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Maternal Religiosity vs. Adolescent Mental Health: Atheist & Highly Religious Most Problematic (2024 Study)

A study investigated the relationship between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health, utilizing the data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

The study’s nuanced approach, including latent class analysis, sheds new light on how different forms of maternal religious belief are associated with various mental health outcomes in adolescents.

It offers a unique perspective on the complex interplay between religious beliefs and mental health during a critical developmental stage.


  • The study utilized latent class analysis to categorize maternal religiosity into four groups: Highly Religious, Moderately Religious, Agnostic, and Atheist.
  • Adolescents of Atheist mothers showed increased odds of depressive symptoms, while those of Highly Religious mothers had higher odds of self-harm thoughts.
  • The research highlights the significance of differentiating between Atheist and Agnostic beliefs in studying the impact on adolescent mental health.
  • This study contributes to understanding the cultural and religious nuances in the context of mental health, especially during late adolescence.

Source: Journal of Affective Disorders (2024)

Details of Findings: Maternal Religiosity vs. Adolescent Kids’ Mental Health (2024)

The study conducted using the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) data revealed several nuanced findings about the relationship between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health.

1. Depression Symptoms

Increased Risk in Atheist Backgrounds: Adolescents whose mothers were categorized as Atheists exhibited a notably higher likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. This was one of the most significant findings, suggesting a unique correlation between a lack of religious belief in maternal figures and increased depressive tendencies in adolescents.

Variation Among Religious Classes: While the study indicated an increased risk of depressive symptoms among adolescents of Moderately and Highly Religious mothers, these associations were less definitive, with the statistical confidence intervals including the possibility of no effect.

2. Self-Harm Behaviors

Elevated Risk in Highly Religious Backgrounds: A critical and concerning finding was the increased odds of self-harm thoughts among adolescents of Highly Religious mothers. This suggests a potential link between stringent religious environments and heightened mental distress leading to self-harm ideation.

Possible Increase in Self-Harm Acts: For self-harm acts, a similar trend was observed in the Highly Religious group, though the statistical evidence was weaker. This potential association warrants further investigation, considering the severity of self-harm behaviors.

3. No Associations with Other Mental Health Outcomes

Disordered Eating & Generalized Anxiety: The study found no significant evidence linking maternal religiosity with disordered eating or generalized anxiety disorder symptoms in adolescents.

This suggests that the influence of maternal religiosity might be more specific to certain mental health domains, such as mood-related disorders and self-harm behaviors.

4. Comparison of Religious Classes

Agnostic Mothers as a Reference Group: In the study, adolescents of Agnostic mothers served as a reference group against which the mental health outcomes of adolescents from other religious backgrounds were compared.

This choice is significant as it provides a baseline for understanding the impact of varying degrees of maternal religiosity.

Agnostic mothers, characterized by their uncertainty or neutrality towards religious belief, provided a middle ground in the spectrum of religiosity.

This neutrality is essential for assessing how deviations towards more pronounced religious beliefs (either Atheist or Highly/Moderately Religious) impact adolescent mental health.

This comparative approach underscores the importance of considering a spectrum of religious beliefs, rather than a binary religious/non-religious dichotomy.

The specific findings related to the comparison of various maternal religious classes to the Agnostic reference group:

  • Adolescents of Atheist Mothers: Compared to adolescents with Agnostic mothers, those with Atheist mothers exhibited a higher likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. This finding suggests a potential impact of a non-religious (Atheist) maternal environment on the increased risk of depression in adolescents.
  • Adolescents of Moderately Religious Mothers: When compared to the Agnostic reference group, adolescents of Moderately Religious mothers showed a trend towards increased odds of depressive symptoms. However, this trend was not as statistically definitive as in the Atheist group, indicating a more subtle impact of moderate religious environments on adolescent depression.
  • Adolescents of Highly Religious Mothers: In the case of Highly Religious mothers, their adolescents not only showed a trend towards increased odds of depressive symptoms but also demonstrated a higher likelihood of self-harm thoughts compared to their Agnostic counterparts. This indicates that a highly religious maternal environment might be associated with a greater risk of both depressive symptoms and self-harm ideation in adolescents.

5. Subtle & Complex Relationships

The study’s findings reveal a complex and multi-layered relationship between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health.

It suggests that the impact of maternal religious beliefs on adolescent mental health is not straightforward and may involve intricate interactions between belief systems, family dynamics, and individual psychological processes.

Maternal Religiosity vs. Adolescent Mental Health (2024 Study)

Halstead et al. used Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) data to examine the prospective relationship between maternal religiosity and offspring mental health during late adolescence.

This study sought to address inconsistencies in previous research by providing a more nuanced understanding of how different patterns of maternal religiosity impact adolescent mental health outcomes.


