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Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

Karate. Drama. Soccer. Debate. Any of these activities has the potential to contribute to a teen's social and personal growth. But according a recently published study, there's one after-school experience that promotes higher rates of personal and interpersonal growth among teens than any other activity.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have identified faith-based youth groups as the extracurricular activity that most significantly contributes to teens' identity development and positive relationships with others.

In fact, teens in the study rated religious groups higher than sports, performance groups, academic clubs and community service groups like scouting, according to Reed Larson, chairman of Family Resiliency at the university.

"Adolescence is a period of identity development, when teens are sorting out their values and thinking about their future and where they fit in the world,'' said Larson in a telephone interview from his office in Urbana. "Faith-based youth groups provide a logical venue for these kinds of explorations.''

Larson said that while extracurricular groups can provide important social and academic opportunities for teens, religious youth groups are unique because they create a context for kids to talk about their values and what they believe in.

"That doesn't necessarily occur when kids are hanging out with friends at school or on a sports field,'' he said.

According to Larson, teens are hungry for these kinds of discussions.

"Religion and spirituality are important to a majority of young people,'' Larson said. He cited one study in which 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they believe in God, and 75 percent of teens say they try to follow the traditions and beliefs of their religion.

"When social groups are embedded within a larger organization - like a church, synagogue, or mosque, children can talk about their faith under the umbrella of a belief system that is meaningful to them,'' he said.

Larson and his colleagues discovered that teens in faith-based youth groups reported increased personal growth and improved relationships with peers, parents and others in the community.

"This phenomenon occurred across all religions and denominations,'' Larson said.

These findings come as no surprise to Lauren Marks- Cabanas, program director and youth group advisor at Temple Dor Dorim in Weston. "Kids often join a religious youth group because it's fun and social - and that's great,'' she said. "But they can gain much more than that.''

By participating with peers in activities like social action projects, community service and religious events, teens have opportunities to think about who they are and what's important to them.

"That's key,'' Marks-Cabanas said.

If your child expresses an interest in joining a faith-based youth group, seek recommendations from other parents and families, Larson suggested. And be sure that the group will be appropriately supervised.

Another tip: "Look for youth groups in which the leaders give teens some level of choice, ownership and decision-making in the programs,'' Larson said. "This facilitates the growth experience.''

For more information, go to the Center for Spiritual Development in Children and Adolescence, a project of the Search Institute's Healthy Communities/Healthy Youth Initiative: www.SpiritualDevelopmentCenter.org.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald
Published: November 16, 2006

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