Some of us dream about having it all—the perfect house, the fancy cars, all of the money we could ever need. And then some of us don’t have to dream: these individuals, instead, do (or at least appear to) have it all. The aforementioned fortunes, the riches, the privilege. What more could they want or need? It may be hard to believe, but this life of privilege isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—at least not for affluent teens. Studies show that upper-class kids are at a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder—not at lower risk as previously believed.
This heightened risk can be explained by the term affluenza: whereas privileged kids who grow up emotionally and developmentally isolated from their parents feel an intense pressure to be successful. Affluenza is not an official diagnosis, but it is a phenomenon that recognizes the harmful effects of a privileged upbringing. “Family wealth does not automatically confer […] wisdom in parenting; whereas children rendered atypical by virtue of their parents’ wealth are undoubtedly privileged in many respects, there is also, clearly, the potential for some nontrivial threats to their psychological well-being,” Suniya S. Luthar and Shawn J. Latendresse explain in their paper Children of the Affluent.
Suniya S. Luthar is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has dedicated much of her life to studying youth in poverty and children affected by mental illness; however, her most recent work has narrowed in on privileged children. In a podcast called “Speaking of Psychology: The mental price of affluence”, Luthar discusses her research and initial surprise at her findings. In her first study of upper middle-class youth, she was simply looking for a comparison group for inner city kids but stumbled upon the discovery that privileged kids were actually doing much worse—mostly with substance abuse, but also depression and anxiety.
There’s no easy answer as to why privileged teens are at a greater risk of developing certain mental illnesses; it cannot be attributed solely to the parents or the schools. Instead, a collective ideation is likely to blame, according to Luther: there’s the pressure to achieve and to keep achieving. Everybody (not just their parents) expects these kids to do well, due to their privilege and fortunes. “The bottom line is it is not just the family, it is not just the child, it is the culture we live in, the universities, the schools; everybody coming together to reinforce that one big message. If you can, therefore you must. Do not stop,” Luthar explains in the podcast.
This pressure to achieve makes these individuals fear failure to a severe degree and crumble when they come up short, which makes for the perfect breeding ground for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. These privileged teens are crippled by the weight of this pressure and face one problem after another because of it—so how can they better cope with stress and prevent the downfall of their mental health?
It starts at the roots. Kids need to be raised in a nurturing environment. One that makes them aware of their fortunes, but keeps them level-headed and down-to-earth. Parents need not plant the seed of ‘getting ahead at all costs;’ they should instead enforce a balanced value system and teach their children to be kind before anything else. “We in upper middle-class white-collar families need to work extra hard to make sure our children do not get swept away in this feelings of ‘I must do more,’ and stay grounded more in decency, kindness and true compassion, concern for humanity,” says Luthar. She goes on to explain that compassion and altruism do, indeed, have a direct effect on one’s wellbeing.
Sources: “Speaking of Psychology: The mental price of affluence.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. 17 October 2017. http://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/affluence.aspx
Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. “Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being.” Current directions in psychological science 14.1 (2005): 49–53. PMC. Web. 18 Oct. 2017.