(CNN) — Most people had probably never heard the term“affluenza” until Ethan Couch’s legal team used it as a defense in his trial for driving drunk and killing four people in Texas. And, judging by the robust online conversations, most think the claim that Couch was so spoiled by his parents that he didn’t grow up with boundaries and realize the consequences of his actions was a ridiculous argument for why he shouldn’t be held accountable for his crimes.
Couch’s decision to head to Mexico, a violation of his 10-year probation sentence, accompanied by his mother has only heightened the criticism of him and his upbringing.
But psychologists around the country say there is something here that society should not overlook: There is growing evidence that children of the affluent are becoming “increasingly troubled, reckless and self-destructive,” wrote Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University along with Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in a blog post for Reuters titled “Sometimes ‘poor little rich kids’ are really poor little rich kids.”
Luthar has been studying the lives of privileged children for 25 years. Her research has shown that drug and alcohol use among affluent teens is higher than among kids of the same age group in inner cities.
Further, children growing up in wealthier households are more likely to be suffering from anxiety and depression compared with the national average, according to the research. And, while crime is believed to be more of an issue for children living in poverty, there are “comparable levels of delinquency” for children in lower-income and upper-income households, wrote Luthar and Schwartz.
The only difference is the form the rule-breaking takes, they said. In well-off households, it tends to include widespread cheating and stealing from parents and peers.
“Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these ‘poor little rich kids.’ But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems,” they wrote.
The ‘culture of affluence’
Luthar says there are plenty of reasons why people get uneasy about this topic. One is because of the word “affluent.”
People living in upper middle class households don’t like to think of themselves as affluent, but they are. “The truth is if you are an educated, white-collar professional family, you are this demographic,” she said in an interview.
In a 2003 research paper called “The Culture of Affluence,” she pointed to a range of factors that are unique to wealthy, upwardly mobile America, which present their own kinds of challenges.
Money is plentiful, so children have more money to buy drugs and alcohol and get sophisticated fake IDs, and parents have the money to pay for high-profile lawyers to make sure their children continue to have an “absolutely pristine record,” she said.
“We are certainly not saying that all affluent parents do this, or even that most do. But there is a sizable and vocal minority of parents who do not just bail their kids out but do it repeatedly and do it in very inappropriate circumstances,” said Luthar, who is also professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“So these are the kids who then start to believe, and rightfully so, I’m not getting caught and even if I do, nothing’s going to happen to me.”
Modeling is a key issue in all households, including wealthy ones, psychologists say.
“You are literally displaying a behavior and then younger people who are more prone to being influenced by things see it and there’s a sense of entitlement by some people with money, not all people, and there’s also a sense that you’re not being corrected if you’re getting away with things,” said Harris Stratyner, a Manhattan psychologist who works primarily with wealthy families.
“It’s what we call acquired narcissism. Some people, young kids, learn to be narcissistic,” said Stratyner, who is also regional clinical vice president of the Caron Treatment Centers in New York.
Children do what they see, psychologists say, and that plays a big role in the kinds of values you instill in your children.
“Are you walking in the house with four pairs of Jimmy Choos?” said Eileen Gallo, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles and co-author of “Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children.” “You have to look at your own values.”
Added Luthar, “If you’re the kind of person who stops at a traffic light to let an elderly person pass or picks up food for them in the supermarket, they watch this from when they are babies.”
Perhaps there is no greater positive example of children modeling the values of their wealthy parents than the Buffett family, with the father, Warren Buffett of Berk
And yet, his kids grew up never thinking they were wealthy. Buffett’s youngest son Peter, who is now 57, said he didn’t actually realize his father had amassed so much wealth until he was 25.
“We never thought about an inheritance. We never assumed we would be getting anything at any time and we weren’t bitter or thinking that we should for some reason,” said Peter Buffett, in a Freakonomics radio podcast back in 2011. “We just grew up in a house where you work hard and you make your way in life and hopefully you have a well-lived life based on all sorts of criteria.”
In a quote widely repeated when it comes to raising children with wealth, Buffett, the father, has said that he wanted to give his kids “enough so that they could feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”
Peter Buffett says he got $90,000 of stock when he was 19, which he used to leave Stanford and pursue a career in music, something his father and mother wholeheartedly endorsed. Had he held on to that stock, it would be worth more than $70 million, he said on the podcast in 2011, but he doesn’t regret his decision.
