Positive Youth Development and Spirituality: From Theory to Research

The concept of spirituality as a positive youth development construct is reviewed in this paper. Both broad and narrow definitions of spirituality are examined and a working definition of spirituality is proposed. Regarding theories of spirituality, different models pertinent to spiritual development and the relationship between spirituality and positive youth development are highlighted. Different ecological factors, particularly family and peer influences, were found to influence spirituality.

Research on the influence of spirituality on adolescent developmental outcomes is examined. Finally, ways to promote adolescent spirituality are discussed.

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There are research studies showing that spiritual and religious involvement is an important dimension in adolescent development. In a study based on , freshmen in colleges and universities in the United States, Astin et al. Using life meaning as an illustration, adolescents tend to think in abstract terms and explore future possibilities when they are cognitively mature.

They commonly ask questions about life, including the following: What is the meaning of life? What is a meaningful life? Why do we exist? What should we accomplish in life? The importance of the meaning of life in adolescent behavior is clearly reflected in human history. For example, in the s, young people supported Hitler in Nazi Germany when they believed that building an ethnically superior Germany was their life mission.

In the contemporary world, many young people in Africa participate in military activities to look for changes for their countries. In addition, there is a huge research gap in the study of spirituality in the clinical literature [ 7 ]. Against this background, this paper attempts to review the concept of spirituality in adolescence.

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Besides definitions and theories, antecedents of adolescent spirituality and its effects on developmental outcomes are presented. Finally, ways to promote adolescent spirituality are presented. Various definitions of spirituality have been put forward by different researchers.

Based on qualitative analyses of various definitions of religiousness and conceptions of spirituality, Scott reported that the conceptions were distributed over nine content areas, with no category containing most of the definitions [ 8 , 9 ]. These content areas include 1 connectedness or relationship, 2 processes contributing to a higher level of connectedness, 3 reactions to sacred or secular things, 4 beliefs or thoughts, 5 traditional institutional structures, 6 pleasurable existence, 7 beliefs in the sacred or higher being, 8 personal transcendence, and 9 existential issues and concerns.

Markow and Klenke pointed out that there were more than 70 definitions of spirituality at work [ 10 ]. Perhaps the first clarification that should be made is the distinction between spirituality and religion. With reference to this conception, while religion is related to institutional beliefs and the sacred, the divine and institutional religion is not necessarily related to the definition of spirituality.

According to Worthington et al.

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In the project on the role of spirituality in higher education at the Higher Education Research Institute at the UCLA, Austin and his associates [ 3 ] distinguished spiritual attributes and religious attributes. Broad as well as narrow definitions of spirituality exist in the literature. An example of a broad definition was put forward by Myers et al. According to this conception, spirituality includes a belief in a power beyond oneself, b behavior in relation to the infinite such as prayer, c meaning and purpose of life, d hope and optimism, e love and compassion, f moral and ethical guidelines g transcendental experience.

Another broad definition can be seen in Lewis who conceived spirituality as the life affirmed in a relationship with God, self, community, and environment which leads to the nurturance and celebration of wholeness [ 14 ]. Within this context, spiritual needs include meaning, purpose and hope, transcendence circumstances, integrity and worthiness, religious participation, loving and serving others, cultivating thankfulness, forgiving and being forgiven, and preparation for death and dying.

On the other hand, there are relatively narrower definitions of spirituality such as focus on existential or transcendental questions, belongingness to involvement of cardinal values underlying every aspect of life, and self-reflective behavior. For example, Worthington et al. An integration of the literature shows that several elements are commonly employed in the definition of spirituality.

These include meaning and purpose of life, meaning of and reactions to limits of life such as death and dying, search for the sacred or infinite, including religiosity, hope and hopelessness, forgiveness, and restoration of health [ 15 ]. Lau pointed out that three key elements of spirituality had been identified in the literature [ 16 ].

The first element is horizontal as well as vertical relationships in human existence [ 17 ]. While horizontal relationships are related to oneself, others, and nature, vertical relationship involves a transcendental relationship with a higher being. The second element is beliefs and values which are integral to answers to spiritual questions such as life and death.

The third element is the meaning of life. In this paper, a broader conception of spirituality i. Two broad strategies are commonly used to assess the construct of spirituality: To maximize the strengths and minimize the limitations of both approaches, researchers commonly use both approaches to assess spirituality.

Spirituality as a Positive Youth Development Construct: A Conceptual Review

In the quantitative approach, either single items or scales are used to assess spirituality. Also commonly, researchers use a few items to assess religiosity and religious involvement. Obviously, both single-item measure and multiple-item measures are problematic because their reliability and validity are usually not examined. To overcome such problems, psychological scales have been developed to measure the construct of spirituality. Unfortunately, there are few validated measures of spirituality for Chinese adolescents [ 15 , 18 ].

