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Can Kids Be Too Religious? Obsessive Behavior May Signify Mental Illness


One of the roles of parents is to encourage healthy, positive activities in the lives of their children.  Many parents of religious children will encourage their children to partake in religious activity, whether as part of family tradition or because they believe that it brings comfort and improves the overall well-being of the child.  Unfortunately, not all religious activity is healthy, as hyper-religiosity may be a sign of a deeper mental illness issue.  “[Hyper-religiosity] looks positive but could be negative,” says Stephanie Mihalas, a UCLA professor and licensed clinical psychologist (Russo).

According to Dr. Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation, practicing religion promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and even the community.  Religion can be a positive force in the lives of both children and adults, according to Dr. Bill Hathaway, Clinical Psychologist of Religion and Dean of the School of Psychology and Counseling at Regent University, who states that “religion is related to a higher sense of self-esteem, better academic performance and lower rates of substance abuse and delinquent or criminal behavior” (Fagan).

Religious devotion may be a great thing, but some kids’ religious observances require a deeper look.  Sudden, unusual, or less-than-genuine faith observances may be a sign of an underlying mental health issue or it could be a coping mechanism pointing to a latent trauma or stress.  For example, children with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may rigidly repeat holy verses or prayers compulsively as an expression of their disorder rather than out of an authentic sense of faith.  Such attention to religious practices may not seem harmful, but parents should pay attention to extreme behavior of hyper-religiosity, as it may actually be a symptom of mental illness.  Parents may be less aware when such extreme behavior occurs beneath the guise of faith.

Professionals in private practice are reporting observations of children and teenagers from a wide array of faith backgrounds whose practices can be problematic (Russo).  The duration of time that young people spend praying or engaging in other spiritual practices is not as important as the quality or genuineness of the spiritual practice or devotion itself.  In fact, an overzealous amount of time spent on these practices could be a sign of an underlying issue.

Religion is meant to be spiritual but it is not always that. A young person who has OCD and rigidly repeats prayers and scripture verses may not have an actual spiritual connection, but rather could be exemplifying religious ritualism that does not have any root in spirituality.  When the behavior is strictly ritualistic, it may reflect a child’s way of coping with anxiety and in reality could be no more spiritual than other fanatical behaviors such as involvement in sports or a political cause.

From a mental health perspective, having no religion is generally not of concern.  However with no faith or religiosity, kids who have made mistakes with real-life sin or morality issues “may have trouble forgiving themselves” says John Duffy, a Chicago area clinical psychologist specializing in adolescents (Russo).  Some children may even have scrupulosity, a form of OCD that involves feelings of intense guilt and shame. Sufferers fret that they have committed blasphemy, have been impure, or have somehow sinned.  They usually focus on certain rules or rituals rather than their actual faith.



Sources Cited:

Fagan, Patrick F., Ph. D. “The Heritage Foundation.” The Heritage Foundation, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 09 Aug. 2013.

Journal of Gerontology, Series B Psychological Science, Social Sciences (2004) 59 (3): P123-P129.

Oz, Mehmet, Ph. D. “How Faith and Health Go Hand in Hand.” Time Magazine, 31 May 2012. Web. 09 Aug. 2013.

Russo, Francine. “Can Your Child Be Too Religious?” Time, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Written by

Kevin Giles is a product of Santa Cruz, CA – the stoner capitol of the world. A born again Christian, Kevin loves his Lord Jesus and believes that his purpose in life is determined by God. He first entered drug recovery at the age of 19, suffering from an addiction to marijuana. He is a recent graduate of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master’s degree in Christian Ministry. Passionate about God’s Word, he aspires to become a pastor or missionary. Kevin has also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Monterey Bay. His interests include traveling, movies, golf, fitness and reading. He also enjoys being outdoors as well as spending time with friends and family. Kevin’s faith, education and life experience give him a unique perspective on addiction, recovery and spirituality.

Filed under: Conditions and Disorders, Latest News, Research, Spirituality · Tags: children, faith, hyper-religiosity, kids, mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder, ocd, religion, ritualism, scrupulosity, Spirituality, youth

One Response to "Can Kids Be Too Religious? Obsessive Behavior May Signify Mental Illness"

  1. Elizabeth Spevack says:

    Thank you for this article. Scrupulosity has definitely played a role in my life, and the key is finding a way to meet religious obligations in a spiritually uplifting way instead of a stressful, frustration-inducing OCD fest.

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