Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Good Times and Bad: Religion's Role in Family Life and Family Crisis

Despite media images to the contrary, the vast majority of Americans (90%) report believing in God or a higher power and large proportions (60%) say that religion is “important” or “very important” to them. Given these statistics, I was surprised to find that only recently have psychologists begun to produce theories and research exploring the role of religion in family life. As this research has expanded, psychologists have found many links between religion and various aspects of family life, including:

- Generally, individuals reporting higher levels of religiousness tend to report greater marital satisfaction
- Interestingly, greater religiousness has also been associated with more positive conflict-resolution tactics in marriage, such as collaborative discussion
- Several studies have shown that higher attendance to religious services is associated with lower risk for divorce
- Many studies have shown that greater religiousness is linked to positive parenting strategies, greater parental warmth and family cohesiveness
- One aspect of parenting that several studies have specifically associated with greater religiousness is that of coparenting
o It is interesting to note that the associations between religiousness and positive parenting are thought to be due, in part, to the positive role that religion plays in the parents’ marital relationship and coparenting skills
All this research is interesting and clearly shows that religion plays an influential role in the lives of many families. What about when families face a crisis or tragedy? Does religion have the same positive influence in these situations? I find this particular area of research fascinating and it prompted much of my dissertation work. What researchers have begun to uncover is that in times of crisis, religion may serve as both a positive and negative coping mechanism. A few of the points of crisis that researchers have considered include childhood illness/disability and divorce.
Childhood Illness/Disability
- In the face of caring for a child with a severe illness or disability, many parents find strength from their religion and see their child’s condition as a gift from God or a way to grow spiritually.
- However, for some parents religion takes on a more negative aspect as they cope with their child’s condition. Some parents feel abandoned by God or their church. This type of “negative religious coping” (as researchers call it) is often associated with depression or anxiety in these parents.
- Although religion is somewhat protective against divorce, it is far from uncommon among religious individuals
- Divorce may be particularly stressful for families adhering to a religious foundation because: (1) divorce is less common among religiously-affiliated families, and (2) divorce may carry a stigma among some religious groups/congregations
- Only limited research has examined how individuals use their religious beliefs to cope with divorce, but so far it seems that there may be both positive and negative aspects
o Some individuals may see their religion as a source of support during the divorce process and it may aid their psychological health
o For others, the reality of divorce may conflict with their religious beliefs and thus they may begin to question their beliefs or feel judged by their religious group. This type of cognitive dissonance may be associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression
After years of neglect, it is wonderful to see that psychologists are increasingly turning their attention to the role that religion plays in the lives of families. It seems that religious beliefs have many associations with positive qualities in family life. However, religious beliefs are complex and may prompt feelings of guilt or judgment among some individuals as well. Hopefully researchers will continue to explore these multifaceted and interesting interactions between religious beliefs and family experiences.
Reference: The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. (2005). Edited by Raymond Paloutzian and Crystal Park.

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