Think. Discuss. Act. Troubled Youth

Print Friendly and PDF

Needs Of At Risk Youth Met Through The Spiritual Dimension

Larson, S.J. (1997). The needs of at-risk youth being met through the spiritual dimension. Straight Ahead Ministries, Inc.
(Download this review as a PDF)


Often when social workers, clinicians and youth advocates hear of trying to use Christian principles to rehabilitate at-risk youth they get nervous. Thoughts of “jail house religion” and “the devil made me do it” excuses; not to mention the potential of presenting of a simplistic, one-dimensional approach to the multi-dimensional problems youth face are just too risky.

Yet, many leading adolescent theorists see the necessity of not ignoring the spiritual dimension when treating young offenders. According to Professor James W. Fowler, “God is built into the healthy development of individuals. Faith constitutes our life wager,” says Fowler. “It is the only thing which gives real meaning to life’s conditions” (Fowler 1981).

Similarly, Charles Shelton states:

[It is our] supposition that God’s grace is at work through the developing nature of the adolescent. We must therefore pay attention to this developing nature, for without it we are left with a theory that has very little significance for what adolescents actually experience (Shelton 1983 viii).

Well-known child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles says the essential question is “How do we teach another person character?” He points out that even if a person gets an “A” in a class on moral reasoning, he may well flunk out in the life issues which demand morality. Coles points out the need for more than cognitive ability, he needs a strength from a spiritual dimension (Coles, 1995).

The issue then becomes, do we ignore the spiritual aspects of at-risk youth or do we try to develop that spirituality as part of a holistic approach to treatment? A review of several studies seems to point to the latter. For instance, Teen Challenge, a nationwide drug and alcohol rehabilitation program incorporating evangelical Christian principles underwent a study by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1976. Dr. Catherine Hess, Study Director states:

Whereas treatment for a drug addict in a detoxification facility results in a 1% cure rate and the therapeutic community’s rate is about 10%, the Teen Challenge program had an 84% success rate for addicts tested seven years after completing the program. The Teen Challenge program is the best I know of to get a person off drugs.

Similarly, Dr. John A. Howard, member of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse states, “Of all the drug programs reported to the Commission, the most successful is the religiously-based program conducted by Teen Challenge.”

Prison Fellowship, a national Evangelical Christian prison ministry recently underwent a study conducted by the Center for Social Research (CSR), examining the impact of Prison Fellowship programs on the behavior of inmates in four New York state prisons. For those inmates who participated in at least ten Bible studies in one year, CSR found that only 14% were rearrested within a year of their release, compared with 36% of those who had never attended a Bible study program.

Our own organization, Straight Ahead Ministries, serves juvenile offenders in 76 juvenile facilities in seven states and provides aftercare through an intensive mentoring program in Boston and two aftercare homes. The recidivism rate for those completing the mentoring program is 12%, and for those who have gone through the aftercare homes the rate is 8%. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services rate of recidivism is 51% (American Correctional Association).

It is not the intent of this paper to present a simplistic approach to the needs of youth, or to assume that the only issues in a troubled young person are spiritual. Rather, we acknowledge that the needs are in fact critical and complex; treatment needs to encompass every dimension of a young person’s life-including the spiritual. Because we operate Christian programs in state-sponsored juvenile facilities this paper reflects spirituality from a Christian perspective.

In researching the basic needs of at-risk youth, we examined Brendtro’s, Brokenleg’s, and Van Bockern’s Circle of Courage (belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity) (Brendtro et al., 1990); Dwight Dean’s Alienation Scale (normlessness, powerlessness, and social isolation) (Dean, 1961); and Erik Erikson’s first five Psychosocial Stages of Development (trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, and identity) (Erikson, 1982). Below is the synthesis of what we believe to be five essential virtues for healthy adolescent development, and how they are developed, at least in part, through the spiritual dimension:

Five Characteristics of Healthy Adolescent Development


Trust involves a sense of acceptance and belonging which yields openness in relationships and hopefulness about the future. Trust emerges as one develops a core feeling of acceptance and a deep sensation of belonging (Brendtro, et al., 1990). In the context of nurturing relationships characterized by consistent, sensitive, need-meeting care, a person learns to trust. The mother-infant relationship is the prototypical relationship which establishes trust as the dominant mode of relating. A well developed sense of trust enables a person to have hope for the future as well as a willingness to enter vulnerably into relationships. When the need for trust is met, a person can be vulnerable because at the root, he knows himself to be loved just as he is. Everything of himself that he now opens to others has already been validated, accepted, and embraced.

