Helping Teens Stay Strong


Research shows that living gospel principles helps youth resist worldly temptations.

As part of our work at Brigham Young University, we conducted a study from 1992 to 1996 of more than 4,000 seminary students from three regions of the United States to determine what influenced them to live gospel standards. We investigated three basic questions: (1) How do the delinquency levels of Latter-day Saint youth compare to those of teens nationally? (2) Is it better to raise children in areas heavily populated by Latter-day Saints or in other areas? and (3) What most influences our youth to live Church standards?

An interesting picture of Latter-day Saint youth and their families emerged. We found that, as Church leaders consistently declare, faith and family can indeed fortify youth against delinquency. To help parents and leaders of youth more fully understand the specific ways this is done, we share our findings about what most helps youth to live Church standards. 1

A Look at Teens and Delinquency

One of the two main concerns we wanted to probe was how LDS youth compare with non-LDS youth nationwide in terms of delinquent behavior. Our study measured 40 delinquent behaviors divided into three categories: offenses against others, such as bullying and fighting; offenses against property, such as shoplifting, stealing, and vandalism; and other offenses, such as smoking, drug use, and immorality. We found Latter-day Saint teenagers had a significantly lower level of delinquency than that of a cross-section of non-LDS youth nationwide (see a sampling of our findings in the accompanying chart).

Delinquent behavior of high school seniors: Latter-day Saints compared to a non-Latter-day Saint national sample

Percentage who have ever done the following activities

Boys, LDS (N=260) *

Girls, LDS (N=380)

Boys, Nationwide (N=7,708)

Girls, Nationwide (N=8,310)

Smoked cigarettes

24%

18%

64%

60%

Used smokeless tobacco

13%

4%

51%

12%

Been drunk

17%

12%

63%

59%

Used marijuana

12%

7%

39%

31%

Been suspended from school

21%

6%

31%

16%

Had sexual relations

10%

17%

77%

66%

The chart on page 27 clearly illustrates the substantial differences between Latter-day Saint youth and teens nationwide in smoking, drinking, using drugs, being suspended from school, and participating in premarital sexual activity. Unfortunately, although fewer LDS teenagers participated in delinquent behaviors, they sometimes do make mistakes that offend the law or violate Church standards.

Comparison of LDS delinquency by area

The second concern we wanted to probe was the question of geography. For generations people assumed that training children in religious values was a major factor in preventing delinquency and other unethical behavior. Recently, however, some social scientists have challenged this view, suggesting that religion’s only effect on delinquency comes from peer pressure felt by youth living in a highly religious community, such as central Utah. 2 Religion, they claim, would have little or no effect on teenagers who formed only a religious minority within their community. To test this theory, we surveyed seminary students from three diverse regions: the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and Utah. 3

The following chart compares Latter-day Saint youth only, in these three regions. It shows fairly consistent behavior among LDS youth, regardless of where they live. Still, youth living in Utah may experience less peer pressure in some offenses, such as “smoked cigarettes” or “been involved in heavy petting.”

Percentage of LDS youth who have ever committed delinquent offenses

Offenses

Boys, East Coast (N=636)

Boys, West Coast (N=261)

Boys, Utah Valley (N=460)

Girls, East Coast (N=754)

Girls, West Coast (N=370)

Girls, Utah Valley (N=598)

Against others

           

Cursed or swore at parents

19%

19%

21%

21%

20%

20%

Openly defied schoolteacher or official

36%

34%

27%

26%

22%

18%

Picked on youth/made fun of/called names

52%

52%

41%

43%

34%

31%

Picked fight with other youth

25%

26%

23%

12%

11%

10%

Against property

           

Took something from store without paying

33%

39%

34%

20%

22%

19%

Stole from a locker, desk, purse, etc.

12%

17%

18%

11%

12%

11%

Stole anything between $5 and $50

18%

22%

19%

10%

12%

10%

Purposely ruined property or possessions

26%

29%

29%

12%

11%

13%

Personal offenses

           

Smoked cigarettes

24%

18%

17%

24%

19%

9%

Drank alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, liquor)

24%

13%

16%

27%

19%

13%

Used marijuana

7%

8%

8%

5%

9%

4%

Cheated on a test

70%

66%

69%

73%

71%

65%

Watched sexually explicit/porn movies, TV, videos

42%

46%

39%

27%

21%

16%

Been involved in heavy petting

29%

23%

19%

19%

29%

19%

Had sexual relations

7%

6%

6%

12%

9%

5%

Though living in an area with other Latter-day Saints may have helped prevent some types of delinquency, the differences among the three areas were small when compared with findings for non-LDS youth. We note that there is room for improvement in such areas as “picked on youth” and “cheated on a test,” perhaps indicating a need for greater parental direction in these matters.