  • Participants & Data: The study utilized data from the ALSPAC, a long-term study involving a cohort from the Southwest of England. The participants included pregnant women and their offspring, with data collected over a period spanning three decades.
  • Latent Class Analysis: The study employed latent class analysis to categorize maternal religiosity into four distinct classes: Highly Religious, Moderately Religious, Agnostic, and Atheist. This classification was based on mothers’ religious beliefs and practices assessed when the child was 9 years old.
  • Mental Health: The mental health of offspring at age 17-18 years was the primary outcome, assessed using validated questionnaires and interviews. These assessments covered a range of mental health issues, including common mental disorders, depressive symptoms, generalized anxiety symptoms, self-harm acts and thoughts, and disordered eating outcomes.
  • Statistical Analysis: Multivariable logistic regression analysis was used to explore the association between the classes of maternal religiosity and various adolescent mental health outcomes. This analysis was adjusted for a range of confounders, including maternal mental health, adverse childhood experiences, and socioeconomic variables.


  • Depressive Symptoms & Self-Harm: The study found that adolescents of Atheist mothers had increased odds of depressive symptoms, whereas those of Highly Religious mothers had higher odds of self-harm thoughts.
  • Depression & Self-Harm Acts: There was weaker evidence suggesting increased odds of depression in offspring of Moderately and Highly Religious mothers, and increased odds of self-harm acts in offspring of Highly Religious mothers, though these findings were less statistically certain.
  • No Association with Other Outcomes: There was no significant association found between maternal religiosity and outcomes like disordered eating or generalized anxiety disorder symptoms.
  • Comparative Analysis: Compared to adolescents of Agnostic mothers, those of Atheist, Moderately Religious, and Highly Religious mothers showed different odds for depressive symptoms and self-harm behaviors.


  • Attrition & Selection Bias: The study experienced significant attrition from the baseline sample, leading to potential selection bias. This included overrepresentation of individuals with higher socioeconomic status and religiosity.
  • Generalizability: The findings may not be generalizable beyond the study’s demographic, which predominantly consisted of White, Christian participants. The study’s relevance to present-day populations may also be limited due to changes in religious prevalence and perceptions over time.
  • Reliance on Maternal Data: Focusing primarily on maternal religiosity might not capture the complete family religious dynamics, as paternal beliefs and practices could also influence offspring mental health.
  • Methodological Constraints: The study’s design and the nature of the data limited the ability to explore the mechanisms underlying the observed associations. Furthermore, the categorization into specific religiosity classes, while beneficial for analysis, might oversimplify the complex nature of religious beliefs and practices.

Limitations & Skepticism of the Results

While the study using the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) data provides valuable insights into the relationship between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health, it is crucial to approach the results with a degree of skepticism and awareness of the study’s limitations.

Genetic & Environmental Confounding

  • Genetic Predispositions: Both maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health could be influenced by underlying genetic factors. Genetic predispositions might shape not only the religious beliefs and practices of the mother but also the mental health tendencies of the offspring. Disentangling the genetic influences from the direct impact of maternal religiosity is challenging.
  • Shared Environmental Factors: The family environment, encompassing a broad range of socio-economic, cultural, and interpersonal factors, could simultaneously influence maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health. For instance, a family environment that fosters open communication and emotional support might lead to healthier mental health outcomes in adolescents, irrespective of the mother’s religious beliefs.

Causality Concerns

  • Directionality of the Relationship: The study design does not conclusively establish that maternal religiosity causes changes in adolescent mental health. It is possible that the mental health challenges in adolescents could influence the religious beliefs and practices of the mother, or there might be a bidirectional relationship.
  • Potential for Reverse Causation: Considering the longitudinal nature of the study, there is a possibility that the mental health issues in adolescents could lead to changes in maternal religiosity over time, suggesting a reverse causation scenario.

Underlying Mechanisms & Interpretations

  • Role of Parenting Styles and Family Dynamics: The way religious beliefs are practiced and communicated within the family could have a more significant impact on adolescent mental health than the beliefs themselves. For example, highly religious households might have stricter parenting styles, which could contribute to stress and anxiety in adolescents.
  • Influence of Societal and Cultural Contexts: The societal and cultural contexts in which the families are embedded can also play a role. For instance, in societies where religious beliefs are highly prevalent or normative, deviation from these beliefs might impact adolescent mental health differently than in more secular contexts.
  • Mental Health Stigma and Religious Beliefs: In some religious communities, there might be a stigma associated with mental health issues, leading to underreporting or lack of seeking help, which could influence the study’s findings.

Possible Underpinnings of the Associations

Given these limitations and potential confounding factors, the observed associations between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health might be underpinned by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, cultural, and interpersonal factors.

It’s essential to consider these aspects when interpreting the results, and future research should aim to address these confounding variables to better understand the causal pathways involved.