When trust does not develop, a person may become despondent, disheartened, discouraged, and dejected. A trustless person lacks the capacity for hope and the willingness to let others see his core. Because hope and genuine relationships are lacking, the very foundation of a healthy, vibrant life is missing. (Erikson 1982)

It is not surprising that when one observes the actions of at-risk youth, it is this most basic need for trust has often been neglected. At a Bible study I was leading in a detention center some years ago, I asked if any of the boys had ever felt rejected growing up. Five of the seven relayed stories of how someone in their immediate family had tried to kill them when they were younger. It is no surprise to those working in the field that many of the issues of at-risk youth stem from their families. Eighty-four percent of the boys who become serious juvenile offenders have parents with criminal records (Craig and Glick 1978), and less than 5% of families are responsible for nearly half of the criminal convictions in the United States. (West et al, 1977)

Lack of trust often can be seen in how at-risk youth view relationships with others. One of the boys at the home we live in could articulate well his life philosophy, “I’ll hurt you before you have a chance to hurt me.” If you were to ask him how it was growing up, he would likely recall to you his mother telling him, “I wish you’d never been born.” Any wonder that he’s not able to trust people when they get close to him? How will healing come to such a life?

The words of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament take on a contemporary application here: “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Cor. 4:15 NIV). Trust cannot be taught in a classroom; it must be experienced in the context of a significant, long-term, loving relationship-like that of a father or mother. The young person must be re-parented.

Yet this is certainly not an easy task. A young person will often subconsciously transfer the anger that they have for one in a parental role onto whoever begins to move into that role in their life. The person entering into that new parental role must be willing to make a long-term commitment to the relationship in order to help the child rebuild a positive definition for that role of a parent. Only through such a new definition will the child have the hope of passing on a positive parental role to their own children. This is especially true in the role of a father. Nearly every juvenile offender I have met over the past ten years, when asked about his father, says either he hates him or dislikes him greatly. When trust has been broken at that earliest phase of a child’s life, a deep-seated anger and hatred for authority almost always emerges, spilling over into nearly every other relationship. On the other hand, the power of one committed, long-term relationship in the life of a troubled young person is incredible.

When John, a boy who had lived with us for two years, left our home to go to college we had the usual departing ceremony. Each of us in the home said what John had meant to us, and John said what each of us had meant to him. When it came to me, I wondered what John would say. We had been through many things together. He said:

Two things really stick out in my mind. The first is watching you and Hanne’s marriage. I’ve never really seen a marriage up close. I never thought I would get married, because I’ve never really seen one work. But now I want to be married some day, and I want to have a marriage like yours. The second thing is that you wrestled with me. My dad never wrestled with me, but you would wrestle with me. If I ever have kids I’m going to wrestle with them. I want to be a dad like you some day.

In orthodox Christian faith, God is viewed as the perfect Father. God is the One who ultimately promises to be trustworthy, to love unconditionally, to be the father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5), a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). God is the One who meets our deepest need for love and trust. But before one can get his ultimate need for love and trust met, he must first see it displayed in a real live person.


Power is the ability to both decide on and shape the course of events upon which one’s life and happiness depend. Personal power is often referred to as independence or autonomy. (Brendtro et al., 1990) This is true, but it is only healthy if it is developed within the context of deep, relational belonging. Power, properly understood, emerges directly out of embracive, binding relationships. Consequently, it may appear as a form of rebelliousness as the young person is attempting to take for himself the decision-making and authority roles previously held by loved elders.