Furthermore, few researchers use advanced statistical techniques such as structural equation modeling to assess spirituality. Qualitative methods such as open-ended questions, drawing, verbal commentary techniques, and case studies are also employed to examine spirituality, particularly in the clinical settings. The common features of qualitative research include naturalistic inquiry, inductive analysis, holistic perspective, qualitative data, personal contact and insight, dynamic system, unique case orientation, empathetic neutrality, and design flexibility.

For example, children have been invited to draw pictures about their attitudes towards death and dying. While qualitative study can capture the perspectives of the informants and is a more naturalistic form of research, it is often criticized as biased and polluted by ideological preoccupations.

As such, ways to enhance the credibility of data collection, analyses, and interpretations are important issues to be considered. There are three categories of theories of spirituality. The first category of theories focuses on the nature of spirituality in relation to different aspects of human development. For example, there are theories suggesting that spirituality is part of quality of life. In the model of psychological well-being proposed by Ryff and Singer [ 19 ], meaning, purpose, growth, and self-actualization are basic components of well-being, and psychological well-being includes self-acceptance, environmental mastery, positive relations with others, purpose in life, personal growth, and autonomy.

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In the Wellness Model proposed by Adams et al. The second group of theories concerns the nature of spiritual development. In the spiritual development model proposed by Fowler [ 23 ], there are six stages of faith development, with Stage 3 and Stage 4 most relevant to spiritual development of adolescents. This stage is quite typical in the Chinese culture.

Peter L. Benson, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, and Peter C. Scales

Research is discussed from a religiously diverse global sample of more than 7, youth ages 12—25 years from eight countries in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, showing that higher scores on those elements of spiritual development predict positive outcomes across nations and affiliations, including volunteerism, self-rated overall health, environmentalism, and risk behaviors. For example, it would be interesting to study how purpose in life of the parents is related to that of their adolescent children. While studies have been conducted to examine the first two possibilities, research on the latter two possibilities is almost nonexistent [ 15 , 18 ]. Regarding theories of spirituality, different models pertinent to spiritual development and the relationship between spirituality and positive youth development are highlighted. Besides gaining more experience and having personal reflections, joining religious groups, church activities, and spiritually related gatherings provide a good opportunity to develop spirituality. Consistent with this notion, there are research findings suggesting that meaning in life is an important factor in helping adolescents to face adversity. Given the importance of spirituality, there are several ways to promote adolescent spirituality.

It is argued that the existence of personal struggle and choice are important elements of mature spirituality. In the faith development model suggested by Genia [ 24 ], five stages were proposed. If the transition in Stage 3 is successful, adolescents will progress to Stage 4 Reconstructed Internalized Faith and Stage 5 Transcendent Faith where transcendent faith is characterized by flexible system of faith, universal principles, and permeable psychospiritual boundaries. The third group of theories is on the relationship between spirituality and positive youth development.

In the model proposed by Benson [ 25 ], there are 40 developmental assets in adolescent development, where life meaning and positive beliefs are important internal assets that influence adolescent development.

In a review of 77 positive youth development programs in the United States, Catalano et al. There are many recent publications highlighting the relationship between positive youth development and spirituality [ 28 — 30 ]. Benson and Roehlkepartain [ 4 ] concluded three processes intrinsic to adolescent spirituality. The first process is awareness or awakening which contributes to the development of spiritual identity, meaning, and purpose. The second process is interconnecting or belonging which involves seeking or experiencing relationships with others, including divine beings.

This model further proposed that these three processes shaping adolescent developmental outcomes are related to other dimensions of development which are influenced by context e. Besides ecological models, there are other accounts on the factors influencing adolescent spirituality. The spiritual modeling perspective based on the social learning premise indicates that adolescents model their religious behavior of their parents [ 32 ]. There are research findings showing that family and peers exert influence on the spiritual development in adolescents.

In a longitudinal study based on individuals, parents, peers, schools, and community, Regnerus et al. In their study of parent and peer relationships and relational spirituality in adolescents and young adults, Desrosiers et al. With specific focus on the Chinese culture, Shek [ 18 ] reviewed ecological factors that influence the development of meaning in life among Chinese adolescents. Regarding the sociodemographic correlates of meaning in life in Chinese adolescents, it was found that gender, age, and economic disadvantage were related to adolescent life meaning, although the effect sizes were small.

It presents initial research advancing a new theory of youth spiritual development as a universal domain of development, describing spiritual development as a constant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one's inward journey and one's outward journey. Several central animating dynamics are presented: Research is discussed from a religiously diverse global sample of more than 7, youth ages 12—25 years from eight countries in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, showing that higher scores on those elements of spiritual development predict positive outcomes across nations and affiliations, including volunteerism, self-rated overall health, environmentalism, and risk behaviors.

Moreover, as predicted, high scores occur with and without active engagement with religious traditions. Finally, integration of the spiritual development domains—having high scores in each area—increases with age, as would be expected in a valid developmental process.

Edited by Lisa J. Miller

Although the model does not work equally well with all countries and religions, it marks a significant advance beyond the traditional spiritual development models that have been based on Western and Christian samples and measures and represented the great majority of the literature.

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