Understanding these nuances is crucial for developing more effective interventions and support mechanisms for adolescents’ mental health in the context of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.

Maternal Religiosity vs. Adolescent Mental Health: Why Research It?

The intricate relationship between maternal religiosity and the mental health of adolescents is a subject that has garnered considerable interest in psychological and sociological research.

Understanding why this association is worthy of study requires an exploration of the multifaceted roles that religion plays in family dynamics, individual development, and societal structures.

1. Religion as a Core Aspect of Family & Societal Life

  • Influence on Family Values and Practices: Religion often significantly influences family values, parenting practices, and the overall emotional climate of the household. Researching maternal religiosity and its impact on adolescents’ mental health can reveal how religious beliefs shape family interactions and support systems, which are crucial during the formative years of adolescence.
  • Societal & Cultural Norms: In many cultures, religious beliefs are deeply embedded in societal norms and practices. Studying maternal religiosity provides insights into how these broader cultural influences impact adolescent development and mental well-being.

2. Adolescent Development & Parental Influence

  • Critical Developmental Stage: Adolescence is a critical period marked by rapid physical, emotional, and cognitive changes. The role of the mother, often a primary caregiver, becomes crucial in guiding and supporting adolescents through this transition.
  • Parental Beliefs & Modeling: Adolescents often look to their parents as role models. Understanding how maternal religiosity, as a key aspect of a mother’s belief system, influences adolescents’ coping mechanisms, worldview, and psychological resilience is essential.

3. Mental Health Implications

  • Understanding Risk & Protective Factors: Maternal religiosity could potentially be a risk or protective factor for various mental health issues in adolescence. Research in this area can help identify specific aspects of religiosity that might contribute to either increased resilience or vulnerability to mental health problems.
  • Tailoring Mental Health Interventions: Insights from this research can inform the development of culturally sensitive mental health interventions and support services that consider the religious background and beliefs of families.

4. Gap in Existing Literature

  • Inconsistencies in Previous Studies: Prior research on the impact of parental religiosity on adolescent mental health has shown mixed results. A focused study on maternal religiosity helps clarify these inconsistencies and contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the subject.
  • Need for Longitudinal Data: Many previous studies have been cross-sectional, limiting the ability to understand the long-term impact of maternal religiosity on adolescent mental health. Longitudinal studies like ALSPAC provide valuable data over time, offering more comprehensive insights.

Possible Takeaways for Ideal Maternal Approaches (Ideas)

If religiosity causally influences adolescent mental health, there are several takeaways that could guide maternal approaches for fostering a healthier mental environment for adolescents.

  1. Balanced Religious Practices: Mothers might consider adopting a balanced approach to religious practices, ensuring that religious beliefs do not become a source of stress or conflict within the family. Emphasizing compassion, understanding, and support in the context of religious teachings could be beneficial.
  2. Open Communication: Encouraging open and non-judgmental communication about religious beliefs and values can help adolescents feel understood and supported, regardless of their own stance on religion.
  3. Supporting Individual Beliefs: Respecting and supporting adolescents’ personal beliefs and choices, even if they differ from maternal beliefs, can foster a sense of autonomy and self-respect in the adolescent.
  4. Awareness of Religious Impact: Being aware of how one’s religious beliefs and practices might influence an adolescent’s mental health can help mothers adjust their approach, especially in families with strict or highly structured religious practices.
  5. Cultural Sensitivity: Recognizing and respecting the diverse ways in which different cultures and societies approach religion can help mothers provide a more inclusive and understanding environment for their children.
  6. Seeking Professional Guidance: In cases where religion-related conflicts or issues arise that impact mental health, seeking professional guidance from counselors or therapists who are sensitive to religious issues can be a prudent step.

These takeaways emphasize a flexible, understanding, and supportive approach to religiosity in the family, aiming to nurture a mentally healthy environment for adolescents during their crucial developmental phase.

Takeaway: Maternal Religiosity vs. Teen Mental Health

The comprehensive study utilizing the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) data reveals significant insights into the complex relationship between maternal religiosity and adolescent mental health.

Key findings indicate that adolescents of Atheist mothers have increased odds of depressive symptoms, while those of Highly Religious mothers show a higher propensity for self-harm thoughts, highlighting the nuanced impact of maternal religiosity on different aspects of mental well-being.

However, the study’s inherent limitations, including potential genetic and environmental confounding factors, necessitate a cautious interpretation of these results, underscoring the need for further research in this area.

This research contributes to a deeper understanding of how religious beliefs within a family context might influence adolescent development and mental health.

It emphasizes the importance of considering cultural, familial, and individual factors when examining the role of religiosity in psychological well-being.

Ultimately, the study serves as a pivotal starting point for ongoing dialogue and investigation into the multifaceted dynamics of religion and mental health in the family setting.


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