Additionally, our survey showed that LDS families’ participation in family prayer, family home evening, and scripture reading holds constant in all three geographic areas. Wherever they live, families can help protect their children by living the gospel, even though having the social support of other LDS members is a plus.

Preparing Youth to Live Gospel Standards

As our study proceeded, we asked such questions as these: What makes Latter-day Saint youth so different from their national peers? To what can we attribute these lower levels of delinquency? How are these teenagers able to stand up to the temptations around them, especially when friends or acquaintances may be involved in activities that are at variance with Church standards?

We were pleased to see the significant effect that religion has on helping LDS youth resist temptation in all three regions of the study. It became amply clear from the results of the survey that religious values, beliefs, and experiences help youth avoid delinquent activities.

As we studied the responses from youth, we realized there were three areas of influence that impacted their degree of delinquent behavior. The first two—dealing with peer pressure and personal religious behavior—were strongly influenced by the third: family life.

Combating the effects of peer pressure

Peer pressure had a strong relationship to delinquency among LDS youth. 4 We asked youth how many of their closest friends were members of the Church, the degree to which their peers engaged in delinquent behaviors, and the extent of pressure their friends placed on them to participate in delinquent activities.

Teenagers who had friends with different standards were under great stress as they sought to balance their beliefs with their need to fit in with friends. “At school I feel a lot of pressure,” wrote one teen on the survey. “I want to be like everyone else, and I want to be accepted in the group. The pressures get worse every year.” Said another: “The strongest pressure to not live the standards is at school. There is huge pressure to be popular, to have cool clothes—some immodest.”

Those who chose friends with similar standards fared better. One wrote: “I am blessed that I have great friends with the same high standards. For fun we—well, for example, we had a sleepover at my house and read in the scriptures, shared personal experiences, and stuff like that. We can have fun but also have a good spirit with us. And we’re not what you might call nerds. We are friends with a lot of people at school.” Yet even with good friends, this faithful Latter-day Saint girl showed anxiety about being thought of as a nerd by others at school. The pressure for teens to fit in is substantial.

While parents have only limited control over the friends their teenagers associate with at school and in the neighborhood, we found that religious standards and family practices can counteract much of the negative influence of delinquent friends. “My parents have been the strongest pressure [to live gospel standards] in my life. They have shown me how important the Church is. They have taught me that what I do reflects on me now and later,” wrote one survey respondent.

Clearly, choosing good friends and having good family relationships help counteract the often powerful peer pressures youth face at school.

Personal religious behavior

A second significant factor in avoiding delinquency is personal religious behavior. 5 Our study found great similarity in Latter-day Saint youths’ religious beliefs and practices regardless of where they lived. Over 95 percent of the young men and women reported they believe God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Nearly 80 percent regularly attend their meetings, and half offer personal prayers with regularity.

One interesting finding of our study was that private religious behaviors, such as personal prayer, personal scripture reading, and fasting, were even more influential in preventing delinquency than public religious behaviors, such as attendance at meetings, family prayer, and family home evening. Public and family religious practices, however, continue to be important because they lead youth to internalize gospel principles and reinforce private religious behavior.

“My parents would often bear testimony and would encourage me to say my prayers, read the scriptures, and come to know the truth for myself,” wrote one teenager. Numerous others described how their parents not only taught them the gospel but also showed them how to live it. “My parents always encourage me to take my problems to Heavenly Father in prayer,” wrote another. Personal prayer appears to be an important practice that young people can engage in to give them the strength to overcome temptations. Another teen in the study wrote, “I wish I would have prayed more and read the scriptures more often. … My problems seemed magnified when I did not pray. I always keep that in mind now when I don’t feel like praying.”

