- According to new research from Harvard, the practice of prayer during childhood is linked to healthier life choices and better physical, mental, and emotional well-being in young adults. Tweet This
- Per a new BYU study, prayer helped family members address problems or stresses they were facing, as well as reduced tensions in their relationships. Tweet This
My husband was 15 years old when his father moved in with him following the death of his grandmother, who had raised him since he was a preschooler. Although his dad had always been involved in his life, this was the first time in many years that they had lived under the same roof. Almost overnight, his father went from being a divorced bachelor living on his own to a full-time single parent raising a teenager. To help him focus more on his son, he made some immediate changes to his lifestyle, including staying home at night instead of going out and no longer keeping alcohol in the house. He also began a ritual of nightly prayer that sometimes made his teenage son feel awkward but also safe and loved. Over the next decade that they lived together, his father continued to pray with him every night before he went to sleep. That father-son prayer time left a big impression on my husband, and he continues the practice with our children.
We tend to think of prayer, and rightly so, as communion with God, with the spiritual connection and benefits it entails. But when we pray with other people—especially with our spouse, parents, or children—it can also be a special form of communion with one another. While it’s difficult, if not impossible, to measure the spiritual effects of prayer, research continues to reveal the powerful benefits for individuals, couples, and even entire families.
We know from a large body of research that prayer and religious service attendance are linked to stronger marriages. One 2012 study found an association between shared prayer and greater levels of relationship trust among married couples. Furthermore, IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox’s research with Nicholas Wolfinger concluded that “shared prayer is the most powerful predictor of relationship quality among black, Latino, and white couples, more powerful than denomination, religious attendance, or shared religious friendships.”
As to why prayer is linked to more positive relationships for couples, Dr. Wilcox has explained here that
prayer helps couples deal with stress, enables them to focus on shared beliefs and hopes for the future, and allows them to deal constructively with challenges and problems in their relationship and in their lives.
New research measuring the effects of faith traditions on family life indicates that shared prayer may also benefit families in some of the same ways that it benefits couples. The recent study from researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) was published in the Journal of Family Psychology and included a sample of 198 religiously-diverse families from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths in 17 states.
The researchers asked both parents and children a number of questions about their faith traditions and how these traditions impacted their family life, including: “How does your family overcome major stresses and problems?” and “How do you share your faith with your children?” In an effort to avoid bias, the word, “prayer” was not used in the interview questions; however, prayer was referenced by family members in 96% of their responses.
Although the families prayed in different ways because of their diverse religious beliefs, there were similarities, including the timing of the prayers during specific family rituals or traditions, the priority families gave to prayer, and the relational processes the families shared. “For the 198 diverse families in our national study,” the BYU researchers wrote, “we found that ‘the family that prays together’ seems to benefit in more ways than just ‘staying together.’”
The study identified several common themes related to prayer and family relationships, including:
- Families used prayer time as a way to transmit religious traditions to younger generations.
- Prayer enabled family members to address problems or stresses they were facing, as well as reduced tensions in their relationships.
- Prayer helped family members bond with one another and created a sense of family unity.
When parents pray with their children, they are not only teaching them how to pray but also modeling and emphasizing the importance of prayer in the hopes that their children will begin a practice of private prayer that they will carry with them into adulthood. And according to new research from the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health, the practice of prayer during childhood is linked to better physical, mental, and emotional well-being among young adults.
Published in the America Journal of Epidemiology, the study from Professors Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele examined the effects of both regular religious service attendance and prayer/meditation on a sample of more than 5,000 adolescents whom the researchers followed for between 8 to 14 years. Dr. VanderWeele, who has written previously about how religious practice impacts marriage, told IFS that their new study "found profound effects of child and adolescent prayer on the big three dangers of adolescence—depression, substance abuse, and risky behaviors—as well as positive effects on happiness, volunteering, having a sense of mission, and forgiveness."
Young adults in the study who prayed or meditated at least daily as children or adolescents were “16% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults, 30% less likely to have started having sex at a young age, and 40% less likely to have a sexually transmitted infection compared to those who never prayed or meditated.”
So, how do we account for the positive outcomes of prayer on adolescent well-being? Dr. VanderWeele told me this question was beyond the scope of their study, but he added,
my understanding would be that a life of prayer and an integrated spirituality give rise to an experience of God or of transcendence, and so an adolescent need not turn to drugs or risky sexual behaviors for this. Moreover, that experience of God may fundamentally make one more other-oriented, leading to volunteering, forgiveness, and a sense of mission, and these things ultimately make one happier and protect against depression.
In most religions, the act of prayer is principally an intimate form of worship and communication with God. But it's also an important tradition that families use to help transmit core religious values to the next generation—a practice that research continues to confirm is beneficial to individual and family well-being. With the potential to strengthen marriages, unite family members, and boost adolescent decision-making and health, prayer is one of the keys to a flourishing family.
Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.