Power, properly developed in an individual, produces the ability to make prudent decisions even in the face of compelling outside pressures. Undeveloped, a powerless person harbors strong suspicions of self-doubt. He feels impotent. At the extreme, he feels too weak to effect even simple changes he would like to see occur in his life. (Erikson, 1982)

This struggle of power and independence is what adolescence is all about. In dealing with troubled kids, our definition of success is usually getting them to do the right thing. The young person’s definition of success is invariably quite different-it is to be independent.

We experienced this reality when we had grounded one of the boys in our home. Jason had come home one night very drunk, showing that he could not handle the amount of freedom we had given him. For a few weeks he was restricted to the house unless he was at work, school, or with somebody else from the house.

Later, in recounting those two weeks, Jason told us that numerous nights he would get up at 1 or 2 a.m., when everyone else was sleeping, and walk around the streets of our town. When asked why, he said, “Just because I was told I couldn’t.” He further said that he didn’t really do anything on his hour-long walks, “I just wanted to do my own thing.” Prior to the grounding Jason had never gone on midnight strolls, nor did he take them after those few weeks of grounding were over. Yet in Jason’s mind, he had succeeded. He was independent. Unfortunately, this search for independence is most commonly known as rebellion.

The task, then, for caretakers of troubled young people is a giant one. How do we keep enough structure and restrictions around a destructive teen, and yet empower him to make decisions, fail at times, and gain confidence? Giving young people the power of choice in as many areas as possible is crucial. Kids are often recognized only when they do bad, while the good they do goes largely unnoticed. One boy told me, “The only time anybody ever pays any attention to me is when I get in trouble.” It’s important that we catch kids doing good as much as possible.

It has been said that young people need to hear seven positive things for every one negative thing if they are to develop healthily. While the numbers may be anecdotal, the point is not: strongly emphasize the positive. A review of Biblical commands shows that the emphasis of Christian faith is on the positive. Jesus commanded His followers to do certain acts (love one another, love God, etc.), at least seven times as much as He commanded them not to do something.

Recently one of our residents came to us with a dilemma about a particular girl he was beginning to date. We knew this girl as one who was involved in several negative behaviors, that she would be a negative influence on him, and that the sooner he broke away from her the better. Yet I resisted the temptation to give him my own “definition of success.” I said, “Shawn, I’ve seen you make some very wise decisions, and the fact that you’re even wanting to talk with me about this shows me that you really want to do the right thing. I’m proud of you, and I know you’ll make the right decision here, too.” After discussing the situation at some length, Shawn decided to break off the relationship. In that case anyway, we both succeeded.

When a young person feels powerless they will often project those feelings onto their definition of God, seeing Him either as a controlling policeman or as a helpless, little old man. It’s important for them to understand that God desires to fill them with His genuine power, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7 NIV).


Purpose is the motivation to act derived from a conviction of truth. To give someone purpose is tantamount to giving him meaning. (Dean, 1961) It is to give him a reason-a reason for living, being, and moving. To say someone has purpose in the generic sense is really to say that he receives great pleasure in acting, doing, and expressing. This type of person needs very little stimulation to motivate him.

Conversely, purposelessness arises out of reasonlessness. It is the equivalent of meaninglessness. This person finds no real reason to do anything. He lacks values, goals, or truths which grip his life and compel him to action. At the extreme, a purposeless person is a clinically depressed person (Erikson, 1982).

A few years ago I read a survey (though I can’t remember its source) of high school students whereby they were asked to identify the biggest problems among high school students. Their top responses were: “loneliness” and “having nothing important to do.” How much more is this true for troubled kids? I asked a group of kids in a detention center if they had any dreams for the future. One responded, “No…that’s why we’re here.”

Several years ago I was asked to attend a state-sponsored training on safe sex in order to be an instructor of the curriculum for incarcerated youth. Late in the day, a clinician interrupted, “Listen, these kids don’t make decisions based on the future. They don’t even think they’re going to live to be 21. We’re crazy if we think we’re going to convince them to use condoms!” To this the instructor replied, “You’re right, we have to give them a sense of purpose…just think maybe some day one of them could be an assistant manager at a Burger King.” Somehow I don’t think that prospect in itself is going to be enough.

