Can Your Child Be Too Religious?

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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.

(MORE: How Faith and Health Go Hand in Hand)

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.”

(MORE: Religion’s Secret to Happiness: It’s Friends, Not Faith)

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.

(MORE: The Biology of Belief)

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:

Model a healthy balance between religion and life

Show them in your own behavior, suggests Mihalas, how religion can co-exist with enjoying life.

If your child switches to a different style of religion, be tolerant

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.

 Be alert to a sudden and pervasive shift in religious practice

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.

If you feel your child needs help, find a therapist comfortable with religion

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.

146 comments
braininstead
braininstead

Especially that special religious cult we hear a lot about in the media... complete brainwash

preplax32
preplax32

who is leiberman?! she quotes him and never cites his credentials/ cant find the guy on google 

ster3yofon6k
ster3yofon6k

To everyone who is trashing this article, I will counter that it is indeed a legitimate topic/discussion. I say that based on my own firsthand experience with these issues. I have at times struggled with OCD-related things, and growing up in an intensely religious environment, I can attest to the fact that that combination can contribute to unhealthy behavior patterns.

But that is NOT, I repeat NOT an knock against God or against religion. It is simply an objective case study into the very real problems that sometimes arise, and an urging to look out for kids' well-being based on *possible* warning signs. Don't rush to get defensive about this; it is not suggesting simply that religion causes problems, but that the way kids practice religion can on an individual level sometimes indicate general problems (which could have any origin point).

Good, bad or indifferent, it is reality that religious practice sometimes involves isolation or building social walls, and that fear is sometimes a big part of the equation. Those things may not always be bad, but they can be.

Dagney
Dagney

It should be clear to any religious person that Francine Russo, herself, suffers from a mental illness. The clinical term is "theophobia", an unreasoning fear of religion. Help is available, Ms. Russo.

renewal
renewal

As a born again Christian therapist, I agree wholeheartedly with his article.  I've seen many kids with mental health issues because of a spirit of religion and legalism in their homes and congregations.  The environment in which they live is totally contrary to the love of Christ; filled with judgement and condemnation.  Their joy is stolen by a false Christianity, a false gospel and a false Christ.  i pry for their deliverance from the evil one who is the author of legalism.

jpcthe30th
jpcthe30th

What a false article. Again, this is a sad attack on Christianity while atheism gets away scot-free. Give me a break, Atheism promote a anti-social health and made-up story like this one. Mental has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with birth defects and how the child is raised. I've seen secular religious parents with a mentally disable child but even that has nothing do with it. It is the environment or community or even the school but the only way to tell is to study the child within the mind. This article is a fraud

Ognywogny
Ognywogny

What a great and glorious awakening we are having in our country. The poor and righteous homosexual was once considered insane by the evil of the mental health establishment and the wicked evil of religion was held in high regard and feted all around. Now in the age of our true enlightenment, the wholesomeness and valor of the homosexual is recognized and the malevolent forces of religion are rightly seen to be insane and wicked and must be eradicated. Thank you for our survival and enlightenment, Uncle Screwtape!

GlennRaya
GlennRaya

If this is true, then Jesus, the apostles, Abraham, moses and others, could be mentally ill. This is a wicked news, and a wicked doctor.

maberlin01
maberlin01

I have to disagree with you on who has the most to lose.  It is impossible to prove that something does not exist, but I know there are no Gods and no immortal soul, and so I have nothing to lose.  On the other hand, things that do exist can be proven, and yet there is no proof that God, heaven or immortal souls do exist, so you are going through life shrouded in mythology.   

Unfortunately, there is no rational argument that can change an irrational belief, so I will have to leave it at that.  Live well and prosper. 

Ognywogny
Ognywogny

Yes, devotion to God must be stomped out so those evil religious people don't infect children with their evil ideas and superstitions. Does that sound about right, Domitian?

Writerscramp
Writerscramp

Hey Time ... Do you have any more job openings for writers ??? It would be my dream as a writer to get paid for writing articles that tick off the Bible Thumpers right from the very first paragraph ! Ruffling the feathers of Bible Thumpers is my favorite hobby too.

SarahMcQuade
SarahMcQuade

The thing this article completely ignores is that "religion" as its titled, or at least Christianity, is meant to bring us to God and away from the world. 

What this article calls "isolation", I call discovering that God is really all I need. When this article mentions rituals and meaningless repetitions, I think of people who have degraded worship and adoration to a thing that must be done under threat of punishment, instead of a choice that must be done in love, or it is without meaning. And people who always feel guilty need to be reminded continually that Jesus died once for ALL sins, and that ALL sins are forgiven, we just need to confess them to God.

It is true, horribly true, that many people use religion as a crutch, but it is meant to be a splint used to mend our broken bones, so we can walk in the Light.

One more thing: Three things endure forever: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.

BillWright
BillWright

Nothing about religion is good.  Believe in imaginary friends is not positive, no matter how much comfort it might give the believer.  It's just a delusion bordering on mental illness, to ignore reality, and choose imaginary friends instead. 

roze198966
roze198966

@LinaTaghreed لو نلحظ احاديث البني عليه السلام مع اطفال الصحابه كلها عن اداب الدين وتعامله والتهذيب مثل حديث البسمله والخ..

