). Peres et al. (2007) mention that, despite the positive functions that religiosity and spiritual beliefs serve for those exposed to heightened levels of stress, therapists presently have no agenda for promoting any particular belief system. Moreover, what is lacking in the extant research on the impact of religious beliefs and practices is a specific focus on the impact of religious interventions on medical, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes. Aten and Schenck (2007) contend that, with a few rare exceptions, there has been very little attention given to what happens when a healthcare professional takes a spiritual history or prays with a patient. Understandably, it is not possible to force individuals to go to church or to encourage beliefs in a transcendent being; however, the social affiliations and expanded networks that characteristically result from religious involvements can be promoted through other forms of social affiliation such as the YMCA, school-related programs, and community recreation programs.

Acknowledgments

This research was supported by NIH grant # HD-26456. The author would like to acknowledge John G. Borkowksi, Thomas L. Whitman, Deborah Keogh and all other contributors to the Notre Dame Adolescent Parenting Project.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010