Religion and Parental Involvement Protect Urban Youth from Effects of Violence

Parental involvement and religious practices, such as prayer or reading the Bible, can at times protect urban youth from the effects of witnessing or experiencing violence, according to a study at Yale.

Exposure to violence and low social economic status are key factors associated with behavior problems in youth, said Michelle Pearce, a graduate student in psychology and first author of the study published in Child Development last month. “We found religion and family are important in understanding why some children do not experience the negative consequences of living in high risk urban environments,” Pearce said.

The study was part of the long-term Social and Health Assessment project under the direction of Mary Schwab-Stone, M.D., associate professor of child psychiatry at Yale Child Study Center in collaboration with New Haven public schools.

The researchers asked 1,703 sixth and eighth graders whether their parents encouraged their interests, gave good advice, spent free time with them, and were involved in school activities. The children then discussed their religious beliefs, attendance at places of worship, and how they rated themselves as religious persons. They also were asked about violence they experienced or witnessed. More than half saw others threatened and beaten; one third witnessed a shooting; one quarter of the youth saw a stabbing; 19 percent were threatened, and seven percent reported serious injury from an act of violence.

Pearce said children who witnessed or experienced more violence also reported more behaviors such as shoplifting, vandalism, theft, lying and skipping school. Those children whose parents were involved in their lives or who prayed, read religious literature, or watched religious programs, reported fewer conduct problems over the following year.

However, children who reported high levels of spiritual beliefs but who witnessed high levels of violence had more conduct problems over the next year than those with lower levels of spiritual beliefs. The authors speculate that the discrepancy between the students’ violent surroundings and their religious beliefs might have led to disillusionment and then worse conduct problems.

Citation: Child Development, Vol. 75; pp 1682-1696 (November 2003)

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