Spirituality and Peer Victimization in Early Adolescence: Associations within a Christian School Context

By Carter, J. Carrick; Flanagan, Kelly S. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Spirituality and Peer Victimization in Early Adolescence: Associations within a Christian School Context


Carter, J. Carrick, Flanagan, Kelly S., Caballero, Ann B., Journal of Psychology and Theology


Early adolescence (i.e., 11 to 14 years of age) is a time of biological, psychological, social, and spiritual evolution and is characterized by dramatic changes for self and relationships with family and peers (Lerner, 1993). The sensitive nature of early adolescence creates a delicate space for exploration and metamorphosis. Spirituality is a facet of development that is influenced by the changes of early adolescence, as youth explore new ideas and reconsider spiritual beliefs their parents have taught them (Good & Willoughby, 2008).

Spirituality is inherent in all humankind and can be observed in the lives of children from all backgrounds (Coles, 1990; Ratcliff & May, 2004). It is a multifaceted construct that involves multiple dimensions such as beliefs and attitudes, personal experiences, and motivation for the search of connectedness, meaning, and purpose (Benson, Roehlkepartain, & Rude, 2003; King & Boyatzis, 2004). This facet of development is not only core to humankind but particularly pertinent to the adolescent experience. Utilizing data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a large and comprehensive study, Smith and Denton (2006) reported that over 80% of adolescents believe in God and 3% definitely do not believe in God. Half of adolescents reported that religious faith is very or extremely important to their lives, and only 8% reporting that religious faith is not important to their lives (Smith & Denton, 2006). Though not all adolescents have faith in a higher being or value religious faith, the majority do, which makes the study of spirituality during adolescence relevant. Additionally, a search for connectedness, meaning, and purpose is characteristic of adolescent development (Erikson, 1968) making spirituality a salient topic during adolescence. Therefore, it behooves researchers to explore adolescent spirituality within developmentally relevant contexts.

Another characteristic dimension of development that changes significantly during early adolescence is peer relations. To fully understand early adolescent spirituality within its unique sociocultural context, the importance of peers and the distinctive social context of middle school need to be considered (Haight, 2004; Kingery & Erdley, 2007). Negative peer experiences are visible and real in the United States, especially in middle schools (Pellegrini, 2002). Bullying or peer victimization is traditionally defined as an aggressive, intentional act or behavior that is carried out by a group or an individual repeatedly over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself (Olweus, 1993). Social changes during early adolescence create a larger social network and social dynamics conducive to bullying (Card & Schwartz, 2009; Craig, Pepler, Connolly, & Henderson, 2001), which is a concern because of the negative outcomes associated with being victimized, particularly when victimization is frequent (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Ladd, 2001; Perry, Kusel, & Perry, 1988; Eslea et al., 2004; Hawker & Boulton, 2000).

Though there was not previous research relating spirituality and peer victimization, research on other forms of interpersonal trauma (i.e., childhood abuse) has been shown to be related with spirituality in adults (Walker, Reid, O'Neill, & Brown, 2009; Bryant-Davis et. al, 2012) and was helpful in creating hypotheses for the current study. Such research suggests that although spirituality may help an adolescent make sense of mild, infrequent incidences of peer victimization, chronic and stressful social situations may cause adolescents to struggle with their spirituality. Research has revealed that in some cases spiritual beliefs can buffer the negative effects of abuse, effectively strengthening spirituality, and in other cases spirituality does not protect against the negative effects of abuse, which inhibits spirituality (Reinert & Edwards, 2003). Variations in these associations are accounted for in some studies by differences in the frequency, duration, and severity of the abuse (see Walker et. …

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