The more that young people said they felt the influence of the Holy Ghost and a closeness to God in their personal lives, received answers to prayers, and felt they had been forgiven for wrongdoing, the less likely they were to engage in delinquency. “Before I received a sure confirmation of the gospel’s truthfulness, I experienced the most trying year of my life with peer pressure and temptation,” one young lady in the study responded. “But after I received my own testimony of the gospel through prayer, I felt a spirit of peace that sustained me through some tough times.”

What Can Parents Do to Help Youth Internalize Gospel Principles?

This list of ideas, though not a part of the study itself, may assist parents as they seek to help their teenagers better internalize gospel principles.

  1. 1.

    Be a good example. The righteous examples of parents who have made the gospel the very core of their lives provide youth with living, breathing object lessons.

  2. 2.

    Hold regular family home evening, family prayer, and scripture study. Each of these family religious activities helps to shore up youth against temptation.

  3. 3.

    Teach practical applications of gospel principles. Youth are more likely to live Church standards when they understand how gospel principles are actually applied in daily life. This is done by teaching children to liken the scriptures to themselves and their unique challenges.

  4. 4.

    Provide settings for potential spiritual experiences. Special family occasions and service can help youth see the gospel in action and feel the Holy Ghost in their lives.

  5. 5.

    Encourage children to come to know for themselves. Personal prayer and scripture study provide youth with the opportunity to learn for themselves and receive a personal testimony of the gospel.

Family influence

As youth deal with the powerful effects of peer pressure, bolstered by their private religious behavior, they look to their family as the source that best strengthens and prepares them to meet the world and resist its temptations.

The study demonstrates the power gospel living has on the home. We found that three family characteristics in particular were significant in fostering moral strength: family connectedness, parental regulation, and intellectual autonomy (freedom to express opinions). 6 Generally speaking, those youth who avoided delinquency came from families where parents expressed appreciation and showed love; guided them through high expectations, family rules, and accountability; and allowed teens to have their own thoughts and opinions without resorting to intimidation, fear, guilt trips, or withholding love. Because these characteristics relate to positive outcomes such as achieving social competence and emotional health—not just avoiding delinquency—we will discuss each of these vital family characteristics and offer suggestions culled from numerous studies—both LDS and non-LDS—as to how families can promote or develop these characteristics in their own homes.

Family connectedness

Creating feelings of connectedness with teenagers can sometimes be difficult. Teen years are a time when youth are seeking to loosen or sever their ties to the family in anticipation of leaving home and assuming adulthood. Giving praise and expressing appreciation were cited by some as sources of connectedness. “I was always complimented for the good things I had done, and my parents often told me that they were proud of me,” one youth stated. Another youth described how his parents were supportive of him and attended his school and Church activities: “Even though my dad is a very busy man, he tried hard to attend our activities and always made time for us to do things together as a family.”

What Can Parents Do to Foster Family Connectedness?

  1. 1.

    Spend one-on-one time with teenagers. A ride in the car, a special meal at a restaurant, or a friendly discussion late at night are good opportunities for parents to strengthen ties with youth.

  2. 2.

    Express love often. Assurances of love and acceptance are crucial for healthy development. A kindly touch, a hug, or a warm smile are easy ways to express love. Many youth in the survey wished their parents would have expressed their love more often.

  3. 3.

    Spend time together as a family. Family dinnertime, family home evening, and family outings develop feelings of connectedness. Don’t mistake time in the same room as time together. Also, there cannot be “quality time” without “quantity time.”

  4. 4.

    Be liberal with praise and generous with forgiveness. Teens thrive on recognition and acceptance, especially from parents. Focus more on your children’s strengths than their weaknesses, and remember that everyone makes mistakes. A spirit of love, forgiveness, and acceptance are vital in maintaining connectedness as you help children correct poor choices.

  5. 5.

    Develop family traditions. Family traditions connect people in warm and winning ways. Long after youth grow up and leave home, they will recall with nostalgia family vacations, birthday parties, holiday observances, and other special times.

Parental regulation

Parental monitoring and regulation of teenagers’ activities can require considerable effort on the part of parents. Parents need to talk to and listen to teenagers to obtain up-to-date information about who their friends are, where they are going, and how they spend their money. Family rules need to be established. When teenagers violate parental trust, they need appropriate consequences followed by a show of love so as to maintain family connectedness. “We didn’t have many strict rules,” wrote one youth, “but my parents knew what I was doing, how I was spending my allowance, and who my friends were.”

