Adolescence is a time of exploration and growth, a time when teens begin to develop their own self-awareness and confirm their identification with specific social groups and cultures.
While this part of life is full of adventure, a new UCLA study finds that one aspect of a teen’s life largely stays the course — religion.
Andrew J. Fuligni, Ph.D., and colleagues found that teens, regardless of their ethnic background, retained their religious identity even as their participation in religious activities, such as attending church, declined.
Further, they found that adolescents’ ethnic background shaped their religious identity and participation.
The study appears in the current edition of the journal Child Development.
Researchers examined three groups of teens — adolescents from Asian, Latin American and European backgrounds — and found that after controlling for ethnic differences in religious affiliation, socioeconomic background and generational status, religious identity remained stable throughout high school, even as religious participation declined.
Teens from Latin American and Asian backgrounds reported higher levels of religious identity, while adolescents from Latin American backgrounds reported higher rates of religious participation.
When changes in religious identity did occur in this age group, they were associated with changes in ethnic and family identities, suggesting important linkages in the development of these social identities during adolescence.
“Adolescence is a critical time for self-awareness and exploration,” said Fuligni. “There’s been a lot of research about adolescents’ social identities in the areas of ethnicity and gender but very little on the role of religion, and even less work on the degree of religious identification and participation among adolescents from ethnic minority backgrounds.”
The results, said Fuligni, were not a complete surprise. Despite all the turmoil of those years, kids still have a routine and consistency to their day.
“Greater change likely occurs at prominent points of transition, such as the upcoming transition to adulthood,” he said.
“Moving away from home, encountering new work environments, attending college, developing long-term romantic relationships — those markers in our lives — are all features of the period after high school that may cause more significant change in religious identity.”
The drop-off in religious participation, such as church attendance, was not too surprising either, Fuligni said.
“While there was a significant decline across the high school years, it’s possible that teens were simply busy doing other things, perhaps a part-time job, taking part in extra-curricular activities or simply socializing with peers,” he said.
“Plus, kids are beginning to make their own decisions, and where attendance at religious services and activities is driven by parents earlier in childhood, parents may be allowing their teens to make their own decisions about participation as they progress through high school.”