In A History of Young People in the West, Giovanni Levi and Jean-Claude Schmitt posit that, in the West, adolescence is first and foremost a social-cultural construction, and therefore a cultural product. They considered it only subsidiarily as a stage in the physiological process of growing up.
Until close to the modern period, people were far from perceiving adolescence as the unique and significant stage as it is viewed and experienced today.
Adolescence: an invention?
The idea of a gap between ages can be traced all the way back to Antiquity, when the six ages of the world were associated with six human ages: infantia (0-7 years), pueritia (7-14 years), adolescentia (14-28 years), juventus (28–50 years), gravitas (50–70 years), and senectus (70+ years).
The period of adolescence amplifies the human tendency to philosophise on all things tangential to the natural daily life. Teenagers’ quest to find their identity and build themselves reveals an increased capacity to perceive moral aspects such as justice, love, or equity, but at the same time reveals a reluctance to assimilate the practical expressions of these moral elements. If religion is a system through which beliefs are transposed into practices, in a code of community behaviour, for the teenager the search for personal identity seems to contrast with the community-religious identity.
Teenagers and autonomy
Teenager tend to sees moral values as desirable and indispensable, but they also tend to only want those values they understand and, if possible, those that people around them lack.
Given that originality sometimes becomes a teenage obsession, the fact that teens weigh every value and internalise principles that they understand leads teenagers to perceive values as a product of their own reason.
Resistance to religion is rather an expression of opposition to authority and prohibitions of any kind. These are perceived as obstacles in the teenager’s evolution towards personal autonomy. The same idea is supported by Gordon Allport, who believes that the teenager’s rebellion is closely related to the search for identity and an expression of their attempts to reach autonomy.
Behaviours expressing freedom of action and thought are specific to this period. Once the young person has passed the stage of childish imitation, they begin to reason and thus subject all religious practices to their own criticism. What they do not understand, they avoid, underestimate, or even remove.
Teenagers and hypocrisy
Vasilios Thermos believes that, while the faith of teenagers becomes more and more personal, the fear of hypocrisy is greater than any other. They identify the inconsistencies of both themselves and of adults. The inconsistencies of adults are considered hypocrisy and invalidate the system they represent, just as their own inconsistencies invalidate the values they cannot internalise through consistent behaviour. The hypocrisy of others or one’s personal helplessness lead to the same result.
The impact of religiosity in adolescence
Involvement in religious and spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation, or other religious disciplines may correlate with increased grey matter density, helping to control emotions, and self-realisation or self-regulation. At the same time, these spiritual disciplines increase the chances of positive development in young people. Brain chemistry seems to be influenced by religious practices, especially during the period when the biological foundations of social behaviour are laid. Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter associated with affiliative behaviour or anxiety and aggression. A high level of oxytocin leads to affiliative social behaviour, while a low level leads to anxiety or aggression. Researcher Elena Grigorenko believes that “due to its connection to affiliation, spirituality is, at least partially, based on the functional properties of oxytocin.”
Amy Eva Alberts Warren presents a series of studies proving that religiously affiliated individuals and especially those who received a solid religious education from adolescence, scored higher in terms of psychological well-being and community involvement, compared to non-religious individuals.
In order to highlight a person’s ability to be useful to society, psychologists resorted to a concept defined by the association of two subconcepts: Great love–Compassion. Love and compassion are considered an expression of the necessary relationship with ourselves and our neighbour and, at the same time, the foundation of health and psychological fulfilment. Through its very DNA, Christianity supports the fulfilment of the desire of each of us to be loved and freed from suffering, which is why one would expect individuals’ affiliation with the Christian religion to influence their psychological well-being and their level of social commitment.
Researchers Lisa Miller and Brien Kelley quote various studies showing that religious belief and commitment can positively affect the psychological functioning of teenagers in areas such as academic performance, self-esteem, subjective well-being, community involvement, the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, etc. The study also shows that religious teenagers are less affected by anxiety and depression, reject premarital sex, have a low risk of suicide and a low level of probability of adopting antisocial and violent practices, and present a low level of delinquency and a low risk of drug use.
Adolescence—the period of great questions that weigh in on all inherited beliefs—is the crucial period in determining the attachment to moral values and religious beliefs.
Searching for answers to those questions related to meaning and identity, even if they are born in the context of autonomy development, ensures the teenager’s attention, interest, and curiosity towards the spiritual world.
Teenagers are interested in spirituality, but it is up to the church to find the necessary means to meet their needs.
Crina and Ștefăniţă Poenariu consider adolescence a cultural construct that emphasises the negative features of an intermediate period of human development. They believe that the greatest benefits of adolescence are curiosity, an inclination towards spirituality, and the search for identity.