Youth who grow up in homes without specific rules or expectations often fail to learn to positively control their own behavior. They tend to act impulsively and are highly susceptible to peer influences, both of which contribute to delinquency. It was interesting to note that few youth complained about the strictness of their parents or number of family rules. On the contrary, several youth wrote they wished their parents would have been more strict and had given them more guidance through these difficult years. Allowing teenagers independence within the context of family rules and regulations helps them develop self-mastery, which strengthens their ability to resist temptation. While peers exert a great influence during these years, such family regulation can influence children to choose peers who are spiritually strengthening and supportive.

What Can Parents Do to Foster Family Regulation?

  1. 1.

    Establish family rules. Teens need the structure provided by family rules. Build family, Church, and school expectations into the rules, and allow youth significant input in the development of them. Rules can be reviewed during family councils or family home evening, and appropriate consequences can be discussed.

  2. 2.

    Assign all family members household chores. This helps teenagers develop a sense of responsibility and helps them see their behavior has consequences for others.

  3. 3.

    Monitor behavior. Talk with your teens and ask about what they are doing, where they are going, whom they will be with, and what money they have. If you doubt the answers, check with teachers or parents of friends. Watch for signs of trouble, such as a decline in school performance, complaints from teachers or other authority figures, sudden personality changes, or staying out too late at night.

  4. 4.

    Enforce the rules. This may seem hard since you wish to keep the relationship positive, but it is critical that teens learn their behavior brings consequences. Quietly but firmly discuss any violation of a rule and explain the impact such behavior has on the teen and others. Parents must stand together in enforcement of family rules.

  5. 5.

    Show increased love following reprimands. Teens sometimes perceive punishment as rejection, so it is important to express love after an incident (see D&C 121:43).

Psychological autonomy

It is also important that parents allow teens psychological autonomy—freedom to express their own thoughts and ideas. Showing respect for differing opinions and helping youth explore new ideas and their consequences help build a sense of personal worth. When parents are not tolerant of views and opinions, youth don’t learn to trust their own perceptions or feelings and may look to their peers for a sense of personal worth or withdraw inside themselves and develop emotional problems, such as depression. “When I tried to talk to my parents,” one young lady reported, “they made me feel like my ideas and desires were stupid.”

It was very clear that a healthy family played an important role in helping youth make appropriate choices. “My family and the gospel are the two most important influences in my life,” wrote one young person. “Through them I have been able to overcome the challenges and pressures I face.”

What Can Parents Do to Foster Psychological Autonomy?

  1. 1.

    Encourage teenagers to share their feelings. Listen with interest to their opinions, hopes, and desires. Ask them what they think about a specific gospel principle, a family rule, an event that happened at school or in the community, a television program, or the actions of a respected Church leader.

  2. 2.

    Accept their freedom to express their views even if you disagree with them. Confidence to express ideas is critical in the development of a competent young adult.

  3. 3.

    Help teenagers explore the sources of their attitudes and the consequences of them. Don’t overreact to “off-the-wall” ideas or opinions. Rather, acknowledge the idea as important, then explore the origins of it. Subtle guidance and sharing of your views often help a teen develop attitudes consistent with gospel principles.

  4. 4.

    Allow teenagers the opportunity to develop their own avenues of worth. While participation on a basketball or debate team may have been important to a parent, a teen may not have the same interest or ability.

  5. 5.

    Don’t resort to withdrawal of love as a means of correcting behavior. Teens experiencing this type of control from their parents withdraw themselves and experience a loss of self-worth. Instead of moving toward independence, they often become more dependent on parents or peer groups.

What lessons have we learned, then, from this study? First, more than any other lesson we observed is the fact that, as the prophets have long testified, there is a protective power when the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes the very core of our lives—in our hearts as well as our homes. This occurs only as we ourselves internalize the gospel into our own lives and then help our teenagers to do the same. Second, it is clear that no matter where a family lives, it is family life and gospel living, intimately intertwined, that most help teenagers become competent, spiritually strong, and faithful Latter-day Saints.

Let’s Talk about It

This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:

  1. 1.

    What can we do as a family to increase the amount of enjoyable time we spend together?

  2. 2.

