Published: 25 June 2013

Adults and children: a spiritual disconnection

Are young children getting the opportunities they need to talk about spirituality with adults they trust?

To say that young children are extremely curious is not controversial. Often their curiosity seems to cause an unquenchable desire to learn more about any and every topic that comes to mind. 'Why?' is a question maddeningly familiar to parents of young children.

It should therefore be no less of a surprise that young children are curious about spiritual matters. After all, even the children of atheist parents who attend a secular school will still be exposed to ideas about spirituality, religion and moral values through friends, or grandparents, or television. Indeed, questions about life and death occur to children without any need for prompting from anyone. They will naturally want to make sense of these ideas, which may seem baffling and uncomfortable in their strangeness and seeming importance, and to seek help from adults in doing so.

However, a study carried out at the University of Surrey has found that some children may have no trusted adult with whom they can discuss spiritual matters. The research suggests that children may still try to explore these ideas, but alone and without adult support, comfort or guidance.

The idea for the research sprang from earlier work carried out by a three-person team from the University's School of Psychology (Dr May Karlsen, Dr Adrian Coyle and Dr Emma Williams) on approaches to children's spirituality in psychotherapy and counselling. The team identified a lack of research  on the role of adults in children's spirituality, so May Karlsen decided to focus her doctoral research on young children's own views of how their thoughts about spirituality had been shaped by adults close to them.

May's interest in children's spirituality as a trainee Counselling Psychologist at the time was shared by the other members of the research team: Adrian is a social psychologist of religion and Emma is a developmental psychologist.

In most cases it didn’t take much effort before the children openly shared insights and experiences

Interviewing a small sample of children aged six and seven from a non-religious school in southeast England, May found them very capable of experiencing and thinking about spiritual matters even with very little encouragement from the adults around them. "In most cases it didn’t take much effort before the children openly shared insights and experiences that they said they had never shared with anyone else," she commented.

The interviews also revealed a real lack of two-way communication between children and adults. In most cases the children reported that adults were always too busy to talk about spirituality. One child said she could not share her questions about God with her mother because "my mum doesn't get time because… all she does is just lie down on the sofa and says 'Tomorrow'". Another said that even his Sunday-school teachers were too busy instructing him to talk. "Because they just tell you what to do. 'Do this, do that'. And they don't listen. They never listen."

Many of the children appeared to adopt the perceived religious or non-religious stance of favoured adults even in the absence of any specific spiritual guidance or instruction from them, while one of the children expressed a longing to spend time in church even though her parents were not religious.

"We got a sense that, for some children, adults played a role implicitly," said Adrian Coyle. "There was evidence of children identifying with or conforming to the outlooks of trusted adults on religion and spirituality, and we also noticed that some children spoke about God in similar ways to how they spoke about their parents."

In response to the lack of interaction with adults, nearly all the children appeared to reciprocate by withdrawing from spiritual discussion with the adults they trusted, and also their own friends. One child did not tell her parents that she sometimes heard in her head the 'kind voice' of her late grandmother because she thought that it would make them sad. One child said she was very careful not to speak about her spiritual experiences to anyone "cause they'll think I'm telling fibs".

In some cases, children reported feelings of isolation, fear and confusion as they tried to explore certain issues by themselves. "This is not altogether surprising," suggests Adrian. "Some of the children were grappling with serious topics such as death and 'hell' and 'devils'. As adults, we often try to protect children from such topics and questions by avoiding them but, for many of these children, it meant they had to figure things out largely by themselves."

Some of the children were grappling with serious topics such as death and 'hell' and 'devils'

This was a relatively small study, but the fact that little work had previously been conducted on this topic from children's perspectives meant it was important to get a detailed sense of what some children thought about how trusted adults shaped and responded to their spirituality. "We hope that other researchers will extend the work by adding the experiences of other children to the picture that we developed through our research," said Adrian, "particularly children from other cultures and religious traditions. Also, we would be really interested to learn more about parents' perspectives on their children's spirituality. This study should be seen as an initial step on a bigger and potentially fascinating research journey."

This work should give professionals who work with children a sense of the value of adopting a nurturing role in relation to the spiritual lives of children. Recently, May Karlsen, who is now a Counselling Psychologist with West London Action for Children, visited a primary school which had a large ‘Spiritual tree’ on display. Here children could write about what concepts such as ‘Creativity’, ‘Awe’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Sympathy’ meant to them. Next to it the school had written: 'We consistently aim to nurture, encourage and support every child’s unique spiritual journey'.

"Wouldn’t it be great if we as psychologists and therapists could learn more about how to do this?" asked May. "In a cultural climate where attention is increasingly focused on the classification and treatment of children’s problems, we would be delighted if our research helped to encourage greater attention to children’s senses of connection with and love for the world around them."


'"They never listen”: Towards a grounded theory of the role played by trusted adults in the spiritual lives of children' by May Karlsen, Adrian Coyle and Emma Williams was published in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, June 2013.

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