But, when a young person gets a grasp of God’s purpose for their life, it can do more than anything else in giving them a reason to want to change. A young person who develops their faith often simultaneously develops a purpose in their life. The Bible is repleat with calls for God’s followers to put other before themselves in concrete ways. Jesus tells His followers to store up treasures in Heaven rather than on earth (Matthew 6:19). His call is to help others and ourselves, not through inate altruism but through a love and desire for God.

To help develop that purpose we require all of the kids in our homes to be involved in service projects where they are giving out to others. One night per week they feed the homeless on the streets of Boston. This one thing alone has had such an impact on both the homeless and our kids. Eddie said after going in his first time, “Wow, I used to kick those guys when I’d walk by them on the streets, and tonight I was giving them food and getting to know them. After tonight I know I’ll never treat a street person the way I used to.”

Additionally, the kids go on summer mission trips. John went to work at a Christian camp for disabled people. When he returned he said, “That’s the first time in my life I felt like I was really needed, and doing just I what I was made to do. Now, I know what I want to go into.”


Mastery is defined as confidence in one’s ability to complete tasks successfully. Whereas power is the will to make decisive choices that regulate one’s life, mastery is the overarching sense of dominion or supremacy over one’s world. It is akin to a strong sense of self-esteem, self-value, and self-confidence. Through successful completion of even small tasks, a person acquires an inner sense of competence-a confidence in his ability to solve problems (Brendtro et al., 1990).

Beginning usually in the early school years, a person presented with things beyond himself, learns that he has the capacity to stretch himself to the degree necessary for a solution to the problem. Unrealized, a person feels incompetent, inferior, or just plain ineffective. Rather than a sense of sway over his environment, he feels mastered and manipulated by it. His efforts seem futile (Erikson, 1982).

At-risk youth have typically experienced so much failure that they no longer believe they can succeed at anything. Steve had a real gift for art. One day while in his cell I asked if he would make a painting for me. He agreed, and within a couple of weeks he had created a real masterpiece. When I reached for it, he said I couldn’t have it because he wasn’t finished with it yet.

“What do you have left to do?” I asked. “Oh, I haven’t signed it yet,” he responded. “I’ll give it to you next week.” Several weeks went by. Each week I would ask if he had signed it yet. The response was always the same. “Not yet, but by next week I’ll have it finished.” It finally dawned on me why Steve was afraid to complete the painting. As long as he wasn’t finished with it, nobody could criticize it. After all, he wasn’t finished with it yet. As soon as Steve signed it and gave it to me, it would be open for inspection, posing the possibility of failure.

While Larry was locked up, he went with our mentoring program on a white water rafting trip. It was strange that he would sign up for it, for the whole way up there he was saying how he wasn’t going to go on the river. Even while we were carrying the raft down the path to the river, Larry was still insisting that he wasn’t getting in the boat. Finally, left without options, he hesitantly entered the raft. He was very nervous the entire day.

On the way home Larry kept asking when we could do that again. He said he had never had so much fun. When we asked why he was so negative at first he told us that the last time he was in a boat, his friend drowned. Larry was convinced that if he ever got into a boat again, somebody in the boat would drown because Larry was there. That small success became a big one in Larry’s life.

As a young person gains a sense of purpose from their creator, this also gives them confidence to rely on God to empower them to carry out the tasks set before them. The goal is not to instill in the person an unhealthy sense of autonomy, but rather to teach them to rely upon the power of God, knowing that [they] can do all things through Christ who gives (them) strength (Phil. 4:13).


Self-sacrifice is the true giving of oneself to a larger cause. Self-sacrifice is the giving away of oneself for the sake of others. Akin to generosity, it is the sacrificing of one’s own interests for the sake of a larger cause. (Brendtro et al., 1990) Jesus’ words perhaps describe it best, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it (Luke 9:24 NIV).”

