Integrating Faith and Psychiatry, Part 2: Scriptural Principles for Growing Healthy Children

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Parenting is hard, and not just because we struggle to balance work and family. The stakes are high. We parents all raise our children, hoping they will become spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthy adults. We look for answers from pastors, pediatricians, and parenting "experts," but we should not neglect the wisdom of mental health professionals.

Healthy child development reflects God's character and purposes, says Laity Leadership Senior Fellow Allan Josephson, M.D., and Scripture provides guidelines that children desperately need.

In his 1994 paper, "A Clinical Theology of the Developmental Process: A Child Psychologist's Perspective," Josephson outlines eight areas of child development that not only illustrate his theology, but also offer sound parenting principles.

Security: The need for someone to be there and to know the world is a safe place.

A father quietly leaves the room where his six and four year old children are watching television. When he returns, he finds them huddled together and in tears. He reassures them, but is crestfallen to have caused them pain.

“If one theme is abundantly clear from Scripture, it is that we are not alone,” Josephson says. “We learn of God as Father, and that we are adopted children and heirs to his kingdom.”

Freedom: The need to be me.

Once children feel attached and secure, they begin to separate from parenting figures, Josephson says. The self reliance they begin to develop as toddlers is critical for adult productivity.

Likewise, “God is committed to our self-hood. He allowed Adam and Eve to make the initial choice which led to the fall (Gen. 1). He lamented over Jerusalem (Matt. 23-37) but demonstrated that if individuals were unwilling to accept him, he would not take away their free choice.”

Boundaries: The need for structure.

Freedom without structure leads to panic, Josephson says, and children without limits want discipline and structure.

For example, a camp counselor takes a group of boys on a remote camping trip and makes frequent references to how wonderful it is to be free of limits. As dusk begins to fall, a young camper discreetly asks, “You do know how to get home, don’t you?”

Similarly, although Jesus came to provide a new way, he attended synagogue regularly, and although he fulfilled the law, he also said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Friends: The need for social relationships.

A family of five returns from a trip late at night. The 11 year old girl wants to call a friend despite the late hour, but is forbidden to do so by her parents. She calls her friend as soon as she wakes up the next morning and apologizes for not calling when she got home.

Peer relationships teach reciprocity, sharing, and the way the world works, Josephson says. Children learn who they are by separating from parents and through experiences with other children.

Likewise, the story of salvation is one of social relationship. When Jesus washes the disciples feet at The Last Supper, he demonstrates that servant-hood is the essence of friendship.

Competence: The need to create.

After early relationship and socialization issues are established, children begin to test themselves and compete, Josephson says.

For example, a 10 year old boy is seen by a psychiatrist for behavior problems. He has learning challenges that are associated with depression and difficulty relating to others. Being selected for the school choir “literally dissolves his despondence.”

Likewise, in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25), Jesus describes his desire for us to grow and use the gifts we’ve been given. “Not only is it our responsibility to strive for competence; implicit is the assumption that we will be most satisfied when we are being creative.”

Identity: The need for self-definition.

Adolescence is a time for trying out identities and internalizing aspects of significant others as a way to begin appropriating the authentic self. For example, a young high school football star quits the team when he realizes football is his father’s dream and not his own.

Likewise, the New Testament teaches that we find our true identities in following God and being redeemed through Jesus’ death.

“God realizes that we have a God shaped vacuum that only he can fill,” says Josephson.

Intimacy: The need to know and be known.

The staff of a psychiatric ward can’t understand why a 14 year old girl draws attention to herself in ways that invite derision from her peers. “Only through careful understanding of the girl’s paralyzing sense of ineffectiveness did they realize she had two choices: to be known or to go unknown.”

Similarly, God is a God of intimacy. He said it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18) and created a partner for him. Jesus later affirmed the permanence of the marital bond, and in 1 Corinthians 8:3, Paul says that anyone who loves God “is known by him.”

Relationship: The need for the other.

Development does not occur in isolation but in social context, Josephson says. “There is no such thing as a baby,” but rather one can only speak of a baby and caretaker,” English pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott said.

Likewise, the interactive nature of our relationship with God is core in Scripture. “Nothing can separate us from the love of his son and this meets our deepest spiritual and emotional needs.”

Demonstrating Parallels

These eight parallels demonstrate a remarkable similarity between human and spiritual development in Josephson’s view. Both kinds of development require interactive relationships in which to unfold.

“In understanding our natural world there are only two options--we are either the product of time and chance or part of a created order,” he concludes. “It stretches credulity to believe that anything but a personal God could be the source of these behavioral phenomena.”

What do you think? Do these parallels point to God’s character and purposes? Is there wisdom in them that you can glean?

Read other parts in our series on Integrating Faith and Psychiatry:

Image by Tim Miller. Used with permission.

​Allan Josephson, M.D. is Vice Chairman for Adolescent Psychiatric Services at the University of Louiseville School of Medicine and author of three books, including the Handbook of Spirituality and Worldview in Clinical Practice, a text he edited and contributed to that is used in psychiatric residency programs to help psychiatrists understand the diagnostic and therapeutic implications of their own and their patients' worldviews.