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Adolescence, Identity and Spirituality

As adolescents begin to develop critical thinking, they are encountering their own spiritual questions. "Why do people suffer and die?" "Why do disasters occur?"
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A number of years ago I overheard my then teenage son discussing with his friends the origin of AIDS. They were not discussing how AIDS developed -- arguing whether it was some errant African virus or something else such as then current conspiracy theories like germ warfare gone awry or a covered up artifact of vaccination. Rather they were arguing why -- a much deeper spiritual question. Was this disease a simple development of nature, a cosmic punishment, a divine opportunity for compassion or even a Malthusian form of population control?

The conversation surprised me. I was confounded by the intensity of the debate -- an intensity previously reserved for questions such as who would likely win the Super Bowl or the World Series. I should not have been. We often fail to acknowledge the intense spirituality that underlies adolescence.

Throughout adolescence, the adolescent struggles with three core issues: independence, intimacy and identity. It is the latter process that underlies spirituality. As part of identity, the adolescent, now capable of critical thought, asks, "What do I believe?" Adolescents are well aware of what they have been taught by parents, family and spiritual leaders. The question now becomes what beliefs will become part of their personal identity -- that is, what beliefs they will personally own. In short, the adolescent says: I know what my parents taught me, what my priest, pastor, minister, rabbi or imam taught me. What is it that I believe?

Moreover, as adolescents begin to develop critical thinking, they are encountering their own spiritual questions. "Why do people suffer and die?" "Why do disasters occur?" While these questions may have been encountered earlier in their lives, there now is greater depth to that reflection.

In addition, as the adolescent struggles with their individuality, there can be a growing awareness that death -- nonexistence -- represents a great threat to their emerging identity. In some cases, this may lead to extensive denial of death or challenges to death evident by the dangerous behaviors common in this stage of life.

The threat of death can be accentuated by the stress and isolation the adolescent experiences. With an emerging sense of individuality, a growing sense of aloneness may emerge. "There is no one like me" easily becomes, "There is no one who fully understands me." These questions of meaning, identity and aloneness are core existential, and therefore spiritual, concerns.

It is critical for the adults around the adolescent to understand and respect that struggle wherever direction that may lead. Some may reject the beliefs they were carefully taught -- defining their own explanations, their individual spirituality -- however expressed. Some, after a period of exploration, may return to the family's faith. Others may not.

For some adolescents, the transition to college can deeply accelerate this process. Here, they may be exposed to new people and ideas. Professors may challenge their once pat answers. For some students, the loss of their prior beliefs can be profound, creating a sense of crises and loss that can even generate grief over their now-lost faith (Barra et al., 1993).

This adolescent struggle for identity may lead in other directions as well. Eric, the son of non-observant Jewish parents felt adrift at his Midwestern University. Joining Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, he is now observant. Two colleagues who describe themselves as "non-practicing agnostics" were bemused to attend their 16-year-old daughter's baptism -- a rite that she independently selected and planned.

While adolescents may question or review their spirituality, it remains a critical aspect of adolescent stability. While research on spirituality and adolescence is limited, studies of religiosity have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

In short, as adolescents develop, they will need to confront their own spirituality and incorporate it into their sense of identity. Continuing the dialog while respecting that process and acknowledging the quest may be difficult. Yet it really remains the only option.

Kenneth J. Doka is a Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, a nonprofit foundation that educates the public and professionals about end-of-life care. A prolific author and editor, Dr. Doka is a frequent guest on radio and TV programs. His blog is an adaptation of a chapter in Hospice Foundation of America's most recent book, 'Spirituality and End of Life Care', which Dr. Doka co-edited. The book is available to order at

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