    What rules do we have for our family? What happens when someone breaks a rule? As a family, do we need more rules or fewer rules?

  3. 3.

    How can we encourage respectful listening and sharing of opinions among family members?

[photo] Photo by Steve Bunderson and Matt Reier; all photography posed by models

[photo]“Generally, those children who make the decision and have the resolve to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and illicit sex are those who have adopted and internalized the strong values of their homes as lived by their parents. … “What seems to help cement parental teachings and values in place in children’s lives is a firm belief in Deity. When this belief becomes part of their very souls, they have inner strength” (James E. Faust, “The Greatest Challenge in the World—Good Parenting,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 34). (Photo by Eldon Linschoten.)

[photo]“If you will earnestly seek guidance from your Heavenly Father, morning and evening, you will be given the strength to shun any temptation” (Ezra Taft Benson, “A Message to the Rising Generation,” Ensign, Nov. 1977, 32). (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

[photo]“The home and family have vital roles in cultivating and developing personal faith and testimony. The family is the basic unit of society; the best place for individuals to build faith and strong testimonies is in righteous homes filled with love” (M. Russell Ballard, “Feasting at the Lord’s Table,” Ensign, May 1996, 81). (Photo by Michael Schoenfeld.)

[photo]“Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” (The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

Brent L. Top is a professor of Church history and doctrine and associate dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University.

Bruce A. Chadwick is a professor of sociology and former director of the Center for Studies of the Family at Brigham Young University.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   *

    N refers to the number of students surveyed. The LDS sample consisted of senior high school students only. The national sample for all categories but sexual relations was reported in L. D. Johnston and others, Monitoring the Future (1993), 250, 277. Data on sexual relations came from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America’s Teenagers (1994), 20.

    Notes

  1.   1.

    A more technical discussion of the results and methodology is found in Brent L. Top, Bruce A. Chadwick, and Janice Garrett, “It’s Not Where You Live That Matters, It’s What You Do: Family, Religion, and Delinquency Among LDS Youth,” unpublished paper; to obtain a copy, contact the authors at Brigham Young University.

  2.   2.

    Rodney Stark, “Religion and Conformity: Reaffirming a Sociology of Religion,” Sociological Analysis 45 (1984), 273–81; Rodney Stark, Lori Kent, and Daniel P. Doyle, “Religion and Delinquency: The Ecology of a ‘Lost’ Relationship,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 19 (1982), 4–24.

  3.   3.

    Data on LDS youth were gathered in three stages. In 1992 Top and Chadwick surveyed a sample of 1,882 LDS youth enrolled in seminary classes, either early morning or home study, in Delaware, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. This area is considered to have an “average” degree of community religious involvement (see Stark, “Religion and Conformity,” and Stark, Kent, and Doyle, “Religion and Delinquency,” for findings on community religious involvement). In 1994 a second sample of 958 LDS teens was surveyed from Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. This area is considered to have the lowest religious involvement within the United States. The final data were gathered in 1996 from 1,700 LDS high school students living in Utah County, located about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, which show the highest religious involvement in the entire country. An average of 67 percent of students returned their surveys. The majority of survey respondents likely were from active Latter-day Saint homes.

  4.   4.

    Not surprising, pressure from peers to commit delinquent activities emerged as the strongest predictor of delinquency. The beta coefficient between peer pressure and delinquency is .416. The positive beta means that as peer pressure increases, so does delinquency. A beta coefficient of above .05 indicates a statistically significant relationship, and a beta above .10 indicates a substantive relationship; thus, our findings of .416 show a very strong relationship. Peer example also made a significant contribution to explaining delinquency independent of peer pressures (beta = .144). LDS young people who have friends who participate in delinquent behavior tend to imitate them even though their friends may not pressure them to do so.

  5.   5.

    Religious behavior is a strong deterrent to delinquency. The -.191 beta indicates that as religious behavior increases, delinquency decreases. Not surprising, the results suggest that those youth who have made religion an important part of their personal life and have experienced the spiritual benefits of their beliefs and practices were better equipped to resist peer pressures and to avoid delinquent behavior and less likely to choose delinquent friends.

  6.   6.

    Family connectedness is strongly related to religious behavior (beta = .255). Parental regulation is significantly related to religious behavior (beta = .208). Psychological autonomy also was found to be positively related to religious behavior (beta = .265).