The Science of Spirituality in Children and Youth

Lisa Miller, professor and director of clinical psychology at Columbia University, spoke at BYU on spirituality and psychology.

Lisa Miller, PhD, professor and director of clinical psychology at Columbia University, gave a presentation at BYU entitled “The Science of Spirituality in Children and Youth” on March 31, 2016. She spoke on how spirituality in children was not a topic of discussion when she was in school. The first publication about spirituality in adults was published in 1997, but that same research and publication did not highlight children until much later.

Miller went on to say, “Back in 1997, when I was a post-doc, there was not one single peer-reviewed, scientific article on spirituality in children in mental health literature. Absolute silence. So, this was a field in which your [BYU] faculty has been central to cocreating and I have been honored to be part of this formation together

with the faculty of this field.”

Miller discussed the field of spirituality in children and focused on spirituality as foundational to health and propriety. Larger cultural norms and terms play an important role in this.

“This may not be the case here at BYU, but at the national level, . . . the rates of depression and anxiety and substance abuse are higher amongst resourced communities than in the inner city. In particular, children from affluent communities had higher depression and anxiety and substance abuse than the children in Harlem

and Washington Heights [in New York].”

Miller’s colleagues found two major connectors. One had to do with a pattern of parent culture, a culture of loving parents having good intentions for their children. These loving parents lived day in and day out in this “parent culture” and its focus on outcome.

“When they picked up their kids they asked, ‘How was your math test?’ or ‘Did you win today?’ These children got the message that ‘I am as worthy and as good as my last outcome, my last success,” said Miller. “This notion of implicit social realization was pervasive in many as a national trend.”

The second thing found was in the culture of high school. When nothing is said, there is an explicit explanation of a cultural phenomenon. In a large resourced high school the researchers pulled students aside and asked, “Who here are the popular kids? Who here is admired?” Everyone knew who these kids were. By doing this several times, they were able to determine live correlates in popularity in resourced high schools.

“What was the number one correlate of popularity in boys in resourced high schools?” asked Miller. “Substance abuse. That is a national trend.”

Miller went on to explain how there is an increase of importance given to spirituality in the community and having a spiritual life in parenting. The more educated you are, the more spiritually aware you become.

It was shown that by the time a child is six years old, he is more likely to share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a child who uses the same name to refer to a higher power than with a child who does not. Universal, natural spirituality plays a role in a child’s life through his family, community, and school.

Based on China, India, and the United States, Miller and her colleagues found three phenotypes for this natural endowment of spirituality.

“One, there is a sense of connectedness,” Miller discussed. “People from across the world felt and understood that natural interconnectedness in their lives. Two, the powerful, wonderful force of love is present. And third, altruism is a sacred act. Connection, prayer, and meditation are practices that examine your life and are traditions in our lives.”

She closed her presentation by saying, “We adults, healers, and teachers are passing the torch to the next generation of spiritual life.”

Lisa Miller is not only a professor and the director of clinical psychology at Columbia University but is also the director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. She is an editor of the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality and editor in chief of Spirituality in Clinical Practice. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), which has awarded her the Virginia Sexton Mentoring Award.

Writer: Joann Distler

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922