“I paraphrase it as ‘your money or your life,’ but (I am) living proof that I would much rather have invested in myself, taken the time and grown my own life with all the mistakes and all the successes and everything else that I can say is mine as opposed to have a pile of money that essentially belonged to somebody else’s success,” he said.
‘Free for all parenting’
Stratyner, who is also a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry for the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says his advice to wealthy parents concerned about trying to instill good values is they shouldn’t just give to their children.
“If you just give, then you’re not instilling the work ethic,” he said. “Parents have to instill responsibilities. You live in a nuclear family, and you have certain responsibilities. You have chores. You have to take out the garbage. You need to be home for dinner.”
Children can also build a work ethic at school and through team sports, where they learn about participation and cooperation, said Gallo, who also works as a consultant for businesses and organizations.
“This is what you’re going to have to do when you get a job. You are going to be collaborating with people and getting along so there are all kinds of ways to help kids develop a work ethic.”
Talking about your work and talking about your husband’s work is also vital, she said. “I keep going back to conversation, which I think is so important, probably more important today,” she added, at a time when many of us are spending more time “talking” through mobile phones than in face-to-face exchanges.
What also helps lead to grounded children who grow up in affluence is setting boundaries. “There’s no limit setting,” said Stratyner. Children need and want to be told right from wrong and learn responsibility and the consequences of their actions, he said.
“It’s not a free for all,” he said. “We’re doing free-for-all parenting, and that’s got to stop.”
Many people think of limit setting as being the tough guy, and they don’t want to be that tough guy, said Luthar, who has two grown children and knows well how difficult it can be to firmly and consistently enforce discipline.
“What people don’t understand is that, for kids, limits are necessary to make them feel safe. They are not cognitively able to set limits for themselves in appropriate ways and at the appropriate times so they need for us, their parents, to say, ‘OK, this is where I’m drawing the line. You may not cross this line, and there will be consequences if you do.’ “
The challenges are real
I can already hear the criticisms: If these kids have all the money they want and the best education that money can buy, what challenges can they really have in life?
Well, psychologists would say that in addition to the challenges noted above that money can bring, there is an intense pressure in upwardly mobile homes — that comes from parents, peers, schools, teachers and coaches — and that is that children need to be the best in everything.
“Where do you draw the line?” said Luthar. “When do you say to your child, no, you don’t have to take your SAT for the fourth time? You don’t have to take that fifth AP course?” If everyone in your family went to Princeton, “when do you say, it’s really OK if that lineage is broken?”
There is no question that today’s children are growing up in a much more competitive world, with many more kids vying for the same number of college placements or jobs, but parents need to take a good look in the mirror and make sure they are balanced in the values they set for themselves and their children, psychologists say.
You might tell your child, “Darling, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t make the advanced reading class,” said Luthar. “But if you don’t really believe that, trust me, your kid is going to catch on, and fast.”
Beyond parents, teachers, schools and guidance counselors have a role to play in helping children understand that the goal is finding what they really love to do and what they’re personally committed to, not reaching “the top” no matter what it takes.
“We’ve got to stop this business of letting kids believe that if I just get into one more AP class, if I just get another GPA point, that will make the difference in getting into Harvard … or Princeton … and the feeling that if I don’t go to Harvard or Princeton, that essentially, my life is over,” said Luthar.
Reverse snobbery against the wealthy
People in middle class and lower middle class households don’t tend to have much sympathy for the problems of the affluent, psychologists say.
There is a reverse snobbery against the wealthy, said Gallo, the Los Angeles-based psychotherapist.
She says some people in her practice have experienced it directly in counseling offices. “Some people go to therapists and they say, ‘You don’t have a problem. You’re like the Kennedys.’ People don’t really understand.”
Luthar has found that there’s nearly as much negative judgment of the affluent as there is of the poor. Just as there are sweeping perceptions of the poor, the affluent are often seen as being selfish, overly ambitious and neglectful, she said.
And, just as one of the biggest challenges for parents in the inner city is making sure their kids are not out after dark, in unsafe places and hanging out with people who are already in trouble, parents in affluence — upper middle class households and above — have to insulate their kids from the risks that are especially potent in their subculture, she said.
“It’s not easy. It’s perplexing. It’s bewildering, this business of being a ‘good enough’ parent,” said Luthar. “And to think that just because we are highly-educated or well-read, we have the right answers, that we know the best thing to do and can follow through in doing it, is so very misguided.”
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