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@LinaTaghreed ممكن سؤال ما هوا التدين عندك انت يا لينه ومن اين تاخذين مصادره.,.,.وكيف النجاه والفوز والفلاح وباي طريق يكون في الدينا والاخره

inhomenotary
inhomenotary

My Dad is an Orthodox priest and I converted to Judaism.  I'm sure that it broke his heart that I converted.  Many people believed that I did it to upset him on purpose, but I told people if I wanted to do that, I'd get a tattoo or something.  I don't think that a child changing their religious beliefs should warrant a trip to the therapist.  Changing religions was the best decision I ever made.  For the first time in my life, I finally felt okay in my skin.  I think that the person who wrote this article may do more damage than good for the kids she's writing about.  I had to fight with my Dad for 31 years until he finally mellowed out and accepted it.

just_me00010
just_me00010

@brianj92505  I'd take my "terminal ignorance" over your spineless stupidity any day of the week.  I guarantee you that I will teach my daughter the difference between right and wrong.  I will teach her to love the Constitution and every thing about it.  I will teach her to value liberty and freedom over a lie you call "security".  I will teach her to love reading, to love real education and to value education and to reject the indoctrination that goes on in society today.  I will teach her to love the Lord her God with her heart, mind and being.  I will teach her to stand up for what she believes.  I will teach her that there is a set of moral and ethical standards by which to live, and to not fear the leftist, Communist belief that there is no such thing as absolutes anymore.  I will teach her how to read, and write and count her basic numbers even before school, and I will pick the school she attends.  I guarantee you I will help her with her homework to understand that which she does not understand, and I will teach her, that contrary to what her textbook might say--man did NOT descend from primate.  I will teach her that the story of creation is in fact how things came into being, and that there is a God in heaven.  I will teach her to THINK for herself.  Thus I will make her into what you and the rest of the left despise--a Constitution loving, Bible believing,TRUE GOD FEARING person.  I will teach her to defend herself.  Thus I will raise my daughter CORRECTLY.



Lalala
Lalala

Time finds ONE person who has OCD, and then tries to make out as if they are symbolic of all? There are thousands, if not millions or even BILLIONS,  happy and well-adjusted people around the world who happen to also possess a deep and abiding religious faith. To make a statement that being religious equates to mental illness is not only ridiculous, but insulting.  

brianj92505
brianj92505

I communicate with dead people, only they don't know their dead. I'm convinced that there is a ghost that enters my body and fills me. Delusional? Who says

cheppimoo
cheppimoo

@Rabbishish So sad that in some children this connection is not nurtured and religiousness is seen as a psychological disorder!

cheppimoo
cheppimoo

@Rabbishish Children are far more "connected" to HBH, they are born with innocent neshomas that are intrinsically in tune with spirituality.

BillTucson
BillTucson

Everything in the Bible is true, and a little bit of it even happened.   The Bible teaches good moral lessons, but don't believe that it is literal.

just_me00010
just_me00010

I guarantee the author of this magazine, that as a parent I will raise my daughter in my religious practices.  I will teach her to love the Lord her God, with all of her heart, mind and being.  I will raise her to  know the difference between right and wrong, to have a strong  moral compass, and to know that there are, contrary to the belief of this messed up, backward society a set of standards by which to live.  I will teach her that man did NOT descend from primate, that homosexuality is wrong and that regardless of what society says, the Bible makes it quite clear that homosexuality is wrong, was wrong a thousand years ago and will be wrong tomorrow, regardless of whether society says it is ok or not.  I will teach her to love the Constitution and everything about it.  I will teach her the proper use of firearms, and to have a deep and abiding respect for them, and to always treat a firearm as if it is loaded..  I will teach her to defend herself, and to stand up for what she believes in; because those who are unwilling to take a stand for something will fall for anything.  This society is so messed up--how low America has sunk into the muck and the mire....What a tragedy.

MickeyCashen
MickeyCashen

Religion brings with it admirable social requirements.  But in my youth, growing up in a poor area of my county, I knew too many kids and too many parents who had the attitude of "God in his wisdom has put us here and will provide for us," rather than "don't hide your talents under a bushel: get off your butt and pull yourself up."  They were often indoctrinated in hard physical labor alone being Godly.  When I went to college, many -including some relatives of mine- asked my parents, "Why is he too lazy to go to work?"  After I, then my sister, became the first two in the extended family to graduate from college and prospered, the answer became obvious: most of the next generation has graduated from college.  But the "too religious" b.s. cost most of their parents the chance at the same thing.

alshabbah1985
alshabbah1985

Yah I got the point, they should be irreligious, disobey parents,become promiscuous junki using drugs and profane language then they are sane. If they are religious obedient they are insane, What a lovely article. 

RadioUranus
RadioUranus

Sadly, Christianity is one of the leading causes of self-righteous, hypocritical egomania,  If you want your child to grow up to display the humility that Jesus was said to espouse --- it's best to keep him away from churches.

MichaelMcCleary
MichaelMcCleary

Listing a shrink from Beverly Hills should kind of tell you that this writer is a bit of a fool, if not an outright bigot.


josefbleaux
josefbleaux

ANY amount of religion is too much.  Far too many people live in a delusional fantasy world as it is.  Better to embrace science, logic and reason instead of ancient mythology and superstitious nonsense.

MagdaleneProdigal
MagdaleneProdigal

@BillWright And to this I would say there  is very little about our secular immoral society that is good--there are many delusions with sex and other things that lead to mental  illness, depression, many kinds of illnesses.  Avoid secularism!

LinaTaghreed
LinaTaghreed

@ibnalkouba44447 أخي، أولا نقلي للمقال لا يعني موافقتي على كل ما فيه. ثانيا: هو يثني على التدين لكن يحذر من مؤشرات غير صحية عند الأطفال

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@just_me00010 

Strange how the founding fathers who wrote said Constitution were about as close to being Atheists without using the word Atheist... Just go on and google some of the things they had to say about religion as how pointless it was.

As for your morality... You do not need religion to me a good person... If you are only not raping people because you fear Hell you are still a bad person.

Morality is both inherent to normal individuals and comes from parental teaching... there is not one damned bit of morality that needs the input of religion.

Lalala
Lalala

@BillTucson and I'll go a step further. God is more powerful than a book. One can't limit the power of God to only the Bible. 

brianj92505
brianj92505

@just_me00010 It would be in the best interest of your child if she were removed from your home and never again allowed unsupervised contact. Unfortunately the abuse that you inflict upon your daughter is so common that it goes unrecognized. I hope she will be strong enough to rise above it. However I doubt that you have much chance of recovering from  your terminal ignorance.

kendude42
kendude42

@RadioUranus, no it's not Christianity that is the problem, it's people who turn it into a religion. Jesus Christ never told us to be religious, He said over and over again, FOLLOW ME. Read your Bible. So according to Jesus, we are to follow Him. That means He is our Leader, our Master, our Teacher, our Lord. He also made it clear that He desires a RELATIONSHIP with us. And that is what true Christianity is, a relationship with Jesus Christ, not a religion...

Lalala
Lalala

@RadioUranus Oh really? I'd say it's the worship of celebrity and media culture that has made people prideful and self-righteous...and yes, hypocrites. Anyone can set up a website or a cable TV show and proclaim themselves a "guru"...look at Oprah LOL

Lalala
Lalala

@josefbleaux Where do you think science and logic came from? Not from modern atheism. I suggest you study more of the arts and humanities and you'll see that some of that ancient "mythology" is indeed based on real and everyday life. Some of the 'superstitions' had a valid basis.  It's arrogant of people living in 2013 to think they are somehow intellectually superior to all who came before them simply because they want to ignore the wisdom of our elders. That's part of the problem with the world today. The lack of respect for our cultural traditions.

natewhilk
natewhilk

@josefbleaux funny how folks like you say this ONLY when Christianity is the subject. I wonder why. Well, really, I don't wonder. You are cowards and bullies. You know perfectly well if you said anything about Islam your lives would be in danger. It's much easier to beat up on Christians who aren't supposed to fight back.

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@LinaTaghreed بارك الله فيكم مازلت انتظر الجواب منكم ان لم يكن في سؤالي احراج ...................

josefbleaux
josefbleaux

@natewhilk @josefbleaux - I would say the same about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Judaism, any ism you care to name.  All religions are just ancient mythology and primitive superstition.  Period.

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@alenaze2000 @LinaTaghreed نعم صدقت اخي مع ان هذاالحديث من شذ فيه ضعف ولكن المعنى صحيح لاتجمع امتي على ضلاله.,.جزيت الجنه وبارك الله فيكم

alenaze2000
alenaze2000

@ibnalkouba44447 @LinaTaghreed اعتقد بانه لا يوجد لدينا تدين زائد قد نطلق عبارة تشدد زائد عن حده وكما قال المصطفى ( من شذّ شذّ بالنار)

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@LinaTaghreed وفيكم بارك الرحمن شرفت بالكلام معكم ولكن هذا ليس رأي انه تدين منهج هي اختصار كل ماء جاء به الرسل من قبل انه يسر الاسلام

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@LinaTaghreed وَأَنَّ هَـذَا صِرَاطِي مُسْتَقِيماً فَاتَّبِعُوهُ وَلاَ تَتَّبِعُواْ السُّبُلَ فَتَفَرَّقَ بِكُمْ عَن سَبِيلِهِ ذَلِكُمْ

ibnalkouba44447
ibnalkouba44447

@LinaTaghreed لا يا اختي هواطريق واحد فقط كل الطرق مغلقه الا طريق واحد هو الطريق المستقيم وقالو اقرب طريق بين نقطتين هوا الطريق المستقيم

LinaTaghreed
LinaTaghreed

@ibnalkouba44447 التدين له طرائق متعددة، وكلها مفيدة بنظري، وإن لم تكن مفيدة فسيثبت فشلها ولو بعد حين، وسيضطر أصحابها لإصلاحها