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Pitfalls of Adolescent Privilege

Updated: May 25, 2020

Vicki L. Loyer, Ph.D., LMFT

First published in the Desert Leaf May 2017

Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it makes being miserable easier— unless you are an adolescent in a wealthy family. Children of wealthy families experience more depression, anxiety, substance use and eating disorders than their less wealthy counterparts, according to Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in her 2013 article “The Problem with Rich Kids,” in Psychology Today.

Between approximately 12 and 18 years of age adolescents are learning to sift through choices, make decisions, tolerate distress, and problem-solve efficiently. The average adolescent grows from dependent child to emerging adult in approximately six years. Luthar suggests that privileged youth become more vulnerable to maladjustment beginning in approximately 7th grade. Further research indicates that three issues are at play: (1) too many choices, (2) an inability to establish a self apart from parental/familial control, and (3) pressure to achieve.

Too Many Choices

All choices include loss: if you must choose a flavor of ice cream and pick chocolate, you give up the possibility of having vanilla. Adults, accustomed to filtering options, make choices based on habit and efficiency. Decisions are condensed for mundane tasks, like grocery shopping, and decision complexity increases as required. Mature decision-making skills in adolescents involve considering increasing numbers of options and learning to choose from among them.

Adolescents may become obsessed with the idea of choice alone, writes Luthar, and are particularly at risk for poor decision making involving drugs and alcohol, pregnancy, and crime. While wealthy parents might teach decision making to prepare their children to become creative, industrious leaders of the workforce, the choices must be limited, based on a child’s developmental stage. By providing firm limits within which there are a variety of acceptable options, parents help their children decrease the chance of maladaptation.

Establishing Self-Identity

As adolescents increasingly enjoy the ability to think more abstractly they also become aware that they think differently from others. They also notice that families exert pressure to control their thoughts and behaviors. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune and director of the documentary Born Rich: Children of the Insanely Wealthy, says that while the American dream is to be more successful than the previous generation, he and his peers will never be as successful as their grandfathers. He indicates that an affluent lifestyle holds people back from

discovering what helps them feel good about life, because they do not have to contribute and can be fearful of the reactions of other family members if they do follow their personal passions. This group of adolescents risk being cut off from family financial support and are poorly prepared to support themselves. Becoming a confident adult, according to Johnson and his peers, required finding something about themselves that did not involve their family’s legacy. Without this discovery, children of privilege might remain in perpetual childhood.

William Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Family Social Science, College of Education and Human Development, at the University of Minnesota, coined the term “consumption culture” to describe the ways in which family values can be undermined when families concentrate on accumulating wealth and objects. The process of accumulation can result in minimal family downtime and overindulged children. In such situations, coping skills are limited: barely used cellphones are replaced by new ones, and children are moved to a different school when peer problems erupt. Making social mistakes, making amends, and

growing within continuous relationships contribute to positive mental health.

When adolescents contribute to their families or to society, they are given the chance to discover who they are apart from their parents. Research of the Great Depression by Glen H. Elder, Jr., professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, demonstrated that adolescents who were needed to help their families “used hardship as a spur to adaptive psychological functions. They rated less disabled on all measures of psychological functioning than did those of the middle class who experienced less deprivation.” Adolescents need to discover who they are within the context of their social milieu and understand their unique role and unique contribution to their community.

Pressure to Achieve

Success is often gauged by performance: honors, awards, college acceptances. Child psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) theorized that the process of learning is much more important than the end product of learning.

The role of motivational climate and goal orientation in adolescent adjustment in affluent communities was the subject of a study by researchers Lea Travers, Amy Bohnert, and Edin Randall. The results were reported in the Journal of Adolescence, in 2013. The evidence indicated that the focus on process is a healthy focus: when adolescents were able to experience achievement in noncompetitive or collaborative contexts, they experienced fewer depressive symptoms and better life satisfaction than when the focus was on performance. Measuring success by how the adolescent is operating rather than what he or she achieves guides the adolescent in the direction

of successful outcomes and minimizes anxiety and depression.

Adolescence is fascinating, and heavily dependent on appropriate family support. The incidence of emotional difficulties and dangerous behaviors among the wealthiest adolescents creates a need to examine the life experiences of these young people. The role of the family is to socialize new members of society to create an appropriate, responsive environment. Limiting the choices for adolescents, increasing opportunities to discover their unique self, and managing task achievement can protect these young people from serious depression, anxiety, and other maladjustments.

Adolescence is a challenge; adolescents are worth it.

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