A person without a developed sense of self-sacrifice and a willingness to actually make sacrifices for a larger cause has an immature character. He will seem selfish, disloyal, or narcissistic. More superficially, he will tell you that he doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He has no identity (Erikson, 1982).

The Greek word used throughout the New Testament, Koinonea means “fellowship.” It’s definition: to give, contribute, share; to be initiated into the mysteries of Christ; participating in the deeds of others, being equally responsible for them. While this was originally the definition of the early church, for many young people today it more closely parallels their definition of a “gang.” If we didn’t have such a deep need for self-sacrifice, gangs would not exist.

It has been exciting for us to see the process of self-sacrifice come about in the lives of kids. When they first come to our home, it seems as though they are always saying to themselves, “How can I make sure I don’t have to do any more than is absolutely necessary?” When anyone needs a ride or any assistance we are automatically expected to do everything. Recently we saw Brian demonstrate that he has come to look beyond “What’s in it for me?” to “How can I contribute to the rest of the group?” One of the guys who does not have a license needed to be to work at 5 a.m., and we assumed that it would be our responsibility to get him there. Instead Brian said, “Hey you don’t need to get up that early, why don’t you let me do it this time.”

A couple of weeks ago all of the guys in our home were either gone or working on the evening when they normally feed the homeless. We found this out at the dinner table and said we would need to cancel the event that night because nobody was available to drive the van. A few moments later Felix spoke up, “We can’t just cancel this, I’ll cancel my plans for the night and drive the van.” Usually Felix gains a sense of purpose from going in with the other guys to feed the homeless, but this night he demonstrated the higher virtue of self-sacrifice.

Both Felix and Brian have been involved in our programs for a few years. As they’ve experienced their other needs being met through the spiritual dimension, they don’t have the same outstanding needs and can afford to give to the larger cause, even if it personally costs them something.


It is not our recommendation that juvenile treatment centers try to become churches, that would be a grave mistake. Nor do we believe that these five emerging needs are met exclusively through spiritual means. Yet, we see the spiritual component as necessary for the needs of young people to be fully met. As juvenile caretakers acknowledge the legitimacy of spiritual development, they can provide opportunities for the outside involvment of individuals from the religious community as the effort to offer more holistic rehabilitation. The names of young people in this article were changed.

Scott Larson of Straight Ahead Ministries, Dave Van Patten of Dare Mighty Things, and Alexander Dunlop with funding from Prison Fellowship Ministries, have recently completed a research project entitled, “The Spiritual Development of Juvenile Offenders.” This article contains some of the findings of this research.

An edited version of this paper appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Reclaiming Children and Youth: Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems (pp. 166-172), published by PRO-ED, 8700 Shoal Creek Blvd, Austin, TX.


  • American Correctional Association. (March, 1990). Unlocking juvenile corrections. On the Line. San Francisco: NCCD Publications
  • Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service
  • Craig, M.M. & Glick, S.J. (1978). School behavior related to later delinquency and non delinquency. Criminologia, 5.
  • Coles, R. (1990). The spiritual life of children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Coles, R. (1995). The profile of spirituality of at-risk youth. The Ongoing Journey: Awakening Spiritual Life in At-Risk Youth. Nebraska: Boys Town Press.
  • Dean, D.G. (October, 1961). Alienation: Its meaning and measurement. American Sociological Review, 26(5), 753-758.
  • Engel, J.F. (1979). Contemporary christian communications: Its theory and practice. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1982). The life cycle completed: A review. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle: A reissue. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Fowler, J.W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
  • Shelton, C.M. (1983). Adolescent spirituality: Pastoral ministry for high school and college youth. Chicago: Loyola University Press.
  • West, D.J. & Farrington, D.P. (1977). The delinquent way of life. Crame Rissay, NY.
  • Westerhoff, J.H. (1976). Will our children have faith? New York: The Seabury Press.

Please send any comments or questions to:

[email protected]
Copyright © 1997 Straight Ahead Ministries, Inc.
9 Charles St, Westboro, MA 01581

Scott J. Larson
© 2019 CYS

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *